Giving and Un-Giving – Confessions of an Indian-Giver

I am writing this story down, but it is a story I have never spoken out loud…not to my best friend, not to my boyfriend of two and a half years…literally, to no one.  I don’t have a lot of those.  I’m a fairly open person.  I am ashamed of this story, and that is why I do not share it.  It also involves another person…a person that I care about, and would not want to offend.   If this person reads this, they will know who they are.  However, no one else need know who this person is, so therefore the details may remain a bit sketchy for the sake of a little tact.  The telling of this event could possibly offend them, as it involves me taking offense at their actions.  If you are reading this, and you are this person, please know that I am sincerely aware that what offended me was not you, but my pride, which is why I need to confess it – because I am horrified at my pride, and at the things it revealed to me about my character. This friend of mine recently had a milestone, you know one of those great things such as having a baby or getting married or graduating.  I was therefore required by social compunction to provide a gift.  And, indeed, I wanted to provide a gift.  I did produce quite an ordinary gift, but this did not seem enough to me, and so I gave the person, in addition to this gift, a gift that I had made.  I can see you already, rolling your eyes and thinking you know where this story is going, but before you go there, let me assure you that this gift was not shabby.  There were other people who I knew would’ve been thrilled had I given them this gift, and I was rather fond of it myself.  I did make it, but if I do say so myself, it was quite worthy of being given.  (Can you hear the pride even now?  I cannot even turn it off when I am preaching against it.)  Well, I did give it.  And the response was less than thrilling.  I was able to swallow that, but knew immediately that the gift was not as appreciated as I would have hoped and anticipated, nor was it esteemed in any way.  This realization was solidified minutes later, when upon being asked what they had, my friend pushed it under the table and said “Oh, nothing.”  I should insert here, that it was a decorative gift.  I should also insert that my friend is usually quite picky about décor.  In other words, I should have known that any unsolicited decorative items would be unwelcome.  So, in a sense, I was asking for it.  But, let’s continue.   As time went on, the hubbub of the event ensued, many things were brought out, gifts and pretty things shuffled around.  Here is where I begin to be ashamed.  I saw my precious gift, the one I had labored over and was proud of…it was crammed (literally crammed) into a paper bag, with things being set on it and crushing it and bending it.  I should also state that it was NOT a gift that crushing and bending would benefit, and would’ve shortly become something only worth throwing in the trash had this treatment continued.  I watched it being battered as if it meant nothing even as a gift because I had given it, if not for its worth, and (forgive me, friend!), I took it back.  Everyone was doing other things; no one was looking.  I took it back – brought it back to my house, and in time, gave it to another friend whom I believed to have a better estimation of its value.  What on EARTH was I thinking?  I don’t say this because I think my friend ever missed it.  Based on the reaction, they were more likely relieved at not having to pretend to like it by displaying it.   The thing I am ashamed of is my pride.  What did I think gift-giving was about?  Pleasing myself?  Apparently, I did.  When giving the gift did not give me sufficient satisfaction, I just took it back.  Even this did not hit me too terribly hard until a couple of days later.  I heartily justified my actions in my discomfort until I thought about Jesus – Jesus’ gift – and I knew there was no justification.  It stops me in my emotional tracks even now as I think of it.  What He gave up for me, for us…I can’t even fathom it.  How He left heaven and came to live like a simple tradesman; how He willingly suffered abuse, mockery and cruel torture; but even this only scratches the surface.  He suffers my ingratitude on days when I am too obtuse to recognize the worth of having Him as my companion.  He watches me disfigure His gift in front of others to the point it is almost unrecognizable.  He feels the hurt of my unwillingness to assign value to His gift simply because it is His at times when I cannot understand the gift itself and bears, with patience, my inability to understand what He put into it.  He watches me shy away from it, hide it, ignore it and awkwardly try to figure out how I am supposed to display it.  In short, I do to His gift what was done to mine – my little insignificant gift that was nothing more than something pretty.  And I do this more times than I am able to keep track of in a day.  How small I feel when I realize that if I were Christ, I would have taken it back.  I would’ve watched it being battered and hidden, and I would’ve taken it back, thinking that the recipient was not worthy.  God, how merciful He is!  I remember how I felt about my gift, and wonder how He can stand it.  How can He stand it without screaming at us or throwing down fire-bolts, let alone taking it back.  If I could feel as small as I do right now in finally confessing this and spelling it out in words, I think I could actually learn humility. 

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Forgiveness

When I was a little girl, there was a boy in my Sunday School class at church whose name I will keep to myself.  Let’s call him Joe for simplicity.  I’m not sure why this story comes to mind, but it seems significant.  I think I couldn’t have been more than four in our first confrontation, but I truly despised him.  It was during playtime, and I don’t remember what he said, but he was making fun of my friend Jennifer. I remember that at four, I thought it was absolutely despicable (though perhaps I didn’t think the word “despicable”).  I had my little girl Sunday plastic pink purse, and I hit him across the face with it.  Being the teacher’s pet, I was reprimanded, but not very harshly.  I wouldn’t have cared if I had been punished.  I was the Giver of Justice and the Defender of the Weak.  I have a very vivid memory each year four years running with Joe.  In his defense, when I was five, it was really his father who committed the offense.  His dad taught our Sunday School class that year.  One day, he was telling a story with farm animals in it, and he was giving all of the animal’s names.  The only thing I know about that story was that he named the cow “Connie the Cow.”  Apparently, I was a sensitive child at that stage, because I wanted to disappear more than anything when everyone looked at me and laughed.  I even cried in my bed that night, and told my mom about it.  She assured me that she was sure no one thought I looked like a cow.  I was actually quite a skinny child.  Joe, however unfairly, got the blame.  I distinctly remember him laughing the loudest and looking the cruelest.  When I was six, it was a tack in my chair.  We were singing that song that goes “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart….”  One of the verses was “and if the devil doesn’t like it, he can sit on a tack, sit on a tack, sit on a tack….” There were motions for this.  You stood up in between each “sit on a tack,” and then sat back down when you sang it again.  Joe took the opportunity to put a tack in my seat while we were standing.  I don’t know if that means he thought I was the devil, but I definitely thought he was.  The next year was the last specific memory of him (and the most traumatic for me) until I was a teenager.  Our church took a yearly summer trip to the zoo in Monroe, Louisiana.  I lived in El Dorado, Arkansas until we actually moved to Monroe when I was nine, so this was about an hour and a half’s journey.  On the way back from this trip, I was sitting beside my very best friend (the kind you can only have when you are six), backwards and Indian-style leaning on the seat in front of us on our church bus.  I was sitting backwards because Joe was in the seat behind me, and he kept hitting me on the head. He was sitting with an older boy.  I should also state that I am sure the older boy put him up to this.  I don’t think he would’ve thought of it himself.  I was talking with my friend, when Joe reached over the seat, and touched me where I knew I was not supposed to be touched.  I had clothes on, of course, and he did it quickly and was back on the other side, but this very upsetting for me.  I thought it was the worst thing in the world.  I went home that day, and later my mom found me crying in a pile of my pillows and my Strawberry Shortcake bedspread.  At first I wouldn’t tell her what was wrong, but she got it out of me eventually.  She was horrified, and called Joe’s parents, and I think the older boy’s, too.  That incident was just the confirmation of my hatred of Joe.  I don’t think I spoke to him from then until the time we moved away three years later.  I stayed in touch with my friend, though, and when I was a teenager, I went to visit her several times.  One of these times, Joe and I had yet another run-in.  He and my friend both still attended the same church, and I went to a pool party with their church group.  I suppose he remembered tormenting me when we were younger, and thought it would be fun to continue.  I had an ear infection, and couldn’t get in the water.  I just sat on the side, but Joe repeatedly tried to throw me in.  My tolerance for him started out low, so I got more and more furious.  He never succeeded in throwing me in, but his behavior further solidified my belief in his being completely and totally evil.  For whatever reason, he remained the epitome of what I hated in people for years.  I’ve found that the opinions and emotions I formed early in life are more difficult to overcome than those I have acquired as an adult.  I suppose the more rationality you have when forming a belief, the more rationally you can view it, and therefore change it when you see the necessity.  His offenses were immature and some even mean, but not comparable to the measure of my hatred of him.  This is, believe it or not, a story of forgiveness.  I didn’t even realize it until last night as I lay contemplating the stories of my life, but Joe and I had a moment of peace-making…a moment when he said “I’m sorry” and I said “That’s OK,” even though neither of us said the words.  It occurred years later.  El Dorado was a very small town, and Monroe, although not large, had a fairly new and decent sized shopping mall, so people from El Dorado would come to our mall to shop.  I worked at the Chick-fil-A in this mall for years, through high school and my time at college, and worked my way up to manager.  I was already manager when this happened, so I must’ve been around twenty or twenty-one.  One regular day, I looked up and there was a person in my line who looked very like Joe.  His dad was kind of a short, stocky man, and this person had Joe’s face, and his dad’s build.  I knew he was grown-up Joe, and he looked at me and knew I was grown-up Connie.  He was with a girl, and was wearing a wedding ring.  Neither of us spoke any words of recognition as I took their order.  They ate in our dining room, and I went out to clean it a few minutes later.  He looked at me as I walked by their table, and he said, “So, are you the manager here?”  It was pretty obvious because of my uniform.  I just said, “Yes,” and he said, “That’s good.”  We both smiled a kind of awkward smile.  We didn’t have any trivialities, like “Do you remember me?” or “It’s so good to see you” or “Is this your wife?” or “What are you doing these days?”  That was the entirety of our conversation, and then I walked away.  I’m sure his wife thought it odd, and I’ve wondered if he told her that he knew me.  I can’t explain it, and I never examined it until yesterday, but that was the moment I forgave him.  After that moment, although I can remember the way I felt hurt by him, the animosity disappeared.  I could see in his face that he knew his actions had been hurtful, and he was sorry.  I hope he could tell that I forgave him.  I never saw him again, but I know that God organized that meeting.  It was a lesson of letting go of hurts, realizing that people make dumb mistakes and often regret them years later when something has grown up in them.  It was a lesson that you don’t have to hear an apology to forgive.  Christ’s lesson is that I should have forgiven him way before I knew he recognized his actions as wrong.  Christ’s forgiveness is letting go not knowing if the person will ever be sorry, allowing them the room to make mistakes without your judgment pressing in on them and forgiving without the slightest thought of justice or revenge.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get there.  I have other people in my life that fall into the category of the unforgiven.  I try to hold no ill will towards those who have injured me, but there is a piece of my heart that can’t quite let go until I at least know that those people recognize their wrongs.  I hope one day I can allow enough of Christ in me to love them unconditionally.

