Random Blog Clay Feet: 2012
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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Forty-one Years Ago

Forty-one years ago this morning was a significant day, a turning point in my life. I still remember it rather well because I had come to an impasse in my life, not only spiritually but emotionally as well. But a little background needs to be explained to make sense of that statement.

I grew up in a conservative religious environment in the sense that I had been led to believe in a very strict, arbitrary, demanding God who expected everyone to keep His rules perfectly or face punishing. Very likely this was because that was the way I was generally treated by my parents, particularly my father who was not adverse to using corporal punishment whenever he felt it might be useful to force me into more obedience. Thus my view of God increasingly was filled with fear and intimidation.

As I entered my teen years my heart began to rebel more and more against this kind of life. But at the same time my conscience had been trained to always be honest, to try to be good and to seek for holiness as far as I could figure out what that meant. I now realize that this is the double-mindedness that James speaks of in the Bible. And as I learned all too well, double-mindedness always leads to instability.

The religion of my childhood in many respects resembled the cultural religion of America in those days, a culture where authority demanded implicit, unquestioning obedience and every infraction of the law was met with stern retribution. But as I was approaching adulthood in my early teens things were changing in our country; the Vietnam war was raging and coming to a climax and young people both there and at home were chafing under the abuse of a country exploiting them and using them essentially as cannon fodder in a far away land.

Protests began to break out, but not just over a stupid war that was going nowhere but in reaction to increasingly abusive authority here at home. Hypocrisy was on the rise among the older generation and the youth were hungry for more authenticity, for something that addressed the real issues down inside instead of just repressing everything for the sake of keeping up appearances. Out of this environment the Hippie movement was born with a rather colorful history and mixed reviews.

Whatever you might think was going on with the Hippie movement (which was slightly before my time in some respects), it was truly a mix of reactions to the abuse of power, not only by the government but by religion and adults in general. Some of the young people in that movement were honestly seeking for real freedom, to explore uncharted waters not unlike Columbus who had 'discovered' America long ago, and they also wanted to a better love and learn to real. As with any revolution there were also those who took advantage of the uprisings to express their selfishness by exploiting others and causing havoc. But it cannot be denied that the repressive atmosphere of abuse by those in charge brought on this massive movement not unlike what we are seeing all throughout the Arab world today.

My own life was being lived out in an even more restricted, protected environment. I was carefully shielded from nearly all outside influences such as popular music, movies and most other cultural activities that were considered worldly in society. I am not saying that this was all bad but simply stating that this is what shaped my thinking and perceptions during my formative years. But because of the intensity of the pressure to conform to the rule of law both at home and in my church as well as in society at large, I found myself increasingly chafing under the pressure for conformity and started having my own urges to revolt myself.

As I mentioned previously, my conscience had been trained quite intently to act as a guard against my straying too far into off-limit activities. I had great ability to heap enormous amounts of guilt and shame on myself whenever I felt I had sinned. The problem was that I had very nebulous ideas about just what sin really was and this was part of what fueled my confusion and growing resentment against authority. My conscience had become very sensitive, but without experiencing real love I increasingly lived in growing terror of losing my soul if I did not 'confess' every last little 'sin' that might still be lurking in my past or present.

I came to believe from the teachings/threatenings of well-meaning religious instructors that God, who could see all things even in the deepest recesses of my soul, was always looking over my shoulder waiting to condemn me to burn in hell if I did not perfectly conform to every last requirement/demand expected of me. To make matters worse I never seemed to be able to determine just what demands were from God and which might just be petty demands of those in authority. For it was not unusual – in fact it was the popular method in even secular culture – to make up rules more for the convenience of those in charge than for the good of those under their authority.

So in many ways I entered my own 'Hippie movement' in my own way, but not necessarily at the same time as the one going on outside my home. And even though I did begin indulging in listening to forbidden music on a radio I discovered in my house, which raised the friction level between me and my parents significantly, the pop music I listened to was more reflective than instructive in my life.

