Saturday, 25 May 2013

Living Under Grace

I hesitate to even try to write about this, I know so little about it.  Of course, I was always taught that we weren’t going to go to Hell, if we trusted in Jesus.  This was God’s grace.  Not sending us to Hell.  Well, Hell (and Heaven) isn’t a terribly pressing thought to a child, most days anyway.  I only worried about Hell if adults preached about it a lot.  But what about Tuesday? What was God’s role in Tuesday?
I don’t even remember how long I had to live before I tripped over the phrase “saved by grace, blessed by works.”  But it made me realize that there was something very contradictory as to how we were being taught. 
We were taught very clearly that our good works could not get us into Heaven.  And we didn’t really do good works anyway[1].  No feeding the widows and fatherless.  No helping people with emotional problems.  We just avoided doing bad things.  Most things were thought bad, it’s true, but still.  We didn’t do most things.
So we were, in our teaching at least, pretty clear on the idea that we weren’t saved from Hell through our own efforts.  It was a matter of grace.  Grace was defined as “the unmerited favour of God.”  Being given success, safety and other good things, though we hadn’t (couldn’t) do anything to become someone who deserved them.
But when it came to “Was God angry with me?” and “Will God help me?” there was a sudden shift.  By example, anyway, and even sometimes by word, we were taught that God would only “bless” us if we kept from doing those fun things.  We sacrificed pleasure to earn blessing.  We earned it.  We bought it.  The wages of sacrifice were a lack of trouble in our lives.  Our concept of “blessing” generally went no higher than “a lack of trouble.”
That black and white thinking came into play again: if you pleased God, were a good testimony, sacrificed your pleasure, He would always, every time, just have to bless you.  You could bank on it.  That’s why you did it.  And if you displeased God, indulged in pleasure, did what you wanted, instead of what He wanted, which always involved making that pleasure sacrifice, then you would definitely not be blessed.  God would punish you in your life every time.  Well, our wording was that He would “speak to you.”  He would remove the blessing.  Which is kinda how cursing works, if you think about it.
Needless to say, this odd view of grace, and how God worked, is something I’ve spent my adult life wrestling with.  With very indifferent success.  My first impulse is always to expect success when I work hard and make sacrifices, like that’s owed to me, and to then try to find a reason it’s my fault if anything bad happens.  And if I’ve not done anything particularly bad, I want to blame God for not helping.  But life’s not like that. God’s not like that.
The story of Job was pretty instructive for me. In essence, the story of Job is that Satan[2] pretty much bets God that Job is really only faithful and thankful because God gives him good stuff in his life.  The bet is that if Satan is allowed to remove the good stuff and make bad stuff happen for no reason, that Job will curse God.  God agrees, Satan screws up Job’s life royally, with (un)natural disasters killing his whole family besides his wife, and taking away his prosperity and so on.  And Job does not curse God.  Many of us would be saying “Eff You, God!” after a week or so of burying every one of our kids and their wives, suffering seeping skin lesions, when we’d done absolutely nothing bad.  This is why “the patience of Job” is an expression.  I think “patience” has the connotation of “endurance.”
And then the interesting part of the story happens: some religious people decide to help.  To be comforting.  And they suck.  In my lifetime, religious people “helping” me have always gone about it in the same way as the guys in the story.  They have taken that same dysfunctional view of grace, and how God works, and have brought it to bear on anything that I’ve found troubling in my life.  If things aren’t working out well for me, they cast doubt on me.  Like what I need at that point in time is doubt.  They assume I’ve screwed up somehow and start guessing after how exactly I’ve screwed up this time before God, based on what they see as my social and character flaws[3].
But in the story, the religious people are wrong.  A younger guy, and then God Himself, make this very clear.  The religious friends are just “being religious” and not seeing what’s going on, certainly not getting any revelations about it from God, and are therefore just making up stuff based on how they already see the world, with their religious assumptions.
Prosperity gospel people love the idea that if you make sacrifices and be religious, that God will make you rich every time.  People who screw their own lives up through bad choices like to talk about “God speaking[4]” and then they also impose this view on anyone else whose life is not as sunshiney as could be hoped, for any number of reasons.
In my church culture, they had a handy alliterative list of the only possible reasons God might “speak” to us, and actually allow something unpleasant to happen to His Own:

Punitive: As mentioned earlier, God may be punishing us for doing something bad. With young people, they almost always wanted to imagine this was going on.
Preventative: God might be “speaking” pre-emptively.  Maybe you hadn’t screwed up yet, but you would one day, so He was punishing you in advance so you wouldn’t.
Preparatory: This was for special people. God had a wonderful plan to use you one day, and so if anything bad happened, it was certainly to prepare you to go to Africa or something.

