Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Not too proud to stop and ask for directions

I'm at a pretty important juncture in my life. And it's no coincidence that I'm more passionate then ever about doing what God would want me to do. So I also believe that there is a reason I am getting several different messages from different sources concerning finding God's will. I went back to the Ancient Paths seminar last week with my girlfriend. I listened to a recording of a lecture about prophesy and listening to God on a car trip last week. Our college/career group had our senior pastor guest speaking last night. Can you guess what it was about? How to hear God. Then on top of it all, my girlfriend has been causing me to reevaluate the way I view my faith and God, and how Christianity can work. I think my pastor's talk last night worked really well to organize all the miscellaneous thoughts about the subject that have been swirling through my head over the past month or so. The single most important thing about hearing God is this: no ritual or process will teach you to hear God better; only learning His character will. In any relationship, mechanical procedures aren’t conducive to intimacy. It's the same with God. And I don't think the personhood of God can be found as a means to an end. If you go into it thinking, "I need to figure out X, therefore I need God to speak to me." than you are just using God as a tool to better your life. Your search for His will must be motivated by Love.

So how does one learn His character? How do you build a relationship with Him? Just like you would with anyone else. You spend time with Him. You talk to Him. You read what He wrote. And you listen. Here is where things get sticky though. How do you know the difference between God's voice and your inner dialogue - your own hopes and desires. Well, I've heard this analogy twice now from two sources… Imagine that your mind is an FM scanner. There are many radio waves blasting through your mind: (I'm making this part up; no one went this far with the analogy.) your flesh, your spirit, satan, God, and whatever else could be sending signals to you. Your flesh says things about your desires, what errands you have to do, how your foot itches, etc. Your spirit is probably broadcasting the hopes and godly desires that God has given you. But I think tuning into this frequency is not going to necessarily lead you to Gods will, as you can have an earnest heart after contradictory things. Satan's messages are usually going to be very close to truth, but with just enough lies to screw you up real good. (Now we are getting back to what I heard.) God's frequency is much lower, and longer than all the quick static pops that these other signals are. It is steady and peaceful. The problem comes with determining which station you are tuned into when you feel like you have received a direction while praying, because as finite mortals it's very hard for us to distinguish between the frequencies. So the only way we can learn if it's God we are hearing is to simply continue seeking Him. Trial and error. Keep making decisions as best you can based on what you think God has told you. Then look back at those decisions you made, and in retrospect you can usually tell if they were good or not. As you do this you will become better at honing in on that voice. This is obviously a long process. But again, any relationship takes time to build. Friendship does not come by formula, trust does simply happen when the proper trigger is pulled. This is why elders are so vital to young Christians. They have had more time in which to grow that relationship with God, and thus are better equipped to know His voice and guidance.

So here I am at a cross-road in my life. Desperately wanting some really solid direction… and all the messages I am receiving are telling me that I just need to move forward, make a decision, stop being paralyzed by the fear of screwing up… oh, but you might screw up. In other words, since it is incumbent upon me that I make a decision, and I don't have the experience to know for sure that God is who I'm hearing when I ask what I should do, my decision could be totally wrong. But I don't have a choice anymore. I can't just not act. I have temporized long enough.

My pastor proposed an interesting exercise. (He prefaced this by saying that any time you rely upon a technique, satan will always have a counter measure.) He says to prayerfully imagine that you have made a decision one way or another. Think about your initial reaction to it. (This reaction could be completely wrong.) Then, ask God to show you how you would look back on that decision 10 years down the road. Ask Him to show you things you may not have thought of. Since He is outside of time, He can do this, and inform you how your retrospective analysis would go. You may not get details, but you can get general impressions. After you explore one possibility for a while, try the other path and see what you discover. The details of this exercise are not clear to me. I imagine they would change a lot depending on what kind of decision you are making.