During this period in my life I began to experience an internal conflict that I can only describe as resembling schizophrenia. Because of my very dark views of a demanding God waiting to punish me reinforced by a father who was very similar, and an overactive conscience that did its share of condemning me as well, I found myself in essence 'doing penance' that increasingly consumed more and more of my waking hours. During this period of time when I was around 11-13 I took on my first job as a paper-boy for a Chicago newspaper and suddenly had access to far more money that the pittance my parents had given me for an allowance each week. That gave me resources to do many more things but not necessarily all beneficial for me. But pervading my conscious mind through whatever activities I found myself involved in, and like a computer virus running behind the scenes consuming more and more of my mental CPU, was a mantra of sorts that ran over and over and over and became more and more obsessive and compulsive.

This virus that increasingly took up more and more of my waking moments was a cycle of confessing whatever violation or past sin I might be able to imagine or remember and begging God to forgive that sin so I would not face punishment for it. However, even this activity brought very little relief for I had no way of being sure that God had relented and chosen to wipe that sin off my records in heaven. Thus I would find myself repeating the same confessions again many times because I still wasn't sure if I had gotten it right and removed it from the list God was using against me for the day of Judgment.

This may sound very bizarre to some but may resonate a great deal with many others. Whatever the case, this was my situation and no one around me had any clue that this was what was going on inside my head nearly every moment I was awake. Things progressively got worse though, for my overactive conscience pushed me harder and harder to comply with the expectations of religion as I perceived them, which meant that I was also supposed to close my eyes, bow my head, kneel down and fold my hands whenever I prayed. But since this cycle of fearful, compulsive 'penance' was happening during many of my waking moments, increasingly it was impossible to do all of those things at the same time. That of course, brought up the potential that I was adding even more guilt to the list of sins I was trying to whittle down with all my frenzied, obsessive praying.

I can remember riding my bicycle through car traffic in town trying to recite my penance routines and feeling compelled to close my eyes in because I was praying but with dangerous results. Finally I had to just keep reciting my mantras without doing any of the outward physical requirements just to stay safe but in turn that only increased the weight of guilt I was already feeling. My condition could easily be compared to the situation of Christian in the story Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. He is described as having an incredibly heavy burden fastened on his back that he could not escape. That description of the Christian life truly resonated in many ways with my own journey toward God.

This obsessive-compulsive habit that was developing in my internal world finally became so disruptive that people must have begun to wonder about me, yet no one ever bothered to ask or to allow me the freedom to share my fears and confusion with them. The only thing I got from the adult world were more expectations and ever-increasing requirements that I needed to conform to in order to be accepted as well as prepare my life for heaven.

With this background explanation it can be more readily understood why I felt the way I did when I woke up on my sixteenth birthday and lay in bed pondering my predicament that cold morning. A number of things crossed my mind that began to inter-relate to each other. One thing was the popular notion that the age of sixteen may be some sort of magical transition point in life from which the expression “sixteen and never been kissed” emerged. And while it was true that I had never been kissed by a girl, being the pragmatic sort of mind I was, I rather disdained such notions. But that morning I began to ponder that just maybe there might be something significant about turning sixteen that was outside my frame of awareness. I began to wonder if something might potentially be different for me that day, something that might surprise me, that might cause me to take a different direction in my life. Little did I realize that I was indeed about to turn one of the most significant corners that would affect my journey for eternity.

As I lay there in bed pondering whether there was anything to this sixteen business or not, another thought began to emerge more forcefully from my heart. My resentment had been building up for years against my internal picture of God who demanded impossible levels of penance and expected me to live such a dysfunctional existence as I had been experiencing for several years. My heart was so suppressed and squashed by all this abusive internal frenzy that I was finally ready to consider throwing in the towel so to speak and giving up on all of it. Maybe this religion was too crazy for me, and certainly it was becoming clear that the direction I was heading was untenable. It was impossible to live much longer with this compulsive obsession sapping more and more of my energy and it was interfering with my relationships and even my ability to concentrate on normal activities. It was only increasing my levels of shame, guilt and fear rather than diminishing them and it was starting to become clear that this must not be the right road to heaven. The way things were going I would soon have a mental break-down rather than a breakthrough into holiness.