These certainly could be self-fulfilling. If your child died, and you feared it was your fault due to one of the first two things, all you had to do was simply go to Africa after you’d buried your child, and everyone would know that it was option three that had been the reason for the trouble.
In real life, this stuff is a real brain cooker.  There are two questions in the bible that are troubling to people in both Old and New Testaments:

Why do bad things happen to good people?
Why do good things happen to bad people?

If you look at them, you can see that these are really the same question.  And they come down to “Is God doing His job?  Is He fair?”
Well, upon reading the bible, I had to conclude that God wasn’t fair.  The entire book seems to be story after story of Him being nice to certain people because He felt like it, and not because they were worthy.  And He didn’t feel obligated to spread this kindness around. 
He doesn’t seem fair at all.  Not as some men count fairness.  I struggled in my twenties with the troubling idea that maybe God didn’t work the way we wanted Him to.  He didn’t appear to reliably leap in and immediately bring karmic consequences upon people whenever they did something bad.  He also didn’t seem to dependably always leap to reward good behaviour in time for the weekend, when we could praise Him for it on Sunday.
Some people don’t want to even bother believing in God if He isn’t going to “be fair.”  It’s like kids I teach at school who think things like:
If they complete every assignment they should get 100% in the course.  That’s only fair[5].
If everyone tried equally, they should all get the same mark[6].
The fact is, some kids don’t have to try as hard.  Some kids try hard and demonstrate a real lack of ability.  In my class, I reward talent too.  That’s not very fair.  Most of the kids do work, and only some of them achieve excellence, often due to something God (unfairly) gave them at birth.  This shows up in writing assignments and in gym, art and music classes alike.

But this question is a tough one: Is there a God, and is He on the job?  How does one live a life and deal with Him?  I could never really not believe that there was a God (and this has far more to do with my upbringing and how I naturally am made than any great devotion or spiritual insight) but I often have trouble believing He cares or is involved in my world in any real way that I can see, and see it as being at all good.
In the early days of The Church (like, two thousand years ago, not during the birth of the Plymouth Brethren in the 1800s) many sacrificed their lives for God.  It really does appear that God wanted them to do it.  He certainly didn’t stop the mouths of the lions, as He’d done with Daniel. Who knows how many Christians were mauled by lions or otherwise massacred, with full knowledge that God had done this for Daniel in the past, but wasn’t doing it for them that afternoon?  Did they blame themselves?  Did they wonder if God was being fair?  It makes me wonder what use God was getting out of them. I do believe in a God who, if your dying for some reason suits Him better than your living, will absolutely make sure you die.  Sometimes horribly.
Today, there are children (no doubt in Africa) who are praying to God for food, because they are starving to death.  And He’s going to let some of them starve today instead of seeing that they have food.  And some of them will get food today.  And some will still die soon.
It’s cheerful thoughts like this that, rather than make me an atheist, leave me wondering “Who is God and what’s He up to?  Do I like Him[7]?”
Because of the father I had, growing up, I have always found it fairly easy to believe in a God who will keep me from major trouble.  And I have lived a life remarkably free from major trouble.  I have never broken a bone, got stitches, needed surgery, got sued, got arrested or got hit in the face more than once or twice in the same altercation.  I have never missed more than a meal or two here or there.  I have never been sexually molested though a person or two seemed “bent” on it.  My senses work, apart from being near-sighted.  My limbs work, most of the time, too.  And I’m good at certain things.  Naturally.
So what do I want from God? I’ve always wanted three things:

1.      A job so I can make money.
2.      To fit in at church, maybe even another one other than the one I grew up with.
3.      A wife and maybe even kids.