Snow, God, Reality

It’s early, before 7AM.  I’m not, as a general rule, a morning person.  But my cat is.  He wakes me up almost every morning somewhere between 5 & 6 to go out for his sunrise prowl, whatever that may entail.  This morning it was just about 6, when the world is in a half-light.  I opened the door to let him out and saw everything covered in snow.  I’m from Louisiana, so snow maybe holds a power over me more than some, albeit a distant one as I also hate the cold.  My cat took one look and disdained to set foot outside the door.  I, however, decided that sitting inside my glass-paned screen door, drinking my morning coffee while enjoying the novelty of a white world would be a great way to spend my morning.  And so I have, or am, I suppose.  If you know me, you will know that I go through bursts of various creative spells, including but not exclusively in the category of writing.  I’ve been sort of in a slump lately, at least practically, for anything creative that has seeded in my mind has not come to any physical fruition.  During these slumps, as we will call them, I often feel that my depth and insight are in danger of extinction.  It seems like the surface of life is taking all of me.  Earlier this week, I felt like God was trying to impress on me that this was because I was not focusing any time on being still, meditating on Him, loving Him, loving very much at all.  I’ve learned this before, and then again and again, but am a slow learner and it seems that I needed the lesson yet once more.  Unfortunately, and not so surprisingly, I heard (if you will) this clearly several days ago, and even spoke it aloud, but did not follow this feeling to any activity (or inactivity in this case).  At least, not until this morning.  And this morning, I realized again that when I stop thinking about today and what I have to do and what I need to wear and so on and so forth, that something like an awakening occurs.  Thoughts of higher things, deeper things, REAL things come to the surface and I know they must have been there all along, waiting for me to hear them.  This should be apparent, because God states it very clearly in Matthew 6:25-34: “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on.  Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  Which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?  So why do you worry about clothing?  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.  Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?  Therefore, do not worry, saying ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’  For after all these things the Gentiles seek.  For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.  Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things.  Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”But let’s move past the fact that I actually HAD a thought, and on to the thought itself.  I am not sure yet how to formulate it, in its entirety, into words, but here goes.  I was looking out my window into the greyness of the sky and the whiteness of everything else.  Have you ever noticed how cars and power lines seem like desecrations of beauty?  When all should be wonder, there are these bits of the grossly unnatural that become something akin to sacrilege.  The houses could stay, and could, in fact, even become some ramshackle old wreck of a building without interfering.  But the cars need to be replaced with buggies waiting for their horses or sleighs waiting for their bells.  The power lines simply need to be annihilated.  They have cut too many a sunset in half.  The street lights need only to be transformed into lamp posts of the old style.  This opinion, I’m sure, can be attributed to a sort of residual childhood fixation which came from obsessively reading and re-reading The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis.  None of this is my point, but I couldn’t bear not to mention it.  So, I was looking out at the little bit of the world outside my door, and thought, “How like a picture!”  Now, you may think that I am editing that thought into something that sounds more literary, but I assure you that those are the exact words I thought, and in a British accent to boot.  My thoughts are largely shaped by reading, very possibly reading too much, and by listening to audiobooks on my ipod…audiobooks which often seem to be read by the English, or, at least, by people pretending to be English.  Upon thinking this (“How like a picture!”, in case you’ve forgotten), I realized, though not immediately enough to feel very bright, that this statement (or thought, whatever you will) was all wrong.  To look at the world and say, “How like a picture!” is exactly like looking at the Mona Lisa and stating how amazingly it resembles the poster you saw in the gift shop on the way in.  It seemed, to me, that something must be wrong with my perception for me to be impressed when the real thing reminded me of the copy.  So, I began to think, what might it be about the copy that makes me wish the real thing were more like it?  It didn’t take me long to figure it out.  In the picture (the one in my head), all of the things I didn’t want to be seeing would be taken out.  We want our pictures to show beauty.  Very few people would take a photograph of an otherwise picturesque snow scene, and intentionally include in it a dead, decaying deer lying in the ditch.  (This is just an example, there was no deer.  I’m sure there are better examples, but be relieved, as this was the most civil and passive example of ugliness my mind considered.)  In pictures, you can see things how you want, show them how you want.  In life, you can idealize them and see them how you want, you can hide and not see them at all, or you can see them as they really are.  A picture allows us ignorance of what might be ugly lurking in the peripherals of that copied world.  The real thing is harder to admit ignorance to, and yet we do it with such finesse in our attempts at a comfortable existence.  I was looking at the world this morning, and, for a moment, wanted to pretend that the ugliness was not there.  But it was.  And the wonder of that – the wonder of God – is that even when I looked at it with this clarity, the beauty was still there…all mixed in with the ugliness.  Thank God for that. 

I Want a Cookie or Self-Indulgence

I was going to title this “Discipline”, until I realized that I don’t really have much insight into discipline, but have much into its corresponding vice, Self-Indulgence.  Much of this essay will probably be about the abuse and extortion of food.  That is because I struggle with this constantly.  The incessant reminders of what “thin” means in today’s society may augment my impression of the struggle.  I could possibly be blowing my demise way out of proportion simply because I wish to be thinner, and cannot seem to attain this end of my own volition.  However, the premises would remain the same on a smaller scale or, indeed, applied to a different subject, and perhaps it is good to exaggerate them to stress the points.  Thankfully, for you as readers, there is almost an unlimited choice of other areas that my self-indulgence branches out into, so perhaps you will not be bored. 
Self-indulgence is one of those pesky vices that can rear its ugly head in every aspect of your life.  So, you may conquer it in one area, but it does not mean that you have purged yourself of it altogether.  Granted, it is probably easier as you go along.  Winning a small battle here and there will probably strengthen your ability to be the victor of the war, but it by no means ensures it a certainty.  I’m not sure that there is a better way to begin with this subject than to jump right in to specific issues.  So, here we go.
Example #1:  I have a little debt that I would really like to pay off.  It’s credit card debt, which means that the credit card company allows me to make unreasonably small payments in order to milk my debt for all of the interest it’s worth.  At one point, I seemed completely unable to motivate myself to pay any more than the required amounts, though fully aware that my moderate debt would take me approximately 7-8 years to pay off at that pace.  Well, I’m fairly reliable when it comes to finances, meaning, I always pay my bills.  If you send me a bill for a specified amount, you’ll probably get that amount, and even before the due date.  So, I appealed to my logic: if I had a bill that required me to pay more than the credit card bill required me to pay, I would pay it.  And off I was to search for a bank loan to pay off my credit card debt, for the bank would undoubtedly want their money faster than the credit card company, therefore requiring me to pay more and aiding me in getting out of debt faster.  Well, it turned out that my credit card had an unusually low interest rate that my bank could not compete with, AND this loan would require something like a $150 start-up fee.  The bankers were, for some reason, still trying to talk me into this loan after we reached these conclusions.  I may be self-indulgent, but I’m generally not just plain stupid.  I did not take their loan offer, and walked out of the bank feeling a little dejected.  And then I thought to myself, “How ridiculous am I being?  If I want to pay more on this bill, then I should just pay more on it.  It’s like a child to have to wait until someone forces me to do something in order to accomplish it.  I may as well be in elementary school if I have that little discipline.”  And so I began paying more.  It is now approximately one year later, and I am two thirds of the way through paying it off.  And now a little confession – I have begun my examples with the one at which I have been the most successful.  Clearly, I want you to have an impression of me more favorable than is honest. 

