Thursday, September 28, 2006

Daily Update

Weight: 225

Currently Reading (fiction): The Templar Legacy, Steve Berry.

Currently Reading (non-fiction): Walking the Bible, Bruce Feiler.

Currently Listening To: The Long Black Veil, Johnny Cash.

Rush Lyric of the Day: Truth is, after all, so poorly lit.

Hailey Update: Hailey is grounded today from TV again for throwing a fit last night and refusing to go to sleep. She was up until about 11:30. This is the 5th day in the last 8 that she has been grounded from TV. She’s also grounded tomorrow, but I have told her that I’ll reduce that if she behaves well today and goes to bed on time tonight. In addition to refusing to go to bed, she also shit in her pants about 5 times.

Sydney Update: Sydney is perfect.

School Update: Class on Tuesday was Medical Law and Ethics and it will be a bit more challenging than some of my other classes. There is also a project which we have to give a 10-minute presentation on. Wednesday’s class was Medical Terminology and it is basically just a lot of memorization of medical suffixes, prefixes, and root words, and learning how to put them together and recognize what terms mean by understanding their different parts. For instance, “anesthesiologist” literally means “one who specializes in no feeling or sensation.” This class is probably rather tedious and boring to most, but because of my love of words, I actually found it to be interesting, although it is a lot of information to ingest in a short time. I also was able to discover that the frequent eyelid twitches that I get (particularly when I’m stressed) are medically called “blepharospasms.” Literally, a spasm or twitch of the eyelid. So if you ever hear me say, “Oh God, I’m having a blepharospasm!” don’t freak out. It’s just a twitchy eyelid. Tonight’s class is the one that is supposedly the toughest in the program, Anatomy and Physiology, Level I.

Taking classes 4 nights a week, after working all day, is really hard. 14 hour days. I’ve been oversleeping every morning on accident, I guess because I’m just so worn out. It’ll be nice having Friday, Saturday, and Sunday free from school, but of course I’ll have to use those days to study and work on my projects, etc.

I was surprised, last night, to find that several people in the class clearly weren’t totally clear on what the terms “prefix” and “suffix” mean. How do you get through high school English classes without knowing those terms?

Today in History, September 28:

551 BCE – Confucius is born

58 BCE – Birth of Livia Drusilla, wife of Caesar Augustus.

48 BCE – Pompey is assassinated in Egypt on the orders of Pharaoh Ptolemy, after fleeing there from a military defeat by Julius Caesar.

235 – Death of Pope Pontianus, one of the earliest Christian popes of which anything is known.

935 – Wenceslaus I (aka “Good King Wenceslaus) is assassinated by his brother, hacked to death on the doorstep of a church.

1066 – William the Conqueror invades England, beginning the Norman Conquest.

1571 – Birth of Michelangelo.

1891 – Death of Herman Melville, who died of boredom while trying to read Moby Dick.

1946 – Birth of Jeffery Jones, aka Edward R. Rooney, Dean of Students.

1978 – Death of Pope John Paul I, after only 33 days as pope. Guess God messed up on that call.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Back to School

On Monday, September 25, 2006, I returned to the classroom for the first time in nine years.

If you had told me back in May of 1997, right after I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in History from the academically-oriented private institution Georgetown College, that I would be returning to school at age 31 to get an Associate’s degree in Radiographic Technology, I would have said you were crazy. I always envisioned the possibility of returning to school, but I envisioned graduate school in either History or English, pursuing a Ph.D for the purpose of teaching at the collegiate level. Indeed, at this time last year, I was in the long and tedious process of applying for graduate schools in Creative Writing, hoping ultimately to be able to teach college while I continued to pursue my dream of writing full time.

Throughout my twenties, I had always said I would return to school at age thirty if nothing was going on with my writing career by that time. I wanted to focus, during my twenties, on strengthening my writing and learning my craft, and I knew that if I went to school, I would have to put writing on the back burner.

Despite always saying I would return to school at thirty, I never actually thought it would happen. I did not think I would be in a financial position to ever quit my job, or reduce my hours, to attend graduate school. I figured I would be “stuck” by being in a job where I made too much money to afford to quit.

Well, all that was taken care of for me in December of 2004 when I lost my job...two months to the day before my 30th birthday. It seemed rather Providential. After the normal period of panic that follows such an event, I very quickly began to see the situation as one that was freeing me from a sort of corporate prison. No longer did I have to be chained to a desk, doing a job I was overqualified for and which I hated, working for mean-spirited, domineering, and incompetent bosses. I was now free to pursue my dreams, to go back to school, and to get my life back on track. I swore to myself that I would never again sit at a desk for eight hours a day.

I took the GRE and scored very well, and afterward, I spent some time determining what I wanted to pursue in graduate school – History or Creative Writing. I ultimately settled on Creative Writing and set about applying to schools of my choice.

I went back to work in the late summer of 2005, waiting tables with the hopes of getting a bartending job in the future. No desk work for me. No sir.

But, as they say, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

By December of 2005, my ex-wife and I had reconciled and gotten back together, and she was pregnant again. I was not making enough money waiting tables and had been unable to secure any positions as a bartender. So I decided to compromise on my No Desk Job rule and took a job as a Legal Assistant with a small law firm. The pay was not excellent, but it was better than I had been making waiting tables, and it was enough to get us by. After all, it was only going to be a 6-month job...by the summer, I would be moving, heading off to graduate school.

Winter turned to spring and after what seemed like ages, the graduate school letters began filtering in.

Rejection.

Rejection.

Rejection.

One after another: Dear Byron, Thank you for applying, blah blah blah blah blah. We wish you luck in your pathetic, ill-conceived writing career. Have a nice life, loser.