Beyond important decisions, getting to know God and recognizing His voice sounds like what I want. My pastor says he starts every day by taking a long walk with God. He also pointed out that prayer sometimes looks different than a lot of people imagine it looks. He says not to get down on yourself when you mind wanders, but to simply look at where it went and think if that may be where God wanted it to go. If you are distracted by a bird that reminds you of a time when you went camping with a friend, then you start to think about that friend… go with it. Pray for that friend. God designed our brains and knows how they work. It makes sense that His methods of direction often utilize the brain's natural disposition. It occurs to me that besides being a great way to "pray without ceasing." This low-key approach to prayer is also a great way to encourage us to think about all facets of life through the lens of our faith. Also, this is not THE correct way to pray. There are prayer warriors who are very focused and organized, and there are times when God calls us to disciplined times of prayer. But I think generally, we fail to spend the time we should with God because we see it as a separate time that precludes any other activity, so we become frustrated when we can't focus, or it is eating into time for other things. Yes, having a daily devotional time is very important, but we need to recognize that we are not supposed to divide our lives into "God Time" and "Non-God Time". "God Issues" and "Non-God Issues". That's what being in an intimate relationship is all about: sharing every part of our lives with someone else. And what better way to get to know someone than by sharing all of your thoughts, feelings, opinions, and time?

So what about those times when you can't seem to hear anything? When it feels like God has just let you go in the rat maze of your life with no directions whatsoever. One thing I've heard is that when God does clearly speak to you it is usually because something really scary or important is going to happen and you will need to have that word from God to sustain you through it. My dad told me about the time my Grandfather prayed for a man who had just died in an industrial accident and the guy was brought back to life. My dad said his father had been called to a 40-day fast just before it happened. Clearly it was a preparation for that event. I've read similar accounts in numerous books. Christ was told to fast in the wilderness for 40 days to prepare him for His time of temptation. So in a way, you can feel somewhat safe if God isn't directly giving you commands. Besides, I have the feeling that is not His preferred mode of relationship with us. He doesn’t want to drive us like a car. He gave us free will for a reason. He doesn’t like to manipulate, he likes to seduce. He wants us to search for His plan and be overjoyed when we find it. I think that is why He doesn’t tend to speak clearly to the spiritually immature. Only when our hearts are prepared to love His ways will he give us specific direction. When he knows that we will be excited about what He has in store for us no matter what it is. I feel like I'm at that place right now. I'm eagerly anticipating what it is He has in store. And I know it might look completely different than I expect, but I have learned to love His ways and know that they will be fruitful and blessed. So it's exiting to be getting all of this input about hearing His voice right now.

But I'm not hearing anything definite yet. So back to the question… What about those times. I have a theory on this. Or at least a parallel. It comes from my profession: game design. In many ways the role of the game designer is like that of God. (I'll use a lower-case G to make myself more comfortable with this analog.) The game designers has to have the trust of the gamer (the person playing the game) or little can be accomplished. Every game starts with heavy feedback for the player. Every new item they pick up will give them some sort of explanation or obvious advantage. In the same way, baby Christians receive a lot of feedback from God and his people (assuming they are attending a good church) as they take their first steps into the faith. Almost every time they read the Bible some new revelation will strike them. It's an exiting time of rapid growth. But just like in a video game, eventually the goodies start to become more scarce. The rewards less obvious. The hand-holding has to stop at some point. Paul describes this as moving from milk to meat. Game designers call it directed linier progression to free-form sandbox play patterns. A good designer won't let go of the player's hand until they think the player will be able to make good, informed decisions about what to do next. At that point the player is given their first real decision that will impact the game in some way. Should I buy the gun or the sword? Should I increase my speed or my strength? Should I upgrade my tiers or my engine? As the new Christian starts to come into their own, and begins to find the meat of the scripture, and the real meaning behind all the bumper sticker Christianeese slogans, they find themselves faced with some real decisions about how to live their lives. How to interact with other Christians. What their role in their church is. Suddenly it may seem like they have been cut loose and set adrift. But in reality it is a chance for them to start putting into practice the things that they have learned during their infancy. In games, this transition needs to be handled with finesse. Too much hand-holding and the game will get boring, but too much freedom too early and the player will feel overwhelmed. Likewise, God, as the ultimate designer, knows how to balance things. But I think the church may not be doing a good enough job in educating ourselves about this process. So many Christians feel lost and hopeless when there aren’t emotional fireworks going off in their walk of faith. But God always has a reason for the timing and the method of His communication. He uses scripture, people, events, etc. And if we are prayerfully considering what's going on He will show us what we need to see. This is where our faith comes in. In a game, the designer needs to build the player's trust in order to get them to fully engage in the game. The best example of this is delayed gratification. If the designer has done a good job, when a player is on a path that is fraught with peril and apparently goes no where, they will trust that there will be something worth-while at the end of that path. A new weapon, a bonus track to unlock, a new character, more health, etc. In the same way, I have seen in my Christian walk that God has been faithful in bringing new life to me after every ordeal I have come through. Every valley has held a treasure for me to discover. God's faithfulness is unfailing.