He’s always looked after the first one.  He’s shown very little interest in following through on the other two.  You can guess which ones have involved decades of prayer, to no apparent effect.
And yet, I think He’s come through on those in typical reverse-fashion, like my own father would: He “rescued” me from a church I could never have left on my own.  He’s “interfered” repeatedly when I wanted a woman who was, in retrospect Not A Good Idea.  He hardened the hearts of the elders in my assembly.  He made sure these women really didn’t understand me, really didn’t appreciate me, decided my genes didn't need to be carried on a single generation more, and went off into the sunset quite early on.
But this has still left me trying to deal with a God who doesn’t tell me what He wants, often doesn’t give me what I want, allows bad things to happen to good people for no apparent reason and good things to happen to bad people for no apparent reason.  It’s tough to know what to do with.  Atheism is the logical answer.  Eff logic, I say.  I have bigger fish to fry than can be caught with mere logic.  Man cannot live by logic alone, though it gets teeth brushed and shoes tied.
I had my heart set on being a Plymouth Brethren idiot.  I wanted it all.  I wanted to wear my suit and sit up there and talk about the bible, with my beautiful, submissive wife sitting next to me, all glossy and befrocked and sleek, despite having given me four clean, respectful children.  I wanted to fire out a cleverly prepared answer to any possible question anyone could throw at me. I wanted to help do bible conferences and be recorded on tape, speaking at them.  I wanted all of that.  Oddly, God didn’t seem to share my vision for my future.
I believe in a God who, in His grace, despite there being no real reason why I couldn’t have achieved much of that Brethren stuff, made sure that I had to follow Him instead of becoming that person I was raised to aspire to becoming, and whose wife I very much coveted.  
I feel very much that every time I scratched the surface on Brethren dogma, picked away at it like a scab, that I’d fall through/be yanked into something much deeper and more real.  I think God wanted me to know Him, even if it meant sacrifice.  Sacrificing being a Brethren person.  Sacrificing a wife and kids.  Sacrificing having somewhere to get in out of the rain on Sunday morning.  Sacrificing the system of pleasure-sacrifice.  I believe all this, purely from how I understand my dealings with Him.  Crazy, I know.
It’s a cliché to say “I felt the Hand of God upon me,” but I say that anyway.

I came up with a handy little way to know if I was having trouble achieving something, whether I would decide I was being opposed by God or Other Things.  I decided that if I was going to do something good, something in God’s name, which He’d like, which would honour or glorify Him, that I could expect fake good-doers, posers and wannabes to attack and smear me for it.  This certainly was my experience.  I also decided that the forces of evil as well as the tyranny of the mundane would be unable to help themselves, and would need to try to disrupt and stop me from doing the good thing.  Because maybe they are quality assurance technicians.
And I also decided that if God wants something good to happen, He’s most likely going to get His way.  He might wait until He can find someone who’s really into achieving it (God insists upon working on Earth through human beings in almost everything, I believe, as He gave this Earth to us and doesn’t snatch it back like a Dad taking back birthday presents) but likely He’s going to get the thing He wants, I decided. 
So I decided that if I thought something good should be done, and things started to look grim, either that was because I was mistaken and it wasn’t good at all, and God wasn’t interested and wasn’t with me in it... or the opposite, that I was being opposed by forces evil and mundane, forces God would not let thwart me.  I saw the latter as a game of chicken. Because fear is a great way of manipulating human beings.  Fear and pride.  Together, an unbeatable combo.  And I was raised to both.
So when I started to try to achieve good, I would naturally expect things to soon look like they were all going wrong, for it all to look impossible and doomed.  This always happened, too.  And then I’d just keep trying.  To see if all the doom and gloom melted away like so much parlour trickery and empty posturing and threats, or if God simply didn’t step up and honour my attempts to honour Him.
I have to say, this has worked pretty well.
But my natural tendency is to second-guess myself, to assume that I’m always wrong somehow. My natural tendency is to be afraid to imagine improvement or growth or blessing of any kind.  Whenever I imagined anything good, if my father caught wind of it, he always leaped to “let me down easy” about how Life generally turned out.  I’m trying to grow beyond that a bit.  Give good a chance.  Let hope have her wicked way with me.  Let joy out of me before it rots.
But it is also very natural for me to be dissatisfied with fake stuff, with pretending something is good, or working, or helpful, or already achieved, when it’s crap.  Admiring fake virtue is, I think, a great way to make sure there’s no real virtue to be had.  So I always want real worth, I look for workability rather than just inspiring claims and shameless, unearned self-congratulation, and I generally want to help people.  I want everything to be better than it is.  Especially anything that’s supposed to be good for some reason.  I want me, and I want people I know, to be better, and to be getting better.  I want to be able to smell growth in the air around me.  Too much of the world stinks of death and decay.
I am deeply unsettled by people, relationships and situations where death, rot, lies, exploitation, corruption and chaos seem to win out.  Because I need to see God here. I need Him to care and be doing something. 
I think this is, in a small way, a triumph over my upbringing, when we already felt we “had” everything God wanted to give, where there was no expectation that anything needed to get, nor would ever get, more real, heart-felt, helpful, deep, workable or good.
I think it’s a triumph.  Because now I go to God and look for Him to get involved, to bless things and help, because of His grace. Because He wants to. 
The big impediment to that, of course, is a faltering ability to believe in a God who likes me. Like at all.  In my head, I can believe that God designed people, and that we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made” and that even I have been made with a certain virtue or worth to God built into me and being developed.  I can mentally assent to that idea, but in the course of a week, I have very little success feeling like God likes me, or that I am doing anything He likes much at all.
Now, part of this I’m going to go ahead and blame on my past baggage.  It takes a fairly strong personality to grow up being treated as weird, as not quite right, as not quite normal, as certainly problematic and definitely not useful, and somehow turn around and say “I was more or less what He made me to be, and was sometimes a solution to problems and was useful to Him.”  I certainly can’t feel like that most of the time.  Culture is powerful.  Formative years form you.  If you have kids, remember that you can make them feel like they are a problem, rather than being people who sometimes could solve problems.  They need to get used to feeling like they could be a solution, sometimes.
If you want to be a solution, of course, and no one wants to talk about there being a problem, YOU are a problem to them, and you need to be able to stand up anyway.  It’s awkward.  Everyone stands around in tuxedos drinking champagne, celebrating the fact that the Holy Washing Machine works, not letting anyone actually put clothes into it, as that would be irreverent to the Holy Machine, and you show up in coveralls with a toolbelt, some rubber tubing, a belt and a hoseclamp.
You are especially a problem if one of the men drinking champagne in his tuxedo is the duly elected “Executive Officer In Charge Of Machine Maintenance.” Watch out for him.