Needless to say, I was quite upset for a while when none of the schools accepted me. Instead of selling the house and moving, we would be staying put, with me spinning my wheels for at least another year. We seriously considered moving anyway, finding new jobs and going to Houston to be near my parents. But ultimately we decided that such a decision was not in our best interests, so we decided to stay in Lexington, and I started looking for better paying jobs.

Four months passed and I was (as usual) unable to find better work. I applied for everything from other paralegal jobs to driving a Scotts Lawn Service truck. I could not seem to get attention from anyone. The one job I did interview for (and probably could have gotten) was a job with a contractor working inside Home Depot, doing point of sale merchandising and inventory. It would have fit with my No Desk Job rule and it would have been a nice, solitary, supervise-yourself kind of job. I also could have gone into work as early as four o’clock in the morning, leaving by noon. Perfect for me.

Unfortunately, it only paid $10 per hour, so I could not afford to take it.

I was finally faced with the necessity of getting a second job in order to pay daycare expenses for our new baby.

Around this same time, I began kicking around other options for my future. I basically had four choices: 1) Continue working as a paralegal, hoping to get some experience and move into a better paying law firm; 2) Keep searching for better paying jobs in different industries; 3) Apply again for graduate school and hope to start in 2007; or 4) Look into the option of attending a community college and getting certified to become a radiographer.

Several of my family members and friends had told me a number of times about Radiography. The job market is good, the pay is excellent, the health insurance is great, and there is no ball and chain connecting you to a cubicle desk for eight hours. It also offered a way to work with people in need and to help people – something that has become increasingly important to me in the last few years. It all sounded pretty good to me.

I was very hesitant, however, to make the step. For one thing, I needed to work a second job in order to pay my bills. Working a full-time job, a part-time job, and going to school three or four nights a week just was not possible. Furthermore, I felt nervous about the possibility of taking on an additional $40,000 in school loan debt, not to mention the “what if” scenarios surrounding whether or not I would ultimately like the job. I felt (and feel) certain that it is a job I would like, but you can never know for sure until you get into something. There was also still the question of whether or not I wanted to go to graduate school and teach college.

I finally decided that teaching college was not something I wanted to do. Students, papers, lectures, grading homework and tests, reading and evaluating student writing, tenure requirements...none of that sounded very appealing to me anymore. Where would I find time to do my own creative writing if I was busy teaching and guiding others all the time? It began to seem that Radiography would provide me the perfect situation – good pay, good insurance, strong job market, no desk or cubicle, and the free time outside of work to pursue my writing career.

So I finally set my fears and inhibitions aside and met with an admissions counselor at a local community college. My parents chipped in and agreed to help out with the daycare expenses. As such, I have enrolled in the Limited Medical Radiography program, which is a sort of precursor to the Radiologic Technology program. The LMR program takes five quarters and certifies you to be an X-ray technician in doctor’s offices and urgent treatment centers. If you choose to continue on into the Rad Tech program, you take an additional five or six quarters of classes and get an Associate’s degree, certifying you to administer digital scans such as MRI’s, CT Scans, and mammograms. The digital scans are where the money is.

I personally am hoping for a job working every day with Women’s Breasts.

I feel excited about having finally made the decision to do this, and I feel excited about being qualified to do a certain kind of job that most people cannot do. For so many years I have searched for jobs, feeling overqualified for everything, but not skilled at anything. It is a sad fact that one can have a college degree in this society but still have to go back to school to get an Associate’s degree just so they can find a job that pays well and does not make them miserable. I realize I made the conscious choice to major in a non-job-friendly field like History. But, at the time, I was assuming I would go to graduate school. I made the best choice I could make with the information I had at the time.

My first class experience in nine years was an interesting one. For starters, I was the only man in the classroom. The ages ranged from a group of young women in their early twenties to a couple of middle-aged women. The lecture consisted of a PowerPoint presentation where the instructor scrolled through various slides and read them more or less verbatim, offering a few comments here and there. We copied down what was on the screen.

If the presentation was less than stellar, the students (at least some of them) were even worse. One openly whined when she discovered we were expected to take notes (“You mean we gotta take notes??”), and several others seemed quite put out that we were having to write things down which may not “be on the test.” Another student (it might have been the same one who complained about having to take notes) asked whether the test consisted of only items in the notes, or if we would “have to read the book and stuff” too. Apparently, she did not want anything like reading to stand in the way of her education.

By the end of class, the instructor basically told us what the four “short answer” questions would be on the test, and told us the direct answers to those questions. She then quizzed us on a sampling of the “multiple choice” and “true and false” questions from the test. They consisted of questions like, “Normal temperature for an adult is a) 99.2, b) 96.4, c) 98.6, or d) 97.8.” Some were a bit more difficult than that, but all were taken directly from the notes we had just gone over in class.

The test is next Monday.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Daily Update

Weight: 226

Currently Reading (fiction): The Templar Legacy, Steve Berry. Yet another Da Vinci Code knock off, and uncannily similar to Raymond Khoury’s The Last Templar, which was published at practically the same time. These two books not only have the same basic plot (modern academics searching for ancient Templar knowledge/artifacts with a group of crazed bad guys trying to beat them to it), but the two books even use the same opening quote, by Pope Leo X...“It has served us well, this myth of Christ.”

Currently Reading (non-fiction): Walking the Bible, Bruce Feiler.

Currently Listening To: The copier running.

Rush Lyric of the Day: Sliding back to consciousness, the coldness grips my skin.

Hailey Update: She told us last night that the reason she hasn’t been doing her schoolwork while at school is because she is afraid people will say “Good job.” So rather than draw attention to herself by doing her work, she prefers to just not do it.