So what does this analogy do for me? It reminds me that I need to stay active, make decisions, and trust that since my heart is really after God, He will guide me through this whether I am 'hearing' Him or not. It also reminds me that I wish I had time to play video games again.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Reflections on my 30th birthday

Well, here it is. The big three-oh. It's funny but I was more freaked out by it six months ago than I am now. Of course, I was more freaked out by everything six months ago. I think the biggest fear of turning 30 was just the conceptual leap; the gulf it could create between me and my friends at church who are mostly in their low-to-mid twenties. Since I already don't quite fit in due to the kids and a former marriage, so that little extra push outside wasn't welcome. And also I thought there might be a chance that I would find a wife among that group. (Even though I was trying NOT to think that way.) But now I'm courting a 25 year old, and so that's just not an issue any more.

And of course there are the obligatory regrets about what I wasn't able to do in my twenties. Although, really, I guess I was pretty productive. I got a degree in Industrial Design. I built a good career, at one point attaining an art lead position in charge of a dozen people. I had two kids. I learned that I need to preface most of my ideas with "I think..." I learned that I hate living in Oklahoma.

But since I have a lot of BIG plans I hope to accomplish before I leave this place, it seems like I'm behind schedule. I guess I need to realize that it's all in God's hands and according to His timing.

I feel like I'm closing a chapter on my life. The 11 years of marriage and ignoring God is over. My winter of discontent seems to be coming to an end. I have new hope for the immediate future. Which is cool, because lately it's been hard to envision any joy coming my way soon.

I'm not getting that tattoo I was considering today. Too many things going on in my life to give me the time to design one I knew I'd be happy with for the rest of my life. Maybe later…

I guess overall it's quite a non-event. Well, I'm going to take my boys to Toys R Us and get a birthday present for myself that we can all enjoy. Maybe a remote control car or something.

I love the date my day of birth fell on… That's right. Four Twenty. Hitler's birthday. The Columbine school shootings. And the euphemism for marijuana. It's a good thing I'm a dope-smoking, neo-nazi, angry student with guns!