Example #2:  I want to lose a little weight.  I am not fat, but I am just at the point at which all of the clothes I used to love accentuate all of the worst things about my slightly larger frame.  In other words, I have taken the very necessary first steps towards becoming fat by becoming fatter.  I have been at this point for well over a year.  I seem completely incapable of doing the things I know I need to do in order to accomplish the goal of getting back to my desired weight.  I have gone through a few phases where I did well.  For nearly two months, I ate almost exclusively vegetables and fruits during the day, and then dinner was carte blanche.  Somehow, I didn’t lose any weight during this period (probably because my fruit likes far outnumber my vegetable likes), but I felt better about myself, and better in general.  Obviously, the feeling better about myself does not come solely from accomplishing the goal of losing weight, because during this span of time, I was at peace with my eating habits, even without shedding pounds.  It was being disciplined about it that increased my self-esteem.  But, alas, this ended while I was traveling for the holidays.  It’s quite difficult to be so limited in what you ingest when you’re visiting someone else’s house, unless you want to appear finicky at best and rude at worst.  I also managed to cut out sweets altogether for a short time, but this ended as well.  I’m not quite positive how, but I’m sure it had something to do with PMS or being frustrated with work or something of that nature.  My self-indulgence in this area continually causes my self-esteem to plummet; causes me to feel like a spoiled child incapable of understanding the consequences of my actions.  8 cookies for breakfast = fat.  I seem to have a serious lack of forethought, in this, and most areas.  I know what the consequences are, but like the cliché of a teenager in a drag race, seem to believe I am invincible.  But as I’ve said, it’s not just the weight part of this struggle that troubles me.  It’s my complete (seeming) lack of ability to control my impulses.  I like (as I’m sure most of us do) to pretend to myself that I am more disciplined than your average Joe – that if I choose to do something, I can do it.  I believe half of the value of self-discipline is proving to yourself that you are capable of doing something, or not doing something, whichever the case.  Only I prove to myself the exact opposite.  I have proven over and over that I am quite as self-indulgent as everyone else, and undoubtedly more so than those whose slim figures drive me to self-loathing and disgust.  I have a friend who is thinner than I am, by just a bit.  She was, in the very recent past, one of those people that everyone would comment: “She’s so thin,” with envy disguised as admiration or simple observation.  This friend informed me a few weeks ago that she was joining Weight Watchers.  Bear in mind that she was apparently going to join in order to lose the same amount of weight that I would like to lose, or at least no more.  The thought that someone so obviously not obese (and already thinner than I!) would think to join Weight Watchers seemed ridiculous to me.  She was ascribing to the same philosophy I had initially taken with the bank loan.  If she had someone forcing her to do it, she would.  At that moment, I thought myself better than her; that I could do it simply by choosing.  I was in denial – in denial about the past year and a half, because if I could do it simply by choosing, I would have done it by now.  Unless, the point is that I have not really chosen.  Is this the point?  Can two, so diametrically opposed positions, “I want to lose weight,” and “I want to eat the cookie,” coexist?   Does “I want to lose weight” simply fly out the window at the moment of eating the cookie, or does it change to something like “I will start losing weight after I finish this cookie?  And will this amended statement only be true until I am seriously tempted by the next cookie?  When I, in no uncertain terms, decide to lose weight, is it then that I will begin accomplishing it?  Honestly, I’m not sure, but I am aware of at least a few rationalizations that come into play, deluding me into thinking that I am not being self-contradictory.  One is that somewhere my mind understands that this cookie will not necessarily make me fat.  However, it does not seem to be able to grasp the fact that eating every cookie I come in contact with, will.  It is hard to see the danger in the collective, when you are looking at the singular.  I have a feeling that alcoholics probably do the same thing, i.e. this drink will not make me too drunk.  Possibly, it is that whichever desire is heaviest on the balance scale wins, although I don’t believe so, because I have some pretty weighty desires on the side of not eating the cookie that often seem to lose, i.e. not becoming a diabetic (it runs in my family), better self-esteem, fitting into my clothes, proving the steadfastness of my character (and all over a cookie!).  The lust for a cookie is much more primal.  Much closer to a very straightforward, “I want.”  Perhaps that is why it wins.  It’s like the collegiate professor trying to argue with simpleton.  The professor’s arguments go all above the simpleton’s head, and while the professor is rattling on with his profound arguments, the simpleton ignores that “nonsense” and, completely unperturbed, does the thing he was intending to do.  Maybe I should just take an adult’s position as to a child, and when I want a cookie, simply slap myself on the hand.  And although I’m sure this would cause me a few other problems, perhaps that is all this primal desire understands.  I also believe that the self-indulgent voice in my head usually argues something along the lines of “I deserve.”  And therein lies another flaw, another severe defect that leads us far from discipline.  Our rights…this right to a cookie, the right to some little pleasure when the whole rest of the world seems against us.  The world is cruel to make a little thing like a cookie such a moral dilemma, with my self-worth hinging on the balance of to eat or not to eat.  I am sure the men reading this will think how dramatic I have become.  The women will understand exactly what I say.

Perhaps I can put it into more universal terms, even sticking to the issue of food.  I’ve worked in the food industry, and I cannot tell you how amazed I’ve been at the mastery food has over a person’s character – how a dignified man in his business suit can turn into a ludicrous madman over a simple case of missing mustard…an irrefutable case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde or how a well-dressed, mouse-voiced woman can articulate to you the order in which the ingredients must be stacked on her hamburger, by drawing you a picture, and labeling each item in its place.  Although I cannot dispute the understandable expectation to get what you have ordered in a restaurant, I can greatly disapprove of the reactions that NOT getting exactly what you have ordered will bring about.  I’ve seen this businessman acting exactly as your two-year-old would if you were out of his favorite snack, and all you had was leftovers from dinner, which he hated.  You would at least wish that you could make him understand that sometimes you have to make the best of things, that leftovers are better than nothing, and he would have to do without his (insert favorite snack) this time.  Only, in a restaurant, the issue is usually resolvable.  The man has thrown his tantrum quite before giving anyone the chance to rectify it.  But, let’s even imagine that he has given them a chance to absolve themselves – does a failure to remedy the situation then give him the right to throw his tantrum?  I would argue, no. 
So, going back to our rights, did the man have the “right” to his mustard?  How far can we take that?  He had a right to desire the mustard, I suppose.  I don’t think I can go so far as to say he had an inalienable right to mustard.  But even if he had, nothing can excuse his infantile reactions upon not receiving it.  Discipline is, at the very least, a means of controlling our petty desires, and a means to dignity and grace in the face of misfortune (including the absence of mustard).  How are we to teach our children any self-control or discipline whatsoever, if we cannot graciously accept not always getting our way, even if it is at the incapable hands of others?  But, how are we ever to learn how to do this, except by not getting our way by our OWN hand sometimes?  You cannot expect to be successfully cheerful in the face of disappointment forced upon you, if you have never even disciplined yourself to face some sort of denial when you are in the best of temperaments.  Herein lies my great quandary.  I seem incapable of denial, in most areas.  I have grown into an adult, out of the reach of my parents, and forgotten how to say “No” to myself.  I remember being told “No.”  I was not a coddled child.  How did I grow up into this bundle of appetites waiting to be quenched, with very few scruples about quenching them?  Because it is my nature – my nature to be constantly drifting away from order, like the universe.  It’s easier to drift than to stay.  Discipline requires something of me.  Self-indulgence is easy.  It also grants the illusion of control.  When I am having a bad day, if the only good thing I can control is having a cookie, it seems very tempting, just for the sake of having something good.  It’s hard for me to refuse even if I am not hungry, and even when my palate is really craving something completely different.  Simply because I know cookies to be good, even if it’s not what I want at that moment, it seems, in a sense, like I am “treating myself” or “getting away with something” to have one.  Boy, I showed them.  My point is that self-indulgence seems almost not to be cured by its supposed object.  It seems to want to indulge simply for the sake of indulgence, and not (at least not exclusively) for the pleasure of said object.  I want to indulge, frankly, because I know I can.
Although unintentionally, I have already jumped out of the puddle and into the greater pond of discipline itself, rather than issues it affects.  I don’t remember when I realized that I had become so very lax in refusing myself.  I just observed suddenly one day, that I thought my mother wouldn’t allow me to have so many “cookies” if she were still in charge.  I thought, at that point, (which has been some time ago), that I should perhaps begin exercising my “No” a little more frequently.  I have finally, I think, realized how perfectly lousy I am at it.  I hesitate in writing my next assertions, for I feel the very hypocrisy of writing, but not following them.  However, if men ever only preached of vices they had mastered, there would be few sermons in the world worth listening to.  I firmly believe that I should be able to refuse a temptation (cookie, or otherwise) simply because I know it’s best, based on a rational belief, a moral or a thought, i.e. refusing cookies due to all of the reasons I listed before.  But as stated in the paragraph about the man and the mustard, in order to be able to do this with any consistency, through bad moods and celebrations, when it’s because someone has stolen my cookies or broken them, I must sometimes, refuse myself simply for the sake of practicing refusal.  I have not even mastered “no” in the first scenario, when it is rational, beneficial and desirable, except for in short spurts or when in a pleasant mood.  I certainly haven’t managed it when the conditions are unfavorable. 

Some people manage self-indulgence by removing the temptation.  I recognize some of the rationale behind this method, but would argue against its long-term effectiveness.  If a smoker stops smoking only because there are no cigarettes on his deserted island, is there any virtue in it?  I would assert there is no merit in behaving well simply because the temptation is no longer present, no discipline without something desirable to resist.  My boyfriend taught me this, and even with this example.  He stopped smoking with a pack of cigarettes in his pocket.  He believed to quit only because the cigarettes were not available was not really quitting at all.  As soon as he was faced with the temptation in any real sense, he would simply start up again.  I can agree that sometimes the removal of the temptation may be necessary at the start of a discipline, but if the object is not brought back at some point during the training, the lessons will almost decidedly be a failure as soon as the offending vice is reintroduced.  And besides this, sometimes removing the temptation is simply not possible.  I work for a catering company.  Unless I am planning to quit my job, a plethora of sweets will approach me at every turn, nearly every day.  A man struggling with lust cannot realistically remove all women from his sight.  And, so the key has to, at least partially, be a mindset.  I’m not sure quite how to attain this mindset of decision that actually brings about change, but as with my credit card payments, I know I am capable of changing my habits, I just want something outside of myself to make me.  When I decide that I need to “just do it,” in the very well known words of Nike, is when I will.  Clearly, I have not reached this point of illumination in my eating habits.  I do believe, though, that the difficulty is mostly in our minds, and much less so in practice.  It’s the imagined pleasure of the cookie that makes it difficult.  Never mind the fact that it brings approximately 60 seconds of sweetness, the only good part being while it is actually in my mouth.  As soon as that moment is done, I am back to being guilt-ridden at my wantonness.  I think it’s also very important how we perceive temptation.  If I dread going to work because I know I will be faced with my very favorite dessert, and I will have to look at it all day and feel deprived if I don’t eat it, and guilty if I do, then I am certainly going to fail, because I am miserable both ways.  If I feel dejected by having to do without, and I feel dejected to no greater extent when I give in, why not feel dejected, and yet have the sweet as well?  However, if I go to work thinking what a day of challenges I will have, yet another opportunity to strengthen my discipline, to kill my self-indulgence, to beat the Devil, perhaps my fighting spirit will get me through.  This is for me, an encouragement that will strengthen when I already have a basis for refusal, but I know that I cannot solely rely on it, because, my fighting spirit slowly deflates with the wearing drudgery of every day life.  Like a soldier expecting the rigors of battle and the rush of adrenalin, but instead faced with marching interminable fields, growing wearier every slow moment, my fighting man finds that brownies and cakes are no foe worth keeping his morale high enough to win any battles.  “It’s not really worth fighting that hard, is it?” he thinks.  “The enemy is not all that bad.  The real enemy is this job and my headache.  I think a cookie might do me some good after all.”  God forbid there should be more than one enemy at a time.  It is ill fated that a greater enemy, or the one we are feeling the brunt of at a given moment, seems to un-guard us from the dangers of any other.  Temptation, unfortunately, is known to kick you when you are down. 