School Update: I met with an admissions counselor at Spencerian last night, and am going to start taking classes in Radiology Technology starting on Tuesday. I should have my X-ray tech license by next fall, which will allow me to work in doctor’s offices or urgent treatment centers, doing x-rays, and at that time I can roll over into the digital scanning program, which will take an additional 15 months. When I’m through with that, I will be able to work in hospitals and clinics doing things like MRI’s, CT scans, and mammograms. I’m intimidated by all this, but I’m also excited. I think that this is something that I will enjoy, and it will give me job security for the rest of my career, as well as good money.

Money Update: Please make checks out in $1,000 intervals, made payable to me.

Lake Update: We went to the lake this weekend and stayed at the same house where we stayed back in August. There was very nice weather this time around (unlike last time, when it rained), and the temperature was perfect. We got out on the lake and also had a nice time back at the house. I got a lot of reading done while in the hot tub. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my camera, so I didn’t get any nice pictures.

Today in History, September 20:

1187 – The Siege of Jerusalem begins, in which Saladin recaptures Jerusalem for the Arabs. Jesus is pissed. Muhammed is happy.

1378 – The Western Schism begins in the Catholic Church when cardinals opposed to the new Roman Pope Urban VI elect Cardinal Robert of Geneva as Clement VII, based on Avignon, France. Clement is considered an anti-pope (which is not to be confused with “anti-poop” which refers to Immodium AD).

1486 – Birth of Prince Arthur, eldest son of Henry VIII. If not for his untimely death in 1502, there never would have been a succession crisis following Henry VIII’s death, and Queen Elizabeth would never have taken the throne.

1519 – Ferdinand Magellan embarks on his circumnavigation of the globe, leaving out of the same southern Spanish town that Columbus had left from on his third trip across the Atlantic (which is sometimes referred to in academic circles as Columbus’s Third Trip To Go Scare Up Some New World Tail).

1881 – Chester A. Arthur is sworn in as the 21st president of the United States, following the death the previous day of James Garfield from a July gunshot wound that had never healed.

1939 – A gunner inside an RAF Fairey Battle bomber shoots down a Messerschmitt BF 109, recording the RAF’s first aerial victory in World War II.

1967 – Birth of twins Gunnar and Matthew Nelson, who single-handedly tried to destroy rock music in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s by forming a “band” and calling what they did “music.”

1973 – Billie Jean King beats Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes tennis match in Houston, Texas.

1973 – On the same day that Billie Jean beat Bobby, Jim Croce died in a plane crash north of Houston, in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

1993 – Death of Erich Hartmann, The Blonde Knight of Germany, who shot down a record 352 aircraft in World War II as a fighter pilot. He was shot down himself 14 times, but was never injured and was never forced to bail out. When asked what he was most proud of, as a fighter pilot, he replied that it was not his victories or his ability to escape injury, but rather the fact that he never lost a wingman. On the day he recorded his 300th victory, he shot down 11 total planes. He was one of only 27 Germans in World War II to receive the diamonds to his Knight’s Cross.

1998 – Cal Ripken, Jr. takes a voluntary day off after playing in 2,632 consecutive games.

Friday, September 08, 2006

My Spritual Journey: A Testimony

I was born into a Christian family of the Southern Baptist tradition. My father was a church deacon, like his father before him. My father’s brother was a Southern Baptist preacher (now retired). We said a blessing before our meals, remembered every Christmas that Jesus was the Reason for the Season, and went to church twice on Sundays and then again on Wednesday. My parents both sang in the choir at church, were involved in “visitation” – which was a Tuesday night event in which church volunteers went to the homes of recent church visitors as well as the elderly and infirm – and my father served for a year or two as Sunday School Director of our rather large downtown church.

Our Sundays revolved entirely around church. We went to the early service, which started at 8:30, followed by an hour of Sunday School. Then we waited for my father to make his morning announcement on Sunday School attendance figures at the beginning of the 11:00 service, before finally going home for the afternoon. We were back by 4:30 or 5:00 for Church Training (a less formal evening version of Sunday School), and then the Sunday evening service. Slacks, dress shirts, and ties were required for the morning, but shorts and casual clothes could be worn in the evening.

I officially accepted Jesus into my heart when I was 9 or 10 years old, and was subsequently baptized.

In addition to the traditional Sunday School, Church Training, and Sunday services, I was involved in R.A.’s (Royal Ambassadors), which was a program for boys only, teaching boys how to be active and vibrant Christian young men. The female counterpart to R.A.’s was G.A.’s – which stood for what now seems like the rather Freudian moniker Girls in Action. R.A.’s and G.A.’s met on Wednesday nights.

Additionally, I was involved in Bible Drill. Bible Drill was a group that practiced knowledge about the bible, and competed on such topics as quoting bible verses, familiarity with bible stories, and speedily finding passages and books in the bible. I was the Bible Drill champion for my church and competed at the state Bible Drill competition, where I was defeated in the second round.

In addition to involvement in church, I attended Christian schools. From 1st grade through 5th grade, I attended Beuchel Christian School (which was renamed Alliance Christian Academy when I was in 3rd grade), and then Highview Baptist School from 6th to 7th grade. As I did at church, I competed in school sponsored Bible Drills, and was the undisputed champion.

We moved to Cincinnati in the summer of 1988, between my 7th and 8th grade years at school. Our first task, after securing a place to live, was to find “a church home.” We attended one church very close to our house for several weeks, but ultimately decided on a church that was some twenty minutes away, but which we felt was better suited to us. Our routine of church twice on Sundays and once on Wednesdays remained the same, and my father was again elected as a deacon, and my parents joined the choir.