Monday, April 11, 2005

Wow

Over the past 3 weeks my relationship with a friend of mine has gone from 'really great friends' to courting and talking about wedding plans. How did this happen? When only 3 weeks ago I was still thinking I couldn't move past my ex-wife? I thought I had to wait for her to change her ways and come back. Because I thought that would be the ideal arrangement for my boys. But I think God has different plans. The ex is showing no signs of change, and now an amazing, godly woman wants to jump in the gap. And I'm left trying to reconcile my old position with this new event. Everything is just feeling so.. right. As though it was God-ordained. Let me express right now that I am terrified of attributing my feelings as God's direction. I am being VERY careful about that. So I'm trying to get a reading from other sources besides my own heart. Elders in my church, my parents, my kids, and of course, scripture. I'm praying hard that I would be guided in a way I can understand. I knew the signs to look for. I knew that if we are meant to be together there will be a harmony of occurrences. I knew first and foremost that my children would have to fall in love with her as much as I would. I knew I would get the blessing from my parents and hers. I knew our elders would approve and support us. I knew our relationship with God would take precedence over our relationship with each other. I knew we would agree on keeping ourselves physically chaste. Other clues I have figured would be there include being active in the church and respected by the elders. I assumed she would have to have a really great sense of humor, or there would be no way she could put up with me and the shenanigans in my life. Then there was the wish list. The ones I knew there would be no way in hell that any woman could have everything I need, PLUS these things. I wanted someone smart, fun-loving, easy-going, art-appreciative, musical, and of course pretty. I figured if I found a girl who had all the mandatory attributes she would surely be dumb, boring, high-strung, art-hating, anti-music, and of course ugly. Maybe it's the game designer in me that needs a sense of balance. You can't have a character that is strong, fast, and smart. You can only pick two. But no; she's got it all. Totally unbalanced from a game design perspective!

OK. So I've established that she has all the qualities I could ever want in a wife. But I haven't addressed my past assumptions and speculations. For instance, I was SURE that I could not trust myself to make a choice about marriage if I was in love at the time. And I guess I'm still standing by that. That's why I relying so heavily on the feedback of my church and family. So far, it has all been very positive. A few of her friends have expressed concern about her getting involved with a divorced guy with kids. Naturally. I've expressed concerns about that too. I told her there are other guys like me without the history. But she has a very good view about things of that sort. She says without my past, my kids, etc. I wouldn't be the man I am today. That is certainly true. It's amazing that God can use our own mistakes and failures to shape us into His image.

Anyway, let me try to stay on track here. First, my reasoning for giving up on my ex is that my kids (and I) would be better off in a complete family than waiting around for a mom that isn't showing any signs of coming back. Second, I admit I can't trust my own judgment on such an important life-matter that effects so many other people when I am under the influence of Eros. Therefore, I'm counting on God to work through others to stop me this if it isn't right. And I'm looking carefully and thoroughly. And now the part I'm still stuck on:

Matthew 5:

31 "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I say to you that every one who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, makes her an adulteress; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 9:

8 He said to them, "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery."

Nothing slits Eros' throat for me like the thought of adultery. Why did Jesus say this? Times were very different back then, and marriage was very different. Women were practically property, and needed to be protected from the nature of men. God didn't like the men abusing and discarding women. The New Testament is full of exhortations for men to treat their wives as Jesus does the church. That is to be willing to sacrifice anything for them, even their own lives. That's what drove me to stay in my horrible marriage. That's what drove me to try to wait for her to return. But the mistake I made in staying in the marriage was that there were two other lives directly impacted by that decision. They saw and heard things that little children should never have to. I pray every day that the dysfunction that they witnessed as small children will never settle in their hearts to manifest later. And I saw myself making the same mistake after the marriage. I'm waiting through some of the most important developmental years of their lives; keeping them in a three-wheeled family, and running myself into the ground time and time again.