I alluded above to something that I believe to be quite true.  Self-pity leads to self-indulgence.  Perhaps it is the greatest pre-cursor.  I find that when I am happily working away with no extra troubles on my mind, temptation seems a very feeble thing.  My arrogant heart veritably laughs at the ease of refusing whatever enticement is in front of me, forgetting that yesterday when I was worried about the bills, and didn’t get a good sleep, everything I saw that I knew I should not have was torture – but, not really, because I folded.  I threw in my hand.  I gave in.  This poor, weak muscle, discipline has had no exercise to strengthen it.  Discipline leads to a heart that cannot be swayed – a soul that will not bend to the demands of the terrorism attacking it every day, even when already tired and broken.
 I should broach a subject I have heretofore accidentally avoided.  I have been mistakenly treating discipline as something we use only in the refusal of something negative.  It is something much more, and probably, I have allowed my gloomy representation of it tarnish its beauty already.  Discipline is the only road to most things of any substance that we desire.  Without it, we rarely accomplish one dignified act.  Haven’t you heard the woman say, “I would love to learn how to do that,” and wondered why she didn’t just learn it?  For me, it is, “I want to read more.  I want to write more, paint more, sing more, pray more.  I want to learn Italian.  I want to take more walks.”  What is stopping me?  My self-indulgence, which is really the opposite of self-indulgence; it is self-destruction, inevitably carrying me down a road full of meaningless events, void of achievements that will in any way matter.  It’s the ultimate magic trick – look at the shiny penny of fleeting pleasures while your life is going by in the background.  What of this outside force I am waiting for?  I actually believe it is valid, only not in the sense of Dad pushing us, our teacher scolding us, or our boss giving a deadline.  The only outside Force capable of teaching us discipline itself, is God, Discipline personified.  Everyone else simply gives us a consequence equal to motivation in one specific category lacking discipline. 
In my experience, the effectiveness of the reward or consequence varies in direct proportion to its immediacy and severity.  I know a man with heart trouble who quit smoking not because he had heart trouble, but because every time he smoked a cigarette, it was immediately almost impossible to breathe.  I’ve known a pregnant woman who quit smoking, not in order to protect her baby, but because it made her nauseated.  The consequence worked for them, because it was more immediate, more tangible than the real reason.  I find it difficult to stop eating cookies, because I do not see myself getting fatter each time I take a bite, nor do I see myself get thinner each time I resist.  The rewards and consequences are too long-term, in my state of immaturity, for me to take any notice.   God’s discipline is not dependent on the rewards or the consequences.  I got a taste of this when I was no longer constantly disappointed with my eating habits, and myself, although, as I said, I was shedding no pounds.  As self-indulgence really seeks only the object of indulgence, discipline is its own reward.  As you would tell an addict that quitting for someone else will never last – they must do it for themselves – I will go farther, and say that quitting cannot be enticed in any lasting form by promising thin-ness or sobriety, or at least not in my case.  I suppose I should not speak for the world.  We’ve already seen that when I am perfectly aware that the results of discipline far outweigh the pleasure of self-indulgence, I have still failed.  Discipline exists for Discipline’s sake, for God’s sake, and comes with a package of many consequential rewards.  It is a small picture of what God means when He says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these things will be added unto you.”  Seek discipline, and you will gain its rewards; seek its rewards, and you will gain nothing.  I think that some will doubt this assertion, but look at it this way: If a child makes his bed every day because he is afraid of the whipping he gets if he does not, you don’t call him disciplined, you call him scared.  Along the same lines, if a child makes his bed every day because he gets a dollar when he does so, you don’t call him disciplined, you call him greedy, or maybe just a miniature tycoon…but never disciplined.  Any act performed or omitted in order to receive an award or escape a punishment, has little virtue of its own.   Following this train of thought, I am not sure how to teach discipline as something to be learned for its own sake.  If we take the consequences and rewards away, there is very little to teach us with.  Perhaps as creatures of habit, when we have made our bed enough times and received enough dollars, and not made our bed enough and received enough whippings, discipline will begin to whisper its true nature to us.  Could it be that we learn it by going through the motions?  That at first we simply do it for the rewards and to escape the punishment, but then, just maybe we will begin to seek it, to seek God, and will finally begin to triumph.   I recently babysat two sisters, three and five years old.  The mother was still at home, and the girls asked if they could have a piece of gum.  The five year old has apparently been successfully chewing and then spitting her gum out for quite some time.  The three year old still has some issues with swallowing it as soon as she is bored with its novelty.  The mother told the three year old that if she did NOT swallow her gum when she was done with it, she would get a nickel.  The five year old asked if she got a nickel for not swallowing hers.  The mother said, “No, your reward is that you get to keep chewing gum.”  The five year old had learned the purpose of gum – that it is to be chewed and spit out.  The three year old had not yet figured out that you cannot treat gum as you treat food, because that is not what it is for.  But she understood nickels.  The reward/consequence system is used in order to teach us the purpose of a discipline.  For example, “No, you cannot treat food as an activity.  It’s for your nourishment…oh, wait, but you can’t treat it as a security blanket either.  It will not keep you warm or comfortable, and it will also make you overweight.  That’s not what it’s for.  Or, “No, you cannot treat lust as you would treat an itch, scratching whenever, wherever, and in whatever manner the impulse strikes.  That’s not what it’s for.”  The reward is rarely the purpose of the discipline being learned – one would never tell the little boy that the purpose of making your bed is to receive a dollar.  The purpose is to be neat.  The incentive is the dollar.  Once we understand the purpose of any given discipline, in theory, we should no longer need the reward/consequence system, just like the little girl with her gum.  She didn’t need the nickel; she already had it down.  Her reward was enjoying her gum.  Or as C. S. Lewis states it in The Weight of Glory, “The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation.”  I never understood that statement before.  Our reward for discipline, once we understand the purpose of the issue in connection with it, is that we get to enjoy the thing we used to abuse and extort; enjoy it in the manner it was meant to be enjoyed.   I think I just recognized the story of The Prodigal Son in that anecdote.  I never noticed that it was about discipline before.  It seems that discipline can get jealous when its new members are rewarded for their small achievements – when they are fussed over for their baby-steps.  The three year old gets a nickel for doing something the five year old has been doing for simply ages; the run-away son gets a party upon his return when the elder has been faithful all the while.  The trick to facing this with grace is in understanding that the nickel and the party are like dog treats for training a pup.  They are given because they are the tools by which any actual knowledge is taught, only used when real understanding is lacking.  To want to go back to the reward system would be like going down a grade even though you passed with flying colors.  God treating us like this would be like a parent still screaming with delight every time their 10 year old spoke, as if it were their first word.  Why should we ever progress any further if the prizes are so easily won?  Discipline is about learning to do what is right, regardless of consequence or reward.  God slowly weans us from these, like a bottle from a baby, but the goal is right for righteousness sake.I said above that once we understood the purpose of a discipline, we should no longer need the reward/consequence system.  I think I left something out.  We can thoroughly understand the purpose of food, and not care a whit.  We must understand the value of the purpose.  A teenager with an unstoppable metabolism does not understand the value of nourishment and eating right.  He may understand all of the concepts, but until he grasps the value, he is not even halfway there.  I understand that the purpose of making my bed every day is to be neat, but if I do not value neatness, then the likelihood of my making my bed is very small.    I wish I could truly recognize that all of the things that would create any sense of accomplishment in me, all of the things that would make me more of who I believe God created me to be, are possible only in discipline.  Anything that would in any way have far-reaching effects beyond myself requires discipline.  But my self-indulgence tells me that I’m tired and, just tonight, I should watch TV and relax.  I shouldn’t feel guilty for wanting to relax, right?  The problem is that it isn’t really relaxing.  It is giving in more to the idea that I don’t matter.  I might as well watch TV because I have nothing to contribute.  It’s a desire to shut off your brain (that I do not condemn, because I am fighting it this moment, have been fighting it all day while writing this essay!), to forget that the world exists, that you exist, to turn in responsibility for apathy.  I should clarify that I do not think TV itself evil.  I also understand the need to let your brain relax, rest, process the things you haven’t had the time to glance at.  My words here are based on my own experience, that TV does not soothe my spirit.  If I am seeking rest, TV has never been the place I am able to find it.  I do find that as soon as I press the OFF button, all of the things I was trying to forget come rushing back on me with no relief.  If I take some time, pray, meditate on God’s Word, and give Him a little chance to sort out my thoughts, then I feel I have used my time wisely, and I even feel more relaxed.


Self-indulgence offers me many options of things that are easy to begin, but I almost always regret them when I am done.  Sometimes, I don’t even regret them for they are too transient for regret.  Sometimes, I don’t even remember them.  That is what self-indulgence gives me.  Discipline asks of me things that are difficult to begin, but once I have begun them, I am always glad of it, proud of it.  Those things change me – move me.  They matter.  That is the gift of discipline.
 