As I moved into high school, I became very involved in the church youth group, participating not only in youth activities, but also in the youth choir and the youth handbell choir. Wednesday nights included handbell practice and participation in “HSBYM’s,” which stood for High School Baptist Young Men. The high school girls had their own version, called Acteens. HSBYM’s and Acteens were the high school version of the aforementioned G.A.’s and R.A.’s. When we did activities away from church, they were usually associated with HSBYM’s or Acteens (the girls, for instance, might go to the mall for a day of shopping, while the boys went on a weekend camping trip).

In the summers, the youth group would take a week-long trip of some type, either to do mission work such as “backyard bible clubs” in areas of the United States that needed witnessing, or we would attend a week-long, youth-oriented spiritual camp/retreat, sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention, called Centrifuge. During my years in the youth group, we did mission work in Nashua, New Hampshire and Gaylord, Michigan. We also attended Centrifuge camps in Ridgecrest, North Carolina and Gulfport, Mississippi. I have very, very good memories from all of these trips (except for Nashua – I was unable to attend that trip due to a scheduled family vacation).

In high school, all my best friends were from my church. When I went out, it was with friends from church. When I had sleepovers, or camping trips, it involved groups from church. When I talked to my friends on the phone, it was friends from church. When I went to Friday night football games, it was with friends from church. My girlfriend, who is now my wife, also came from my church, and we began dating in 10th grade.

I was basically a good kid. I did not drink, smoke, go to parties, or do illegal drugs. I never had sex until I was married. I never got a speeding ticket or got arrested for anything. I got along fairly well with my parents, and rarely got into trouble at school.

My girlfriend’s parents had both attended Georgetown College, in Georgetown, Kentucky. Georgetown is a private, Southern Baptist school, very familiar to Baptists in Kentucky and the surrounding states. Since her parents had gone there, my girlfriend planned on going there as well. As such, I decided to go there too, so we could stay close together.

While at Georgetown, my girlfriend and I were involved in the Baptist Student Union, I played guitar for a Christian-oriented rock band (which played mainly in churches and Christian-oriented coffee shops), and I was involved in a local fraternity/social organization that was not Greek, but was instead a social organization for men, focusing on Academics, Brotherhood, and Christianity. We were regular attendees at the weekly student-led worship hour called Campus Praise, and I was involved from time to time with Campus Crusade for Christ and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

After college, my girlfriend and I married, and, living in Georgetown, we began attending the Baptist church we had sometimes frequented as students. My wife began working there as a Sunday School teacher, and I got involved as a leader in the youth group, specifically leading music for the youth group activities. Later, after moving to Lexington and switching to a Baptist church in Lexington, we got involved in an adult Sunday School class, and I played guitar in the morning service band.

I can remember questioning aspects of my belief system as early as 7 or 8 years old. It first began in the form of a confusing fear about my concepts of heaven. I did not understand the emotion at the time (indeed, I did not finally put it together until just a few years ago), but when I would contemplate living forever in heaven, on streets of gold lined with mansions, God on his throne, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit at his side, it gave me an unnatural sense of fear. I would dwell on the last verse of the familiar hymn Amazing Grace: When we’ve been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we first begun. I would dwell on this phrase and try to imagine living in heaven for 10,000 years, ten thousand years, and still being just as young, vibrant, and happy at the end as I had been at the beginning. And then starting over and going another 10,000 years. And then another, and another. On into infinity.

When I would contemplate these things at a young age, it would fill me with great dread. At the time, I did not know why. Now I do. It was not because I feared God would be angry with me because I was a sinner – nothing like that. No, I believe the fear was there because, though my young mind could not put voice to it, I understood on a subconscious and intellectual level that the traditional Baptist concept of heaven was absurd. And that subconscious knowledge terrified me because it tore at the very foundations of the belief system my parents had taught me.

Again, these are things I understand now...at the time, and indeed throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I never understood why the concept of eternal life scared me.

In high school, I remember feeling conflicted about my traditional belief in a six-day creation and my emerging understanding of evolution. My church, and my upbringing, taught me that evolution was a lie, but I began to feel that this was not a valid belief.

About 10th or 11th grade, I remember having an argument one Sunday morning in Sunday School. Our teacher was a man who had become a Christian as an adult, and, like so many who “find God” in adulthood, he was quite conservative and closed-minded. A friend of mine and I were arguing (actually, it was more my friend) that there was no reason to assume evolution could not have been God’s mechanism for creation. You would have thought we had just suggested that Jesus did not really die on the cross. We were informed by this teacher – someone whom I respected, liked, and looked up to quite a bit – that evolution is an atheist lie, Creation as described in the bible is true, and we should never, ever, ever consider evolution to be anything more than the devil’s attempt to sway us from our faith.

Despite this one Sunday School teacher, my church was rather progressive and moderate (at least, in comparison to other Baptist churches), and Georgetown College was (and is) a moderate-to-liberal private school. My parents had been stricter when my sister and I were young, but by high school they had loosened up considerably. We were never disallowed to see R-rated movies or watch as much television as we wanted, we had the freedom to listen to whatever music we wanted and to go out with our friends. We had a normal and happy childhood.

In college, I began to become much more open-minded, as is typical of a lot of people. When I was younger, I had looked down on those who did not go to church, or those who drank or liked to party. I become a lot less judgmental as a result of my college years, and I also began to see religion a bit more clearly, as the haze of childhood indoctrination began to clear. In religion classes I first learned about, and was fascinated by, the existence of the Nag Hammadi texts – the so-called Gnostic Gospels – those early Christian texts which were ultimately rejected in the 4th century for inclusion in the Christian bible.