Why did I think of a holy washing machine?  I guess I was thinking of this silly little song I wrote when I’d been kicked out of my assembly for thinking, growing and trying to help and talk to people, even if they’d be labeled “problematic.”  It’s silly, but here it is (click here to hear it):

Red Sweater
I’m a red sweater and what could be better than to be all nice and clean
I’ve got this idea that just suit me, I never leave my washing machine.

There’s blood and sweat, grass-stains you bet, and grease and dirt and food,
I’ve never seen the World first-hand
But I’m told that it’s very rude.

If other clothes offend my nose in my Maytag so bright,
I scream and shout and kick them out
(which of course, is only right)

       Yeah, I’ll be faded, and tattered and old one day
       Too holey to mend up or darn,
       But when I’m bagged and tagged
       I won’t be a filthy rage
       But a tangled twist of pinkish yarn

(repeat first two lines)

I am talking about following God vs. worshipping the church.  You see the church hurting someone for being confused, or weak or hurt.  So you reach out to help them and get threatened.  You are told that the safe thing to do when someone’s ailing is to draw away so you don’t get what they’ve got.  If they die, that’s that, and if they get better, then maybe they can come back in with the rest of us.  This is how we keep the church healthy, spiritually speaking.  It’s Christ’s way.
If you decide to follow through on the urge to bring them chicken soup, spiritually speaking, you open yourself to attacks from your culture.  But is it worth doing?  I think so.
I even think so despite the fact that the person you try to help might well backstab you to get Brethren brownie points with the people who are disapproving of both of you.   Backstabbing problem people wins you a lot of support.  But I still think you should try to help.  I even think so despite the fact that I was kicked out and shunned for life by my church culture mostly because of that very situation happening.
Ultimately, though, my being kicked out feels like Joseph being sold into slavery to Egyptians.  He goes from being a shepherd boy loved by his father but despised by his brothers, to being second-in-command and trusted spiritual advisor to the Pharaoh. 
For my part, I went from being a Brethren sheep living in absolute terror that I’d be kicked out if I said or did, wore or wrote the wrong thing, ever, to eventually getting kicked out and being suddenly free.  Free to serve God.  Free to write and say whatever I feel will honour God, or make people think and feel things about Him.  And it feels like He’s into this in a way He was never, ever into that other life path.
I no longer live a life of “obeying God so He has to bless me,” with my birth culture informing me of exactly what rules I am to “not needing to obey, per se, but may not break either.” 
Now I try to grasp the idea that God made me on purpose, is no fool, gets use of me and likes me, will work things out with me when I screw up, and still be glorified.  He wants to use me.  I no longer merely build my whole week around a church which keeps watch to make sure I’m sacrificing all opportunities for pleasure.
If unlike me you are accepted by a church which doesn’t insist upon taking charge and controlling most of your time and what you think, say and do, then go for it.  Enjoy that acceptance. If they will let you do good things (even if you aren’t in Africa), instead of merely claiming to be a group which is good and achieves good things, I think you should keep doing that. 
I do think you should be very careful to never substitute any church for God, though.  That line between “I worship God in my church” to “I worship my church, which is my God” needs to be very clear.