Rebellion

The departure from what is considered normal is what I view as the salvation of society, though not Salvation in the true sense as through Jesus, but salvation of humans from a lapse into the world of the automata (although, perhaps they are actually very close to the same thing).  The desire is innate in us to want to belong, to feel kinship and acceptance.  Satan uses that desire and deceives us into thinking that sameness is the way to attain it.  There is not a lot of true irregularity to be seen in the world.  There are many styles and preferences and so on that give us the illusion of variation, but not very many true rebels.  At the word rebels, some may cringe and think I mean something along the lines of rock and roll or feminism or sexual freedom.  I mean nothing of the sort, because in today’s world, those things are not rebelling at all.  (I do not mean to put rock and roll, feminism and sexual freedom all on an even plain, so please do not take these sentences and assume my position on these subjects.  I was simply pulling out references to things classically inferred by the word “rebellion.”)  Rebelling as I am speaking of it is the kind of rebelling that Jesus did…His refusal to conform to the rigid social and religious regimen that the world of his time set forth.  This has been written of more times than I can imagine, so I don’t know why I believe it so important to state here other than it never seems to sink in.  Jesus’ willingness to fraternize with outcasts of all kinds, those who were sick, those who were corrupt, and those who were unclean, that is a rebellion in truth, but from the constraints of man, not from the commandments of God.   A specific example of societal rebellion in Biblical times is the life of Abraham.  He left his homeland at God’s command, even though he had no idea where he was going.  For him, it also meant that he took the less promising land rather than quarrel with his nephew Lot.  And it meant that when God told him to sacrifice his promised son, Abraham was willing.  The life God asks us to live requires actions that don’t make sense…actions that we wouldn’t be able to fathom the meaning of no matter how hard we tried.   Or a rebellion could be something much more subtle.  These subtle acts, although less noticeable, are usually the things that require more character, because there is no audience, and little obvious or immediate reward.  For instance, in today’s world, a rebellion could mean there is a person who refuses to become a “yes-man” although it means losing opportunities for advancement (power) and wealth (security).  I worked as a waitress for a time at a restaurant chain owned by a large corporate enterprise.  Our general manager (GM for our purposes) at this store was a really nice guy…a family man, with a congenial and disarming personality.  It saddened me to slowly recognize that he was completely enveloped in making “The Man” happy…whatever it took.  He did not stand up for employees, although he would say he was going to.  Every mandate that filed down from some little man in a corner office was to be adhered to without question.  You may say, “What is so bad about that?  GM sounds like a model employee.”  Here is my account of what I believe is wrong with it.   We were having a store meeting, every employee required to attend.  There had been some squabbling and malcontent about new rules from on high…something about where the napkins could be kept or how much silverware one had to roll or some such nonsense.  GM was trying to make us see that doing what we were told was the supreme virtue.  Arguing logic or fairness or even customer satisfaction was not our job, nor was it appreciated.  In his speech, he stated, “If I got an e-mail today, and it said, ‘From now on, all salt-shakers will be placed on the left side of the sugar caddies instead of the right’ I would just have you all do it.  No questions asked.  You don’t need to know why, and neither do I.  We just need you to do what is asked.”  That may not be word for word, but it is the spirit behind what he said.  A decent, intelligent man had stopped feeling the need to think for himself.  They had taken from him his dignity.  No man can feel important in a job where he is asked to not think, to not question and to not reason for himself.  His fear of insecurity, possibly losing his position or perhaps never gaining that all-important promotion had become the deciding factor in his actions.  Some would call this noble—this unwillingness to jeopardize your position, especially as it (in theory) concerns the welfare of your family.  I say that God never intended us to live in fear, blindly accepting pointless or even harmful directives for the sake of our own comfort.  Samuel Adams said, “If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen.”  This concept is applicable in all areas of our lives, from the workplace to government to religion and education – the list could go on.  God is the only giver of security, and when we rely on worldly entities to provide it, in whatever avenue it may be manifested, we take power away from Him and disperse it into either the inert or dangerous hands of humanity.  Personal freedom is sacrificed for what will inevitably only be temporary safety and comfort.  A quote from the book Beyond Safe Places  by Ruth Senter states, “God’s call to me, his child, is not to safeness, but always to something more—always upward, higher, further along.  To bypass the call is to settle for mediocrity, complacency and dormancy.  And should I choose not to risk, I will more than likely wake up some morning with the haunting question on my mind, “Could God have had something more for me, if only I had dared to trust?”  Lord, help me from that fate! You could, at this point, ask, “What is the difference between blind obedience to the corporate entity or blind obedience to God?”  This is a good question.  God often leads us to do things that we cannot make sense of, without reason or explanation, so how is that better?  I do not think I can answer this to the satisfaction of everyone reading this.  I am feeling my inadequacy, but I will continue.  I do know a couple of good reasons that are definitive for me.   The first is that God always knows, without a doubt, what the correct thing to do is, and He has my best interest at heart.  He knows me, inside and out, better than I know myself.  In following Him, I should have no insecurity about the final outcome of my actions being in His plan for good, whether I can see that in any step along the way or not.  I know there have been innumerable times when I believed nothing good could come of circumstances beyond my control, but when I have gotten to the end, realized that things could not have happened any other way if I was to arrive at the place God wanted me to be.  This shows me that man’s logic is errant.  It only bases conclusions on the obvious, only factoring in the things it can see, and only considering the reasons it understands.  Our view is so limited that only following God gives any kind of guarantee at all.   The second reason that following God’s lead is different is that it gives me purpose.  Blindly following the instructions of man, or a group of men, or, worse, a corporation, gives me no assurance that what I am doing has any significance at all.  In fact, it gives me, exactly, the opposite feeling – the sense that I am purposeless and ineffectual.  Man is fallible and shortsighted, and corporations are fallible to the extreme because their goals are generally very little more than profit for the corporation, and they breed the inconsequential goal of individual wealth and advancement for their workers.  There are some exceptions, of course, but the corporate purpose predominately leaves out the good of the small man; leaves out, in fact, the good of any who are not attempting to achieve its own goal.  God’s purpose, and mine when I am following Him, is the Salvation of the world as a whole, but with a focus on every individual person, including myself.  For anyone who feels that I am taking a political stance on corporations, I am not.  There are some led by upright men who have pure goals of betterment and well being for the masses.  However, it is a well-known fact that power corrupts, and the corporate mindset undoubtedly plays on a man’s desire for power, giving him more people to influence and a broader range of control.  To reuse the saying: “Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  (Thank you, Lord Acton, for this over-used adage.)  I recently read an on-line article by Kate Lorenz, an editor for careerbuilder.com.  The article was titled “Does the Glass Ceiling Still Exist?”  It discussed whether the “glass ceiling” is now a myth propagated by feminists or a real barrier for women.  Statistically, there is still a much greater percentage of men in senior positions.  However, Lorenz quotes another article by Adrian Savage, titled “The Real Glass Ceiling.”  Lorenz states, “…His report…contends that a far more common and impenetrable glass ceiling exists for women and men who don’t want…to play office politics.  …Talented people who can’t conform will be blocked or eliminated. Though few people talk about it, this is the real glass ceiling.”  The corporate mind breeds like minds.  The only way to play the game successfully is to be who they want you to be.   I’ve had people tell me that any act of irresponsibility can never be an act God requires of us.  I say that I agree, but that depends on what your views on irresponsibility are.  Isn’t the definition of what comprises responsible action decided by the society we live in?  Does God ask for the same type of responsibility that we are societally taught?  Can you transfer the same measure and version of responsibility required of you to all other humans?  I know that I have felt the pressure of the world to conform to an accepted level of “responsibility,” but I do not believe that many of the things I have felt pressured to do are the things that God has asked of me.   If you’ve ever read Prince Caspian of  “The Chronicles of Narnia” by C. S. Lewis, you will recognize the upcoming reference.  (Although classified as children’s books, the spiritual truths conveyed in these books are relevant and applicable to people of any age.)  In the story, the children are on a difficult journey…no path seems easy and some seem virtually impossible.  They are at the crossroads, if you will, possibly lost, and they all know it is imperative to take the quickest route.  They are having a bit of discussion (actually more like an argument) about which is the best way.  Lucy, the youngest of the group, suddenly states that she has just seen the lion Aslan (the allegorical representation of God), and that He wants them to go up.  The others do not fully believe her, thinking perhaps she saw a lion, but not necessarily Aslan, and, besides, Up is, in this instance, seemingly the most difficult and impassible direction.  Lucy is the only one who has seen Him, but she knows, without a doubt, what Aslan wants them to do.  However, she is out-voted, and they go the logical way…the way that makes sense, practically and responsibly.  Soon enough, they are attacked by the enemy and must re-trace their steps.  Lucy sees Aslan again, and He tells her that even if no one else will follow Him, she must.  She is the only one who can see Him at first, but this time, they have no option other than to believe her.  There is no alternate route to take.  Aslan leads Lucy, and the rest of them behind her, down paths they would’ve never seen, paths that they presumed were absurdly dangerous and that seem at any moment they will cause them to dive off a precipice.  He does not lead them down the “safe” roads, although with Him leading, they are safe.   I have felt a certain kinship with the imaginary Lucy.  I have often found that God was leading me in directions that seemed irresponsible by the masses and sometimes even reckless…directions that no one else could understand and I could only validate by stating I believed I was following God.  I faced the same disbelief from others that Lucy did, and even doubted myself.  How did I know it was really God?  Perhaps it was simply my own desires voicing themselves in my mind, or, worse, Satan disguised.  I sometimes let other people determine whether I would follow.  Sometimes, I simply did not have the courage to trust.  What I know is that when I followed right off, I unquestionably felt God’s hand on me more prominently and completely than when I followed the prescribed rules of society.  When I did not follow Him immediately, there was inevitably pain and I was eventually left with only the option of doing what I knew He had asked of me from the beginning, whether those around me could see Him in it or not.   One instance of this in my life occurred as I was finishing high school, I did not really feel that God was leading me to go to college, but I let a multitude of outside influences convince me that it was not only what I should do, but that it was the only real option for any kind of success in today’s world.  (I have since discovered that I care very little about success or even security in today’s world.)  I went on to college, but the three semesters I spent there saw me sink slowly into depression.  