But aside from learning about other ideas within Christianity, becoming less judgmental, and beginning to develop my intellectual abilities, college did not really change me much in terms of my religious beliefs. I still believed that Jesus was God’s divine son, born of a virgin, that he suffered and died on the cross for my sins, and was raised on the third day so that I might live eternally if I accepted the gift of grace.

It was not until I became an adult, got out into the “real” world of jobs and marriage and children, that I began to truly question my beliefs. I began to wonder about things such as the formation of the bible, why certain books were chosen and others were rejected, and what was contained in those other books. I began, especially, to feel conflicted about prayer.

I had always been a person who prayed a lot. I did not feel comfortable going to bed unless I had said my nightly prayer. I had relied on prayer my entire life during times of struggle and fear. I had always had a very strong belief that the reason I was healthy, financially stable, and had a wonderful and healthy family was because I had prayed for those things. I felt that if I missed a nightly or daily prayer, something tragic might happen because I would not have God’s special protection on me and my family. To stave this off, I occasionally prayed for good health and safekeeping, not just for the particular day in question, but for the “months and weeks ahead.” That way, if I missed a day, I was still covered.

But as I got into my mid-20’s, much of what I had always lived by, regarding prayer, began to crumble. It was not that tragedies began to befall me despite my prayers, but I simply started being unable to reconcile my growing intellectualism, rationality, and questioning nature with my traditional ideas about prayer. I began to wonder if my “blessings” in life really had anything to do with God, and were not instead just good luck. Why would God, after all, bless me, but not bless others? Why did I have a wonderful family, grow up with plenty of money, have a good job, a nice house, two cars, and plenty of food to eat, while others had abusive parents, cheating spouses, and ratholes for homes? Why did God bless me with good health, but other people keeled over from heart attacks? Why did God have a plan for my life, to make me successful and happy, when so many other people were failures and unhappy? And if God had a plan for my life, and for everyone’s life, how could you explain people who died young, before ever accomplishing anything? The little boy I knew in first grade who had cancer and may have later died (I never knew if he died or not, but he was no longer around after 1st grade)...was God’s “plan” for his life to get cancer at age 6 and die?

I began to question if what I perceived as “answered prayer” was really answered prayer at all, and not just coincidence. Why, when good things happened, did I attribute it to God, but when bad things happened, I argued that it was not God’s fault – that “bad things happen to good people”? If God is capable of answering prayers, but just chooses not to most of the time, what kind of God is he? If God is capable of stopping natural disasters, but chooses not to, what kind of God is he? If God is capable of curing sick children, and chooses not to, what kind of God is he? And when a sick child does get cured, and we attribute it to God’s power or to answered prayers, are we suggesting that God chooses to cure some sick children and not others? If I survive a tornado, and someone else dies, does that mean God wanted me to live but did not care about the other person? Yet, in society, we do this and hear this sort of thing all the time. “God was really watching out for me during that car wreck,” and “I just want to thank God for this award,” and “God really helped me during that game.”

These sorts of questions began to plague my consciousness. I felt I simply could not reconcile these traditional concepts of prayer with what I knew to be true about the world and reality. I began to see the hypocrisy in religious circles of attributing good things to the power of prayer, and deflecting all the bad things with platitudes. If God is responsible for curing one cancer patient, then he must also be responsible for not curing another patient and allowing them, instead, to die. You cannot have it both ways. I began to see that those diseases and illnesses that God always seemed to cure were the diseases and illnesses that modern medicine was able to cure. God never seems to miraculously cure a quadriplegic, for instance, or someone suffering from Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Cerebral Palsy, or AIDS. If God is responsible for the cancer patient who survives, or the gravely injured car accident victim who manages to recover, or the stroke patient who returns to full functionality, then why does he fail to cure any patients with chronic, incurable diseases? Again, only those diseases which modern medicine can cure are ever “cured” by God.

The obvious answer to this conundrum is that God is not involved in the healing process at all. The healing process, instead, is based on modern medicine, good health care, genetic make-up, mental and emotional stability, and the nature of the disease itself. Even when patients seemingly make “miraculous recoveries” from illnesses or diseases from which there seemed no hope, it is always a disease that is curable to start with. It’s never the Lou Gherig’s Disease patient, or the AIDS patient, or the cirrhosis patient, or the patient with black lung. We never see miraculous recoveries from blindness, deafness, AIDS, Multiple Sclerosis, or Diabetes. Is God prejudiced against people with those diseases? If God is involved in the healing process, why do not we see miraculous recoveries from diseases like that? It must be that God is not involved in the process at all. Instead it is a combination of drugs, treatment, emotional and biological make-up, and the nature of the disease itself.

With these sorts of issues and questions floating around inside my head for a number of years, I began to see other problems with my traditional concepts of God. Why is the God of the New Testament so incredibly different than the God of the Old Testament? In the New Testament, we see a God of love, compassion, mercy, grace, and caring. Indeed, in modern Christian circles, this is the concept of God that most of us have. Yet, the God of the Old Testament was frequently angry, jealous, capricious, petty, concerned with only his own chosen race of people, diabolical, and even murderous. If God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, as is frequently stated in Christian circles, then why did he change so drastically from the Old to the New Testament? Did God change, or did our concept of God change?

In the Old Testament, God does some pretty despicable things. His actions in the various famous stories of the Old Testament – such as the Exodus and the destruction of Jericho – are frequently downright evil. In the story of the Exodus, God uses Moses to rain down plague after plague on the population of Egypt. The Pharaoh continually agrees to let the Hebrews go, but then always “hardens his heart” before it actually happens. So then God sends more plagues. Exodus 10, verses 1 and 2, says the following:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these miraculous signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the LORD.”