A guy named Ryan who I used to teach creative writing just linked me to an odd lecture by a University of Toronto professor named Jordan Peterson.  The part of the lecture that I think I have already been thinking and writing about went into this kind of thing:
A society, or a system, is optimistically set up, and is meant to take care of everyone and everything, and to cover pretty much all eventualities.  History is a story of systems and societies needing to change, and refusing to do so, and therefore being overthrown, conquered, abandoned, or simply falling apart into chaos. 
Now, chaos was what they were set up to “fix” in the first place.   And they did, for a while.  They were set up, hopefully with some idea of the nature of the chaos that needed to be fixed.  (rape, murder, theft, cruelty, starvation, disease etc.)  They were set up, hopefully, by people with a unity of goal, whose efforts are, at least at first, not entirely subverted by personal agendas.  They were set up, hopefully, by people who knew what their reality was, who could look directly in the face of chaos/problems and tell the truth about them, and work to fix them.  They were set up, definitely, by people who were making it up as they went along, who were making what Dr. Peterson called “micro-corrections” while working on it.  People who would compare what they hoped would work, with what actually worked, and made those little adjustments to the system.
A system or society is like a machine, or like a building.  It isn’t alive. It doesn’t grow and mature.  It doesn’t want to change.  It’s about fixing chaos, so it’s about reliable, solid, dependable sameness.  And growth requires that something be alive, and that it be able to change.
Totalitarian, authoritarian societies were seen right through the twentieth century.  What they are seen doing is trying to bring order to chaos.  What is seen happening is that if they are given too much power, they become anti-life.  They create, Dr. Peterson would say, a hellish, rather than heavenly state.  They punish and stop and destroy growth and change, stamping out individuality, self-expression, reflection and inspiration.  And ultimately, they cannot stave off chaos like that, nor suppress individuality, self-expression, reflection and inspiration forever either.  Whether they are Stalinist Russia, Hitler’s Fortress Europe, any number of South American and African dictatorships, or even a little thing like my church, this is all readily apparent.
What Dr. Peterson went on to describe is very much like what I’ve been tripping over my own sentences trying to sketch out here: to live a life that has meaning, and which improves the world around you, you need:

1.      To have your eyes on a higher goal than merely maintaining what already is the established, maintained order of things.  Because it’s old and doesn’t work like it should.  It can’t handle all eventualities, and eventually, new eventualities always arise.  And it might be becoming anti-life.
2.      To be willing to see and tell the truth about how things really are, within you, and in the world around you.  People will twist and censor the truth if it makes the system look like it needs to grow or change.  You have to be willing to tell the truth anyway.
3.      To repeatedly let go of your fondest, most reassuring ideas and dogma, if necessary, sacrificing them to God so that they can be “resurrected” with new, better life, more suited to what really is the state you’re trying to work on. 

Dr. Peterson sees life as a continual letting go of rigid ideas and systems, in order to make “micro-corrections,” like someone turning a computer off, changing the memory cards for a new, better, different kind, and then turning it back on to “resurrect” it as a thing that can now do stuff it couldn’t before.  A thing that will need to be upgraded periodically, whenever you get your hands on something new, more suited or necessary in the future.  The idea is that God does this with us, and that we do it with our lives.
  Weirdly, after typing this, I went and watched a documentary about U2, which explains why they walked away from the Joshua Tree sound that made so many of us start listening to them, and did something that was the antithesis to it. Back in the day I was very into The Joshua Tree and was more than a bit bewildered by this odd change in direction.  In From The Sky Down, Bono says “You have to reject one expression of the band first, before you get to the next expression.  And in between, you’ve nothing.  You have to risk it all.”
That all rings very true to me. 

[1] We did try to send people to Africa to do them, though.  Mostly they handed out pamphlets.
[2] Shown as He’s always depicted in the bible, free to wander the earth and go into the heavenly realms as well, and certainly not locked up in Hell.
[3] Chief among which is generally my refusal to accept what they say instantly and at face value.
[4] They love the idea that God makes their lives suck, rather than their own bad choices.
[5] Not that they have any intention of actually trying to complete every assignment in the course, of course, of course.
[6] You may not be aware of this, but some kids are really very stupid.  And they don’t all smell very good, either.
[7] I always like Jesus. But then so does everyone.  (It didn’t used to be like that, of course.)