I did well from all worldly perspectives…honor societies and scholarships and such…but I was miserable.  By the end of my time there, I was in the worst spiritual place I had ever been, or have been since.  I barely believed in God’s existence although it was the one thing I wanted to cling to.  I finally realized that my unhappiness was caused by the unshakeable feeling that this was not where I was supposed to be.  I had tried to be “responsible” and suppress it for a year and a half.  According to the world, I was on the path of success and doing well on it, but according to God, I was outside of His will.  I knew that unless I rectified that, I could have no peace.  So, I quit.  I had always been a good student, and I felt the eyes of judgment from those who expected “more” from me.  I was wasting my intelligence, wasting my life.  But you see, it is not my intelligence, nor is it my life, and the “more” that those people expected of me is less in God’s eyes.  It is all His to do with it as He will.  If He would have me lead it in apparent ignorance and shame, then that is what I should do.  I know that whatever He leads me to do, it will have infinitely more significance than any important thing I could have chosen on my own and accomplished under my own strength.  I could stubbornly try to pave my own secure way, and end up with a nest egg, three children and perhaps even a picket fence to complete the cliché.  But what is that if it is not where God put me?  It is destitution in reality, and meaningless destitution at that.   But now I have mixed up my chapter on rebellion with my chapter on ambition, and I must try to unravel them.  To attempt to get back on track, I will say this: of your own volition, the perpetration of an evidently heedless act is just that.  If I had quit school for laziness or frustration or boredom, there would have been no virtue in it.  And, indeed, there is very little virtue in it anyway, as I should have never started school to begin with.  It simply means that I had finally made the decision to be obedient, and God could begin to guide me to the next step as long as I did not take the very soonest opportunity to go off His path again.  Unfortunately, I end up taking almost every step wrongly to begin with, and having to retrace them all, just as the children did in Prince Caspian.   Another consistent pattern of this backtracking is obvious when I look back at my job history.  On three separate occasions, I have known that God was leading me to move on from a job, and that I was definitely no longer where He wanted me.  In each case, I refused to listen to God’s voice.  For months, I kept thinking I would resign when something else came along or when I paid off this bill or that bill so that it would not be quite as much of a financial strain.  I gradually grew more and more unhappy in these positions.  It got to the point that when I arrived at work, I would sit in my car for fifteen minutes or more, just trying to will myself to go in.  I know this unhappiness was caused partially by job strain, but I am certain that it was compounded exponentially by the fact that God wanted me somewhere else.  God eventually brought me to breaking points – do-or-die moments – when I knew I had to obey Him, no matter what that meant.  My backtracking was, at these points, evidenced by my leaving a job, and seemingly taking a step backwards in life, throwing away any seniority and benefits I had thus far attained.  Each time, I know God had given me ample time to plan and prepare, but in my stubbornness, I had not taken advantage of that time.  When I finally did decide to obey Him, I knew that He meant now, and I could not wait any longer.  This meant that I was leaving one position, and had absolutely nothing else on the horizon.   These were some of those points in my life when many people around me believed I was making an irresponsible choice.  I had no other source of income, and no money to pull from savings.  I am aware that it looked irresponsible, just as my not finishing college looked irresponsible.  Every time, though, it was not just quitting my job, it was a turning point in my relationship with God.  I have no doubt, even in hindsight, that these were the decisions God wanted me to make, although I am certain that He wanted me to make them more quickly.  I feel like I had let those jobs become what I did with my life.  In accepting more and more responsibility at work, I afforded less and less time to God.  My mental and emotional energy was spent in tasks that I believe have nothing to do with what God ultimately wants for my life.  As soon as I left the work behind, I felt God’s presence with me again.  I think He just wanted to make sure He had my full attention.   By His good grace, something always fell in my lap as far as work goes, and I never once missed a bill payment.  Odd jobs would come my way or I would get an unexpected refund from an overpayment or someone would pay back an old loan.  I regret, though, that I was horribly negligent once I returned to God’s planned route for me.  The choice to leave a job with no certainty was big and visible, and it really did required faith on my part.  However, each time I did it, I thought, “That was it.  That was what God wanted me to do.”  And I am ashamed to admit that I would immediately go back to paving my own way again, forgetting that He probably had a reason for wanting me to leave that job, aside from just leaving that job.  I was mistaking the path for the destination.  We seem to think that one good choice for God will get us to where we’re going, but God’s road is one long series of choices that require increasingly more faith.  I would, regretfully, just let myself revel in the one step I took, and bask in the glory of making a difficult decision to do what God required.  I have finally recognized this pattern, and the last time I left a job under the aforementioned circumstances, I made a concerted effort to not make the same mistake.  I wanted to remain attentive to God’s every whisper, instead of waiting until He had to scream.  I didn’t just take the next job that presented itself, but really prayed that I would listen to Him at every step of the way.  I wanted to know that I had made my choice for a reason, and that the reason was going to extend beyond the point of taking whatever came along next.  I still have to make every effort to listen to God for each decision, and I fail miserably the majority of the time.  I don’t know what it will take for me to stop reverting to trusting myself rather than trusting Him.  And I’m certainly still not sure where He’s leading me in my life, but that is the adventure of it.  And I love adventure.   I do believe that God has different paths for each of us.  I have no doubt that some are meant to lead very conventional lives as worldly standards go, whatever conventional means in their day.  (Barring ages when conventional means immoral.  God always calls us to a life beyond reproach based on absolute Biblical truths and morality.)  I believe with all of my heart, though, that all Christians are called to stand out.  If you mean to do something bigger than yourself, you will, but it will cost you your normalcy.  You cannot be great and normal at the same time.  This is encompassed in the word “extraordinary.”  It is not only taken to mean “highly exceptional; remarkable,” but extends to include that which is “beyond what is ordinary or usual.”  If we ascribed to this belief, not only in word, but also in deed, Christianity would flourish.  As it is, the Christian church flounders in largely valid accusations of hypocrisy, judgment, legalism and pettiness. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition
Copyright © 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
 Let me clarify that I do not equate great with well known or with highly acclaimed or anything of that nature.  I definitely do not mean that only those who have accomplished huge feats have followed God.  The small things God calls us to do are generally very much harder than the large ones.  To me, it seems much easier to lie down tonight, and have my head chopped off in a guillotine than to wake up each morning and cheerfully face the morning traffic.  (Please note that I said “cheerfully.”  I can easily face the morning traffic.  Cheerfully, and each morning is where the difficulty lies.)  I actually believe that the people most rewarded in heaven (if, indeed, there are levels of reward in heaven) will very likely be the people that few noticed, those who worked diligently and patiently with little reward and often for other people’s gain rather than their own.   In summing up here, all I’ve actually said is that God calls some people to conventionality, some to extremes, some to large tasks and some to small, but all of us to the extraordinary.  (For those assigned “large” tasks, I believe that the small tasks are sort of included in the package.  In essence, you cannot be the best until first you are somewhat better.)  So, basically, I have established that God has specific and possibly very different things that He wants each of us to do, and we should do them whatever they are.  What I am left with is that all of us are only ultimately accountable to God Himself.  No other person, no matter how spiritually mature or intelligent can lead us down the path He has for us to take, or judge us for the path we are on.  (Let me reiterate that this is only valid if the path we are on follows Biblical principles.  God outlines specific steps to take for reproaching a fellow Christian who is clearly not adhering to the moral code God designed us to live by.) I am currently reading The Cost of Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and due to what I believe is much more than a coincidence, I have a bit more to add here before I move on to my next point.  The night I completed writing everything above in this chapter, I read a part of Bonhoeffer’s book in which he states, “What makes the Christian different from other men is the ‘peculiar’the ‘extraordinary,’ the ‘unusual,’ that which is not ‘a matter of course’…It is ‘the more,’ the ‘beyond-all-that.’”  This similarity to what I’ve said above was not intentional as I read it after I had already written this bit.  However, Bonhoeffer explains this “extraordinariness” from the beginning as simple obedience.  He started out with the point that I didn’t even realize I was trying to make until I’d written it all out…that obedience IS what makes us extraordinary.  Following Christ in all things, in all manners, without question, is what leads us to the separateness. In books such as 1984 by George Orwell, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’engle, authors have penned warnings about the unconscionable acts of those in charge of completely controlled worlds…worlds in which they regulate vocabularies and history and knowledge in such a way as to make it virtually impossible to rebel.  They take away the tools largely necessary for a culture to think for itself.  They are joined by popular epic stories such as are found in Star Wars and The Matrix and their accompanying prequels and sequels.  The Matrix trilogy is, obviously, more blatant about its meaning and symbolism, but the Star Wars series also touches on key elements of totalitarian society.  There are many more, but the literary and film references for this subject are too countless to name and exemplify. In Fahrenheit 451, the controlling powers have sped up life, if you will.  Every moment is designed to be full of some event, some activity requiring all of your attention in order to keep you from the dreaded activity of individual thought.  The main character, Guy Montag, meets a girl named Clarisse.  Clarisse begins the process of opening his eyes to what is wrong with their society.  She challenges him to slow down…to notice the stars, the flowers.  Answering his question of why she is not in school, she states, “Oh, they don’t miss me.  I’m antisocial, they say.  I don’t mix…But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you?  An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running, another hour of transcription history or painting pictures, and more sports, but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film teacher.  That’s not social to me at all.  It’s a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and them telling us it’s wine when it’s not.”   Them telling us it’s wine when it’s not.  That line hit me when I read it.  We are trained by everything around us to pursue certain things.  Things that Satan would have us believe are wine, but they are not.  They often have just enough of a hint of nobility to win over our conscience if we let them…if we simply desire to be soothed or coddled instead of choosing the hard path of the extraordinary.  C.S. Lewis put it like this in The Weight of Glory: We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”  If we as Christians could truly wrap this around our hearts and our minds and our lives, that nothing we can fathom…no security or wealth or relationship or position could ever equal what God will lead us through and to, I believe the world would be transformed beyond recognition.  His ways are almost magical, and definitely mystical in the sense that I will never comprehend them.  I just hope I can learn to trust Him every moment of every day. 