This passage makes it clear that God actually took Pharaoh’s free will away, and hardened his heart, so that he could continue to rain plagues on the innocent people of Egypt, in order to perform signs for future generations of Hebrews. Time and time again in the story of the plagues, the text says that “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Pharaoh, clearly, had no choice in the matter regarding his actions. He was merely the puppet of an angry God, bent on proving a point.

And it does not stop there, of course. The final plague is the most diabolical of all. Celebrated by Jews to this day, and also an integral part of the Christian story, Passover commemorates when God went through Egypt and slaughtered Egyptian babies en masse, sparing the Jewish babies. Do we really worship a God who murders babies? Does the God of love, compassion, and kindness murder innocent children by the tens of thousands?

Finally, God tops off his diabolical deeds by “hardening Pharaoh’s heart” again and causing Pharaoh to send his army out after the fleeing Israelites. Moses parts the Red Sea, the Hebrews go through, and then just as Pharaoh’s army follows them, the sea rushes back in, drowning them all.

God is love, God is compassion, God is kindness. Unless you are an Egyptian. Then God is on a level with Hitler, Stalin, or Vlad the Impaler.

In this story, God takes away Pharaoh’s free will, forces him to oppress the Israelites, and then punishes him for that oppression by sending plague upon plague against the general population, culminating with the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent children, and the drowning of an entire army of soldiers.

Praise God!

As if that is not already enough, as we move on in the Old Testament to the story of Jericho, we have a story where God makes one army defeat another army (killing thousands in the process), and God actually suspends the laws of nature by making the “sun stand still in the sky” so that Joshua and his army can have more daylight by which to slaughter the inhabitants of Jericho (and let’s not even discuss the mistake in assuming the sun is moving in the sky at all...clearly the writer of this story believed the earth was fixed in space, with the heavens rotating around it). God allows the army of the Israelites to defeat the much stronger army of Jericho, and overrun the city. God had promised the city to the Israelites, so the people who were already there were just, apparently, out of luck.

Events like this go on and on. Elijah is given the responsibility of slaughtering the prophets of Baal; the entire cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed, with all the inhabitants, including the children; God routinely afflicts people – even wayward Israelites – with plagues and death for committing various sins.

As I looked at and considered all these things, I began to question if this is the kind of God I really want to worship.

And what about the New Testament? It is rather disturbing that in order to save us all from our sins, God required the sacrifice of his son, Jesus. It is reminiscent of ancient death cults whose gods required blood and human flesh. We complete that bizarre tradition by “eating the flesh and drinking the blood” every week in our Lord’s Supper ritual. If God wanted to save the world from its sins, why did Jesus have to die? If God is all-powerful, could he not just wave his hand and make it be so? The death of Jesus seems sort of unnecessary. We are taught that God wants everyone to be saved, and that God loves everyone equally. If this is true, why the shenanigans with Jesus? Why not just say, “Everyone’s saved!” and be done with it? By requiring Jesus’s death, and then requiring us to “accept Jesus,” God is, in fact, ensuring that the majority of people on earth will not get to heaven. That does not seem like the action of an all-loving God, who wants to spend eternity in heaven with everyone.

As I struggled with these thoughts and doubts, I felt very conflicted inside. I felt like I was “losing my faith” or “losing my salvation” and I felt very scared to face a life without the comforting beliefs of my childhood. But much as I wanted those beliefs, I could not make myself believe something that I was rationally and logically unable to believe. Believing in Santa Claus would be wonderful, but what adult can believe in Santa Claus? In fact, it would seem that the Santa Claus idea is really just “God for kids.” An all loving, all seeing, immortal father figure, who rewards our good behavior. As we grow up, we sort of “graduate” from Santa Claus to God. But we think Santa Claus is just a myth, while simultaneously believing whole-heartedly in God, even though there is not much difference between the two, when you strip away all the meat.

When I got divorced, these conflicting feelings only got worse. I feared I was becoming an atheist, even against my will. I did not want to be an atheist, but I felt that I could not believe in a God who seemed so capricious, so prejudiced, so murderous and evil, so unpredictable, so utterly silent, and so completely unreachable. Nothing in my traditional background seemed to make sense anymore. Virgins do not give birth, people do come back to life after dying and beginning to rot in the tomb, and God cannot be the God of love, compassion, and kindness if he has really done all the terrible things attributed to him in the bible.

And the typical platitudes handed out by the church, such as “God works in mysterious ways,” “Bad things happen to good people,” and “We just cannot know the answers until we get to heaven,” did not work for me anymore.

I was at a spiritual crossroads.

I could either reject God all together, or I could begin to redefine my understanding of what God was, what God did, and how a concept of God was applicable to my life.

I began reading a lot of books on biblical scholarship. I read books by biblical scholars like Elaine Pagels and Marcus Borg. I read books by historians like Charles Freeman. I read books by theologians like the Reverend John Shelby Spong. But I did not limit my reading to only the progressives and academics. I read The Case for Christ, by evangelical preacher Lee Strobel. I read The Purpose-Driven Life, by traditionalist, and mega-church pastor, Rich Warren. I read Velvet Elvis, by the moderate Rob Bell, pastor of a large nondenominational church in Michigan. And I read books by Christian writers Anne Lamott and Donald Miller.