So what is it about this relationship that turned me around? Well, I guess there are a couple of things. One of them was the process I've been going through over the past couple of months. My ex wanted a letter outlining what I thought would need to happen for her to come back. I've purposely taken a lot of time as I've worked on this letter. I've prayed heavily, and gotten feedback from my dad, uncle, elders, and even her dad. My first draft was a manifesto of sorts. A list of what I would never let happen again. I tried to smooth it out with a call to God, but it was just not right. Everyone who read it agreed that I needed to address the core problem more, and not sweat the other stuff, because if she turns back to Christ that stuff will fall in line naturally. My second letter I thought was great. Totally focused on what she needed to turn her life around. Then I showed it to her dad and he very, very strongly discouraged me from giving it to her. He said he has a very similar temperament as her, and he sees that it would only make her more stubborn and drive her further away. Beyond his input on the letter itself, our talk really sharpened a point that I had been trying to ignore for years. He kept saying, "If you really want this to happen, you'll…" If I really want it to happen… I've expressed before how little I really want this to happen. In fact, I really DON'T want this to happen. I've been acting on obligation for so long, (about 12 years now) that I just didn't consider listening to what my heart was calling me too. Or rather, what God was calling my heart towards. I always knew that God could call me to marry another woman, but didn't see how that could really happen. Anyway, I went back to the drawing board and my third revision of the letter was just a call to salvation, completely separate from me, and any chance at reconciliation. Finally, I had come to the point where I wasn't mingling my role as a husband, with my possible role as a tool for her to find God. Our remarriage does not have to be the logical conclusion of her salvation like I've been thinking for so long. Once that clicked into place for me I saw that God truly could have other plans for me and my children than the ones that I dreaded so fearfully.

So that led me to the point of being open to the possibility of romance again. But not the way I expected. I wasn't suddenly free to 'play the field' as it were. I was always confused by that thought… How does a divorced father of two go about looking for a wife, and mother for his kids? The timing of my new relationship solved that problem. I wasn't looking for anyone because I had just fallen in love. And this isn't the kind of 'love' that I've ever had before. I'm not questioning it, wondering if this is really what love is. This is simply undeniable. This relationship is fundamentally different than any relationship I've had before. It's not like I've loved other women 6, and her 9. It's just not on the same scale. It's not more; it's a new kind of thing I've never had. We have known each other for over half a year, and watched each other from a bit of a distance for that time. But over the past couple of months we have been slowly and naturally getting closer and closer. I started taking her to swing dancing, concerts, movies with the kids etc. (Sometimes with others, sometimes alone.) And we were just really good buddies. There was no pretence or pressure. We came together is such a natural way. Neither of us was trying to 'get' the other one. But finally, we realized what was happening and started investigating what it meant.

Besides that, I can't say enough how thrilled I am that we are both in total agreement about our physical relationship. No kissing. This has so many benefits. Firstly, since we are both waiting on God to confirm to us that we are meant to be together, it keeps our ears open to a "No". We want to have our experience together be positive regardless of our future callings. Secondly, it keeps us from letting the important aspects of a relationship slide, or problems getting smoothed over by physical intimacy and the accompanying hormones. I know that I love and appreciate her for who she is, not how she makes my body feel. It builds spiritual intimacy, rather than physical.

Matthew 6:

19 "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.

I am seeing this time before marriage as an investment into our eternal souls. Physical jollies are great and all, but they don't build unmarried people up. They don't improve the soul, the part of us that lasts forever. We won't be young and beautiful forever, but because we are building our relationship on the deeper aspects, when the flowers fade, the spirit of our romance will remain. She is so much more beautiful to me because I am seeing her heart. And it is a thing of incredible, delicate beauty. I get the same sense of the sublime when I see her spirit that I do when I see a mountain sunset or a bedewed spider web in the morning light. God surly pulled out all the stops when he created this woman. And when her body is old and frail I will still see that beauty, 30, 60, or 100 fold more as He blesses her with the fruits of the spirit. I'm seeing how my crush on 'That Darn Girl' was a deep-rooted desire to have a girl with these attributes in my life. God put those desires there, and it looks as though he special built a woman with all that goodness just for me. If this is God's will, then I have found just what I've wanted all my adult life. A woman who complements me spiritually, who will make a team for serving God with me. I am praying very hard for guidance right now. It's difficult for me to accept this because it seems too good to be true. But it could be that God will teach me that there are other sides to living for Him besides hardship.

Hebrews 12:

11 "No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening – it is painful! But afterward there will be a quiet harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way."

I HOPE!