Ambition

I was having a conversation the other day in which I was commiserating with my friend Eleanor over the moral state of our society.  We were mourning over our children’s corrupted childhoods, their inevitable materialism, and their lack of moral heroes and heroines, albeit prematurely, as neither of us have children.  Eleanor mentioned, with certain qualifiers given to reassure me that she meant this in the least cult-like way possible, that she would almost like to live in a community environment.  She went on to elaborate on this thought, and described something very akin to the Quaker lifestyle.  She continued in saying, “You know, where someone is the teacher, and I could be the cook (Eleanor is a great cook), and you could be the…(insert awkward pause)…well, you could be the…(insert second awkward pause).”  At this point, I interrupted laughing, and said, “I couldn’t be anything.  I couldn’t live there because I couldn’t be anything.”  She attested that I could live there, and that I would be “the catch-all,” whatever that might be.  I haven’t told Eleanor this, but as I looked back on our conversation later, I actually considered this a great compliment.  I believe (and based on Jesus actions, God also believes) that our society is faulty in assigning varying degrees of importance to people based on what they do.  It is flawed in that it promotes defining who a person is by their resume’.  I have never liked this, although I am guilty of it just the same.  When Eleanor could find no profession with which to define me, I felt that I had crossed some barrier in our world.  It meant, to me, that Eleanor saw me as me—that when she looked at me, she did not see a job, but a person.  If she does not see me as a job, she also does not rate me as a job, and that made me feel like a success.   I want to share an excerpt from the science fiction book, Empyrion by Stephen R. Lawhead.  In this book, four people from earth find themselves on another planet, populated by humans who have lived there for thousands of years.  They are learning the dynamics of what seems to be the Eden of all cultures, the Fieri.  This is the observation of the Fieri work habits from the perspective of the narrator in the book, “No one, apparently, held down a single career.  Each of those tasks necessary to the maintenance and functioning of society was divided among any number of people.  And since there was no such thing as wages—they simply had no concept of money—it didn’t really matter who did what.  People tended to do what they liked to do, receiving training in several different occupations and then pursuing them most casually.  This had the effect of removing such societal ills as avarice, ambition, and stress from the work environment.  The Fieri ascribed no status to what a person did; they were more concerned with the quality of the life being led.”  This being a fictional book, I am fairly certain that it would never be possible to institute these precepts.  But wouldn’t it be fascinating if everyone really liked what they did, and did it solely for the good of humanity with absolutely no thought of getting ahead or worrying about accomplishing their career goals or getting a raise?  Perhaps I am idealistic or delusional for even thinking that people would consider this something to be desired, but for me, this place would be very close to heaven. You see, when I allowed ambition to be a determining factor in my life, it materialized as a form of desperation.  For years, I believed that this desperation was fueled not by selfishness, but by a desire to do what God wanted me to do.  This was only superficially true.  I did want to do what God wanted me to, but I was filled with despair over it, not for God’s sake, but because I wanted other people to see me doing what God wanted me to do.  What disapproval I received from those for not attaining worldly success, I wanted to make up for by gaining the approval and recognition of the Christian community.  I was simply substituting one group of human commendation for another.  I honestly believe that I did not know I was suffering for my selfishness.  I think I believed I was floundering because God would not guide me.  I now understand that He would not guide me because I was not seeking only HIS approval.  If I had been, I would have been content to sail through the seemingly monotonous days, learning how to be like Him, to love like Him, completely invisible and unlauded by others.  This turns the seemingly monotonous routine of waking up, showering, eating, working and doing laundry into the extraordinary.   It sounds like a cliché, but it truly does transform every day life.  The few people who did not make me feel like more of a failure than I already did because of my apparent lack of goals and direction, told me not to worry about things, just live day to day, trusting and seeking what God wanted me to do each individual moment.  That is a simple sentence, and I know it sounds trite, but there is so much wisdom, knowledge and experience embedded in it.  Unfortunately, wisdom, knowledge and experience rarely get handed to you in a fun package.  Or, rather, when they do, you dismiss them as insignificant.  And, so I went on trudging through the sloughs of hard learning. Eventually, my desire for success became less about the approval and recognition of other people as much as it was about my own personal self-worth through the validation of others.  I focused this need for self-approval into a very neat bundle that held the one thing I thought I wanted to do with my life: write and perform music.  It was the passion that I wanted to pursue, and where I believed God wanted me.  I somehow wrapped up the actualization of this dream with any kind of happiness at all and God’s will.  It was the source of as much pain as joy, and I treated it like a curse rather than a gift.  I used to say that I wished God had given me the desire to be an accountant or some other such ordinary job, because that, I knew, could be realized under the power of my own strength.  How to attain anything akin to success in the music business was a foreign concept to me, and so seemingly impossible.  I have talent, and that is about it.  There is much politicking required, by all accounts, for progression in that world, and I am in no way a politician.  I admittedly lack the ability to small talk, to brown nose, and to network, which, anyone will tell you, is the key.  This is all too very like the corporate world that I generally denounce.  Success among the arts is so often determined by who you know and how well you play the game.  This was where my frustration primarily manifested itself.  I am not opposed to placing myself in situations that cause me discomfort.  I know that life requires this, and I am capable of “sucking it up” and just doing what is necessary.  I would do this in spurts for years; try to push into that world, to play the part, do what everyone I asked for advice told me I should do.  Every time I even began the attempt, it was like what I had perceived as a screen, passable with determination, became a brick wall, impenetrable to all human effort.  All of my zeal simply accomplished an increase in my discouragement, and the validation that I was a failure at doing what God wanted me to do.  If God wanted me to be a musician outside of my home, surely He wanted me to pursue it, right?  But, even in that respect, I felt like God’s presence with me decreased as my pushing increased, like an inversely proportionate equation.  So, each time I began plowing ahead in pursuit of what I thought was God’s will, I stopped shortly thereafter.  The more years I did this, the faster I would recognize that I felt outside of God’s plan and go back, until my steps towards completing this quest became more and more imperceptible to those around me.  Before I had the epiphany I am about to divulge, I was becoming aware of red flags in my spiritual walk before I even took action, when I was just in a state of mind considering another push to achieve something musically.  I had so many people listing all of the things I needed to do if musical success was what I wanted, but every time I attempted them, I only became more and more lost from myself, lost from the love I had for music in the first place, and, worst of all, lost from the presence of God.  As my apparent efforts to accomplish anything musically lessened, the pressure from outside sources to “stop being lazy” and “step outside of my comfort zone” grew steadily greater.  I even had someone tell me that I was using God as an excuse for my laziness when I said that I did not feel He wanted me to actively pursue a musical career.   It was actually this conversation that brought me to the consummation of my emotional journey with ambition.  Mulling that accusation over and over in my mind, it occurred to me that what I had said was true.  All of the times I was pressing for some sort of success were the times I felt the farthest away from God.  Those were the times I began to feel like an insignificant failure.  I had been susceptible to frequent bouts of depression for years.  When I tried to look back at those periods of depression, using hindsight beneath the microscope of what I had just realized, I could pinpoint the same root…desire to achieve this musical goal and feeling like a failure because of it.  Supposedly, the goal was for God, but when I tried to attain it, it became all about me.  In pursuit, I stopped considering where I felt God’s hand leading me, and let my lack of advancement be a source of self-doubt as opposed to a sign that perhaps I was moving away from God instead of towards Him.  The root of this state of mind and of my blindness to the true problem was the pressure I put on myself to be something, which I equated with being somebody.  I’ve heard people say, “God doesn’t care what you are.  He just cares who you are.”  This is true in the sense that what you are for God grows solely out of who you allow Him to make you.  I would say it is more true that He cares who you are before He cares what you are.  What you are makes very little difference, if you are not who He wants you to be to begin with.  Since I have stopped trying to prove to the world and myself that I am something, I have become a lot more comfortable just being a person, and that is where I believe God wants me.  After all, humanity itself is the one level on which I can relate to every other person.   Something of my journey can be compared to Martin Luther’s, although I do not presume to place myself on an equal plane of spiritual maturity or intelligence with him.  If you do not know, Martin Luther entered the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt, Germany, wanting to renounce himself for God.  He soon recognized that this separating of himself from the rest of the world as some sort of Christian elite was simply another form of arrogance.  Perhaps this is not true for all, but it was for Luther.  The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks of this journey, and does so much better than I could.  Bonhoeffer states, “The call to the cloister demanded of Luther the complete surrender of his life.  But God shattered all his hopes.  He showed him through the Scriptures that the following of Christ is not the achievement or merit of a select few, but the divine command to all Christians without distinction.  Monasticism had transformed the humble work of discipleship into the meritorious activity of the saints, and the self-renunciation of discipleship into the flagrant spiritual self-assertion of the ‘religious.’  The world had crept into the very heart of the monastic life, and was once more making havoc.”  The devil takes the search for humility, and turns it into something that offers worldly pride.  (In this sense, “worldly” is meant to include anything other than Christ Himself, because even the approval of the church, comprised of other Christians, can be substituted in place of doing God’s will, especially when you consider the state of the church as a whole in most historic times.  The church as an entity is not greatly known for how well it sought to achieve God’s true work.)  This is basically where I ended up, although it took me some time to get there.  My music was intended by me to be an offering to God, but I also wanted it to grant me some sort of special status.  I wanted to be a Christian, noted because of my talent, esteemed because of my faithfulness and wisdom.  I am afraid I still have some of that, or a lot of it, if I am honest.  Even in writing all of these thoughts, I have great trepidation about becoming so pleased with how wise I think I am, that it stops being about God, and starts being about how humble I have become and how proud I am of it.   Back to the topic at hand, I have some trouble maintaining the strength of my conviction that I am to wait, interminably, until I feel direct guidance from God.  I still have people who express their contempt for my lack of goal-oriented activity.  At these times, the story that has established itself as my vindication is that of Abraham.  I do not generally use this in defense to others, but it serves as a calming, steadying force within my own mind.  Abraham had this desire—a good desire, even—natural and somewhat noble, to have a son.  God even promised him that he would have a son.  Years and years, Abraham waited…past the point it was even physically possible for his wife to bear children.  Finally, he took matters into his own hands.  He decided that maybe he should accomplish God’s will for himself.  This decision, culminating in the birth of Ishmael, has literally caused a world of endless problems.  The thing is, Abraham was successful in achieving his goal.  He did have a son when he decided to do it himself.  But, this was definitely not what God purposed for him.  For Abraham, fathering a child with someone other than his wife was the only conceivable way he was going to attain his goal, since Sarah was past the childbearing age.  He took the action that anyone would have told him was physically necessary to fulfill the promise, but had he waited for God’s completion of the promise, much pain would have been avoided.   By all accounts, doing the things I do not feel led to do is the only way to accomplish musical success, just as Abraham’s way was the only way he could fathom having a son.  But the “only” way conceivable to us is not necessarily the way that God has planned.  He sees beyond what is “possible,” because with Him, all things are possible.  The problem with the “conceivable” way is that it is just that.  When things happen in ways that seem feasible to us, it allows room to deny God’s power.  One of my favorite Jars of Clay songs states it like this, “Rescue me from hanging on this line.  I won’t give up on giving You the chance to blow my mind.  Let the eleventh hour quickly pass me by.  I’ll find You when I think I’m out of time.”  In Abraham’s case, God did not come through in the eleventh hour, but the twelfth or maybe the thirteenth, far beyond the latest possible moment.  God waits for us to give up, so that we will be able to recognize His handiwork.  He wants us to give up willingly and freely, before our only reason is because it has become completely insurmountable.  Plodding through years of desperation until you reach hopelessness is far more difficult than freely handing it to God to begin with, but it requires trust—real trust, not just words.   There are statements that I heard more than once growing up in the Christian subculture.  They are as follows:  a) God only helps those who help themselves, and b) God can’t guide you if you don’t start walking.  These statements always seemed somewhat duplicitous to me.  Am I supposed to follow God, or expect Him to follow me?  Somehow, it still took me a while to clarify what I really believed in the matter.  I now believe they are both bunk, and only stated by those who do not yet know what it means to wait for and follow God.  For me, Abraham’s life validates this belief.  When I apply the truths of his story to myself, it frees me from the worldly pressure I feel to make something happen.  I could probably achieve at least a moderate level of success by doing all of the things I believe should be done and all of the things I have been told I have to do, just as Abraham achieved his desired goal.  However, I know that this would be selling myself and the world and God far short, and would mean never realizing the amazing potential God has planned for my life.  The success that I could contrive would never be as powerful, as fulfilling or as meaningful as whatever God has in store.   To include yet another C.S Lewis work, a quote from The Great Divorce states this precept succinctly.  Lewis says, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’”  In this case, Lewis is speaking of the ultimate fate of either heaven or hell, but I think it can apply to independent cases of disobedience as well.  In other words, push hard enough for something, and you just might get it, whether it is good for you or not.   If we could only truly believe the words Jesus speaks in Matthew, “He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.”  He is not speaking of death here, but of turning over the control of your life—acquiescing to what God’s plan is for you.  I have a feeling that we would find in the end, that all things of consequence are gained by “giving up” to God, and very little is lost.  I am thinking of this along the lines of giving up our ambition and dreams to God.  I realize that there are situations in which these statements would sound harsh by worldly standards.  However, when someone has been martyred or shunned by their family or the like, I still think it applies, in that what those Christians gain will be infinitely greater than what they have lost.  In other words, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10)  I actually have an idea that if we could look back from eternity once we get there, any sacrifice we could possibly make on this earth will seem paltry compared to His, and all sacrifice will seem right and necessary for following His call.  Isaiah 64:6 says, “All our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.”  There is no beyond the call of duty when it comes to God.   I would also like to clarify that when I say “give up” in terms of the ambitions and dreams I speak of, I do not mean that you must deny yourself everything that brings you joy, everything that makes you who you are as an individual.  This would simply be self-denial akin to what Martin Luther found revolting about the monastic life.  It can be a form of attempting to attain salvation or to gain God’s approval by works.  God may ask you to abstain from involving yourself in the things that you love, but that is a personal conviction, and not the action I am trying to advocate here.  In my walk at this point, “give up” means to stop attempting to transform my aspirations into a career, to stop letting them control my emotions and to release the need for them.  I do not believe that God asked me to stop singing or to stop writing songs.  However, if I could not let go of my desperate aspirations unless I did so, then I believe that is what He would ask next.  I have known of prolific writers of books who upon attempting to follow Christ, lost the ability to produce anything at all for a time – until they learned to put their passion for God ahead of their passion for writing. I quoted from the C.S. Lewis book, The Great Divorce, earlier, but for my purposes now, let me outline its premise for you.  It is a story about a journey to heaven told from the perspective of one man.  It includes his story as well as those of some of the people he has traveled to heaven with.  He is dreaming, but you don’t find this out until the end.  There are numerous “ghosts” (a group comprised of himself and all of the individuals arriving with him), and they are met by the “solid spirits” of people who have already been in heaven for a time.  The solid spirits are trying to tell them why they should come further in to heaven instead of returning to the “grey town” (symbolizing hell) from whence they came.  One of the conversations he witnesses is between the ghost of a fairly well known artist, and the solid spirit of another renowned artist who has come to meet him.  The ghost goes on and on about wanting to paint the beauty of the landscape.  This is the solid spirit’s answer: “Don’t you see?  You’ll never paint at all if that’s what you’re thinking about…if you’re interested in the country only for painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country….  Every poet and musician and artist, but for grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells to love of the telling, till down in deep hell, they cannot be interested in God at all, but in only what they say about Him, for it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know.  They sink lower, become interested in their own personalities, and then in nothing but their own reputations.”  I believe, had God allowed me any measure of success, this is the road I would have been traveling.  “But for grace…” said the solid spirit.  But for grace, indeed, I say.  My failure was the “curse” I needed in order to take my eyes off of myself, and learn to love my gifts as gifts for no other reason than that I have them.  Maybe one day God will lead me to use them publicly for His glorification.  I definitely believe that for that to even be possible, He had to first teach me to use them privately as such, instead of treating them like they were useless without a human audience or human recognition. Actually, quite the opposite is true.  A human audience may as well not view your art or read your writings or hear your songs if privately you do not love the work for its own sake and for God’s.  To best illustrate my thoughts on this matter, I’d like to return to the book I referenced earlier, Empyrion by Stephen R. Lawhead.  It is a conversation between one of the travelers from earth, Yarden, and the woman who has been her guide in the world of the Fieri, Ianni.  They have just watched a troupe of Fieri dancers perform the most exquisite and emotive dance that Yarden has ever experienced.  After the performance, the audience simply gets up, and silently trickles away.  I think it will be best communicated if I do not try to condense it, but share the entirety of the conversation.   “Why did no one acknowledge the dancers?” asked Yarden as they walked back across the meadow toward the Arts Center, a palatial edifice made of rust-colored sunstone, with numerous wings and pavilions radiating from a common hub.  “Or praise them for their artistry?”   “Praise belongs only to the Infinite,” Ianni explained gently, as she had explained so often to Yarden since becoming her mentor.  “Would you have us praise the vessel for its contents?” “I don’t know.  It just seems that one ought to show some appreciation for the dancers, for their art, for the joy they bring in the dance.” “The joy of the dance was theirs.” “They shared it with us, then.” “And we paid them the highest tribute—we honored the beauty of the moment, and respected the serenity of the performance.” Yarden thought about this.  “By leaving like that?  Without a word, without a sound—just leaving?  That was your tribute?” Ianni, a tall, dark-haired woman, slender with long graceful limbs, folded her hands in front of her and stopped walking, turned to Yarden, and said, “We shared the moment together, and we took it to ourselves.  We have hidden it in our hearts to treasure it always. What more can one do who has not created?  It was not our place to judge, only to accept.” They walked again, feeling the warmth of the day and the pure rays of the sun on their faces.  After a time Yarden nodded, saying, “I think I understand what you are saying: the artist practices her art for herself alone, but she performs as an expression of praise to the Infinite Father for the gift of her art—a gift she shares with her audience.” “Or with no audience at all.” “Yes, I see.  The audience does not matter.” “Not to the performance, no.  But if the audience is moved to praise the Infinite too, so much the better.  Let praise increase!  Of course, an artist is pleased when the audience is pleased.  That is only natural.  But, since she performs her art for herself and for the pleasure of the Infinite, the audience’s response or lack of it is of no concern.” “The only concern is how well she has performed.” “Yes, whether she has used her gift to her best abilities.  If she has, what does it matter whether she had an audience or not, or what the audience thought about the performance?” When we stop doing whatever it is that we may do in order to impress others or in order to gauge our happiness by their response or in order to attain some level of status, that is when we are free to enjoy the thing that we do for itself, with no strings attached.  Anything else only muddies our motives and detracts from the joy of the doing of it, because we can never expect to only receive praise from those around us.  I long to detach myself from needing the approval of others, and from using that as a meter for how I feel about myself.  The love of my song was what ambition took from me.  God has given it back.