I also branched out into other religious traditions. I read books on Islam, Jewish Mysticism, and quite a few on Buddhism. I studied books comparing the teachings of Jesus to the teachings of Buddha. I delved into the Gnostic Gospels, reading the various different interpretations of Jesus’s life that existed in the first few centuries after his death. (I was surprised to discover that Gnostic beliefs and congregations were far more widespread in the first three centuries after Jesus’s death than Orthodoxy. It was not until Orthodoxy got into the pants of Constantine in the early 300’s that Orthodox interpretations of Jesus’s life became the mainstream version of events that we know today.)

Throughout this period of heavy religious-oriented reading (which continues to this day), I began to develop a new kind of spirituality, and new understanding of God.

Where before I had been conflicted, confused, angry, sad, and scared, I now began to develop a new peace with God, and with my spiritual beliefs. Atheism no longer loomed as a specter at the end of my spiritual journey. Instead, I found new life, and a new path, through a new understanding of God, Jesus, and the nature of the sacred.

I came to view God not as the Big Man in the Sky of traditional Christianity, but as the very essence of life, love, and being. God is the energy behind the emotion we call love, the driving force that breathes life into the world, and the ground of all being. God is not a theistic, supernatural entity, living up in the sky somewhere, intervening at his whim in affairs on earth. God is within us, all around us, an integral part of our very existence. We are part of God, and God is part of us. And when we begin to seek God, to explore the spiritual side of ourselves, we can awaken to this God-nature within us. We are not God, but we are a part of God. Just as water is the ground of being for a wave, God is the ground of our being. And our lives, like the wave, are merely a manifestation of God’s presence.

Like water to the wave, the core of our being transcends the boundaries of birth and death. I do believe in life after death, although not the traditional Christian concepts of a heaven with mansion-lined golden streets for the good people, and a hell of eternal fire and torment for the bad people. I believe that our souls, perhaps our consciousness, will live on in some way, though I cannot describe how.

I do not believe that Jesus was the divine Son of God, or God in the flesh. I believe Jesus was fully human, conceived by a man and a woman, and born into a normal 1st century Jewish family. I believe he grew to become an alternate wisdom teacher, faith healer, and an activist for socio-religious change in his society. I do not believe he was trying to invent a new religion, nor do I believe that he likely ever made any claims of divinity. He may have used Jewish messianic language to refer to himself, but not in the sense of being God’s son and coming to earth to save sinners.

I do believe Jesus had a unique capacity to love and to give himself away. I believe he was arrested and brought to trial for stirring up dissent and angering the religious powers that be, and I believe his episode in the temple where he ousted the moneychangers was probably used by his enemies in order to have legal reasons to imprison him. I think it is possible he may have been trying to get arrested, without realizing it would end in execution. Once execution became eminent, I believe that he faced it with dignity and grace, and I believe he was, indeed, willing to die for his message.

I do not believe that Jesus was raised from the dead after he died, at least not physically. I believe in a resurrection of the spirit – the resurrection as a metaphorical tool to describe how the power of Jesus’s teachings transcends the boundaries of birth and death.

I believe the miraculous and divine language attributed to Jesus in the bible is the result of a growing mythology surrounding Jesus in the decades after his death, as well as later additions to the original texts by scribes and later writers. Following his unexpected and tragic death, I believe Jesus’s followers were seeking to understand the greater meaning of his life and what it meant for their lives, and I believe they drew on distinctly Jewish understandings of spirituality to form the basic theology that would become Christianity (the idea of a sacrificial lamb, being “washed in the blood” and cleansed of sin, and so on).

I come to God through the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and through the background of the Christian tradition. I find the essence of love, the essence of life, and the ground of all being within the life of Jesus of Nazareth. If I had to label myself, I would call myself a progressive Buddhist Christian. I practice Christianity flavored with the meditative tradition of Buddhism. I believe that Jesus of Nazareth was awake in God in a unique and powerful way. I believe that Jesus expressed God through loving completely and unconditionally and bringing life to those he came in contact with. “I come not to condemn the world,” Jesus said, “but to save it.” He also said, “I have come so that you may have life, and have it more abundantly.” Through the teachings and life of Jesus, I am encouraged to love with the core of my being, to give myself away to others, to live my life to the fullest in every moment, and to be all that I can be. When I do those things, I am communing with God.

I practice Buddhist meditation as a way to open my mind, release myself from common but faulty notions of self and materialism, and as a way to touch the transcendence of God. I believe meditation is spiritually and physically healthy, and I believe it leads to a better ability to be compassionate, loving, and in tune with the essence of God.

While I come to God through Jesus and the tradition of Christianity, I do not believe that Jesus or the Christian tradition is the only pathway to God. I believe that all religions are pointing to the same goal – to God, to the source of love, life, and being. I believe Jesus was uniquely in touch with the spirit of God, but I also believe there are other “Jesus figures” in history and in the world. Among these are Moses and the Jewish patriarchs, the Buddha, Mohammed, and even modern individuals like Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Buddhist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. I believe that God can be reached through an array of religious traditions, and I believe that any claims to religious exclusivity are absurd, hypocritical, and blasphemous. Claiming that one or another religious tradition offers the only pathway to God is boxing God into a tiny cultural coffin, and limiting God’s manifest reality. God is greater than any religious tradition we try to cram God into.

God is neither male nor female, and using masculine pronouns to refer to God is not only inaccurate, but it perpetuates the concept of a male-dominated society. God is not a being of any kind, and is therefore genderless. Referring to God as a “he” would be like referring to the emotion love as a “he.” I prefer to not use pronouns at all to refer to God, but if I do, I use “it.” But even that is not accurate, because it implies that God is a “thing” or “being” of some type. I do not believe that God is an object or being in any human sense, thus, pronouns of any type are not applicable.