As I lay there and thought back over the past few years of my life in connection with this obsession, I decided to make what felt like a very dangerous decision that morning. In the light of the pain and dysfunction this obsession was bringing into my life, I decided that for at least that one day I was going to attempt to suppress this compulsive urge to confess and grovel every time it presented itself no matter how insistent it might feel. Only if I obviously committed some egregious sin would I choose to try to make it right, but for all the other real or imaginary sins that seemed to never go away anyway, I decided that for this day I was going to fight back and refuse to obey this internal dictator any longer.

As I made this decision I felt a threat emerging from the demon (I now see that is really what it was) that was driving me to live this way. I could hear him threaten that I would surely burn in hell if I didn't continue to obey this obsession. But in response I decided that it couldn't be much worse to burn in hell than the miserable existence I was already experiencing. And somewhere deep inside I felt just a flicker of hope suggesting that maybe, just maybe what I had been doing was not really God's plan after all. And if that was true then maybe this decision might possibly open me up to a better option than the one religion had produced in me thus far.

That day became one of the most significant turning points in my life up to that point. Because of my choice to begin to turn away from desperately dark pictures of God in my head and move toward a more healthy picture of Him, my life has been on a different track ever since. I am not suggesting in any way that it was the intention of my parents or religious guardians to lead me into such insanity. But nevertheless it was the product of a legalistic approach to religion that always results in malfunction and a loss of peace in the heart. And peace is one of the most important ingredients for a Christian to experience if they are to grow and thrive and mature.

As I thought back on this day that changed my life 41 years ago this morning, I couldn't help but feel again that I am in some ways continuing that choice again today. I find myself in the middle of even more intense questioning of my dark pictures of God, pictures that still pervade the thinking and teachings of most of those around me in religion even today. The same atmosphere of fear still pervades not only my own church but every brand of religion throughout the world to some extent. Only recently have I begun to discover that the real truth about God is even more radically beautiful than I could ever have dared to imagine that day I turned sixteen. Now here I am still processing and rejecting faulty opinions about God so many years later and wondering how much longer it will take before I can be free of the inhibitions and rebellion that all of those lies instilled into my psyche during those formative years.

I made a decision back in those days that I was going to take the harder road than many of my friends were choosing. Rather than throw out religion as being worthless or impossible or a fraud as many others chose to do, I decided that the real problem was that I didn't have a correct perception of what was really true about God or religion and that I needed to figure out what was really true in contrast to what I had been taught all my life that made me so terrified of God. That choice has shaped the rest of my life up to this day and continues to be the basis by which I live my life.

I am now more convinced than ever that the real problem, not only in my life but with all of us, is that we have grown up in an environment so saturated with lies about God that unless God intervenes to show our hearts the real truth about Him there is no hope of us every figuring it out. But on the other hand, if we allow Him enough respect to give Him a chance in our hearts, He will begin to share with us a love and will ravish our hearts in ways that cannot be matched by anything else we could imagine. The human heart was designed to be satisfied by only one thing, and that one thing is the passion of the God who created it to start with. But the thing that keeps us from embracing that love are the myriads of lies we still believe that prevent us from trusting Him with our hearts.

Religion has miserably failed to present the real truth about God, not just to the world but to its own adherents as well. Religion still insists that God operates primarily through laws and even so-called liberal theology is obsessed with resolving our legal standing with God. What I have been discovering is that God is far more intent on winning my respect and my affections than He is on me achieving perfect conformity to a list of demands. Trying to fulfill a list of rules actually diminishes my ability to love, yet love is the only thing that prepares my heart to live in His presence. The only way I can live in love is to lay aside my obsession with rules and first learn to appreciate the real truth about what He is really like in contrast to all the lies religion and/or culture has foisted on me. Then as I come to know Him more and more intimately my life will naturally begin to gravitate toward being like Him without me obsessing over whether I have offended Him or not.

I still have a long ways to go to get rid of the many lies that still lurk deep inside me and get triggered from time to time. But God is faithful and His love is everlasting which is the only thing I can depend on when it comes to my salvation. The more I focus on knowing who He really is the more I sense my own heart beginning to heal and to increase in its capacity to respond with reflective love back toward Him. And this, I am discovering, is the real preparation for heaven that my heart has been longing for all along.