Why the title?

Taste the Sea

A glint, a gleam, the hint of a seam

Connecting, correcting the crack.

The ocean, the massive, rejecting the passive;

Accepting, protecting the cast—

The cast-away from the pre-staged play,

Refusing, profusely the role

Of body as puppet, of life as a muppet,

Confusing, abusing the soul.

Adventurous journey, tumultuous turning

To travel, unravel the myth—

Expose the mystery of imposing history—

The sameness, the lameness of this.

My fistful showing of wistful hoping,

The standard I’m handed, a fake.

You say it’s a dream, I’ll say what I mean.

This cistern, this fissure, this lake—

I think that it’s frosting, I think I’ll be crossing

To some shore to find more of me.

So, I’ll dare the fray, I’m more scared to stay.

You waste it; I’ll taste the sea.

.

This poem holds a key element of my world view within it, and it is my title because, well, I like it.  It reflects what I feel about our society as a whole, and myself involved in it as an individual.  I feel that there is more to us, that there is this huge schism between what we are, and what we are supposed to be.  For myself, every now and then I get just a hint that there is a way across…a way to the other side where I am not divided.  This schism is like an ocean, and you cannot cross it on accident.  It accepts those who are thrown away, cast out because they will not accept the stereotypes they are born into, thrown into.  This is not an easy choice…it’s undoubtedly the harder route, but if I get there, maybe, just maybe I can show someone else the way – show someone that just because something has been does not mean that it has to continue to be – that the facade of meaningless patter thrown in front of us day after day is not showing us what life is really supposed to be about.  I cling to this idea, the idea that we can reach the other side, because I know that what we are told to base our identities on is a lie.  I’ve been called a dreamer and an idealist, but I know that to fight for this is more important than waking up and realizing I never made a solid choice in my life.  I may die a penniless nobody, but if I can take myself out of this aimless cycle that society puts us in, I will be richer than anyone else in the world, because I will have achieved my purpose, and it will be like tasting the sea for the first time.  I am a Christian, first and foremost, and I believe that this purpose can only be found by looking at the nature of the true God.  I believe that I find little pieces of it every day, but do not expect life on this earth to fulfill itself…we are meant for more than that.  Welcome to my journey.