I do not believe the bible is the infallible, inspired word of God. I believe it is a compilation of spiritual texts, written over the course of a thousand years, by a group of people whose lives were infused with God and notions of God. I believe it is testament to the tenacity of the Hebrew people, and to their inherent spirituality. I believe it is a collection of writings wherein the ancient Hebrews were attempting to understand their world and their place in the world, and to describe their experiences with the transcendent. I believe the bible is a beautiful book, with a lot of spiritual usefulness to our modern lives, but it has been abused, misused, and misinterpreted for two thousand years. The bible is not infallible, nor is it Life’s Ultimate Rule Book. Viewing the bible like that, in my opinion, is the essence of blasphemy and idolatry.

My descriptions of God as the essence of life, love, and being, are not the end of the discussion. I believe that God is ultimately beyond human description. Human language can express experiences with God, but cannot define God. A horse could describe to another horse what its experiences with humans were like, but it could not describe to another horse what it meant to be a human being. So it is with humans and God. God is beyond our ability to comprehend or define. We can only describe our experiences with God’s transcendence. In the ancient, pre-Newtonian world, describing God as a divine being with supernatural power was reasonable. In our post-Newtonian, post-modern world, however, those definitions are no longer valid. That does not mean God is no longer valid, merely that our understandings of God must be redefined and updated. Ultimately, all definitions and descriptions fail. But that does not mean we should stop trying. It will be up to the next generation to describe God in a way that makes sense for them.

The worst thing humans can do is to believe that they have finally and ultimately defined what God is, and figured out how God works. The institution of the Church has, through its actions and theologies over the centuries, essentially made this fallacious claim. I believe such claims are hypocritical and even blasphemous. God is greater than our human definitions of God.

As for the Church, as an institution, I believe it is a lesson in hypocrisy. It has picked the bible apart according to its need. Women are not allowed to be preachers because it says so in the bible, but the pursuit of wealth and possessions is just fine, even though Jesus preaches against this time and time again. Homosexuality is wrong, because it says so in the bible, but self-righteousness, evangelistic piety, and religious legalism is okay, even though Jesus continually fights people (the Pharisees) who were just like this. Evolution is wrong, because Creation is described in the bible, but pre-emptive wars, torture, and capital punishment are okay, even though the bible says “Thou shalt not kill” and Jesus preaches a message of peace, compassion, forgiveness, and non-violence (not to mention the fact that he was a victim, himself, of capital punishment).

I frequently question whether most Christians know anything about Jesus at all. The What Would Jesus Do fad seems utterly hypocritical, and I believe that the Church, as an institution, has basically created its own version of Jesus...the Jesus it needs to support its power over people’s lives. I see church parking lots full of expensive cars and SUV’s, church goers dressed in expensive dresses and suits, carrying Gucci handbags and wearing gold, silver, and diamond jewelry. I see Christians living in enormous houses, spending thousands of dollars on pools, private golf course memberships, home electronics, boats, and gadgets – believing, all along, that their wealth and success is a direct blessing from God for their piety. Indeed, the very “God Bless America” sentiment implies that our country has special favor with God, and we have been rewarded accordingly with prosperity, wealth, economic stability, and military might. Mormonism, as a matter of fact, holds that America is a sort of “new Promised Land,” chosen and handpicked by God.

I see churches building multi-million dollar sanctuaries, and placing $300,000 decorative fountains in their front yards, while homeless people panhandle for food across the street. Indeed, the streets continue to fill with the poor, the hungry, the destitute, and the middle classes continue to sink farther and farther behind the wealthy.

The Church, and its members, make themselves feel better about these things by the occasional mission trip to Honduras, the occasional loose change dropped into the Ronald McDonald box at the drive-thru, the occasional bag of old, ratty clothes dropped off to Goodwill, and the occasional donation made to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army at Christmas time.

We, as Christians, have made God and Jesus into what we want them to be...we have ignored much of Jesus’s teachings, picking out the pieces we need to support our extravagant and self-absorbed lifestyles, while conveniently ignoring Jesus’s teachings about all-consuming love, compassion, acceptance, openness, forgiveness, mercy, and pouring ourselves into the service of others.

A true follower of Jesus would make love the center of her life. A true follower of Jesus would put others first, all the time, and himself second. A true follower of Jesus would give up the pursuit of wealth and worldly possessions, and instead focus on helping others. A true follower of Jesus would love utterly and wastefully, without condition, one hundred percent of the time. A true follower of Jesus would work to bring the fullness of life and love to the people of the world.

So this is what I attempt to do. I am only human, and I fail frequently. But the goal of my spirituality is to love like Jesus loved, to live like Jesus lived, and to give myself completely to others. I believe the kingdom of God promised in the bible is not about life after death. I believe it is about life in the here and now. Indeed, I believe that the message of Jesus is about having life now, and having it more abundantly. It is not about promises of golden streets and cheating death. It is about awakening to the existence of God within us, about seeing the world through the eyes of God, about learning to live compassionately, and plunging – through the example of Jesus – into the fullness of life with God.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Steve Irwin: More Than Just a Crocodile Hunter

Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter

When I first heard that Steve Irwin had died, I felt a sort of numb disbelief, as though the very atmosphere had been altered, had lost something which could not be replaced.

Those first few moments were surreal, not unlike learning that a close relative or loved one has passed away suddenly, inexplicably. The shock was made even more surreal, and confusing, because I did not know Steve Irwin, never met him, never saw him in person, probably never came within a thousand miles of him at any time in my life. I knew him solely through the otherwise impersonal medium of my television.

And yet that simple fact is, by itself, a testament to the spirit of this man that we all knew as the Crocodile Hunter.

Steve Irwin had a way of endearing himself to his audience, of bringing his audience into his world, into his mind, his heart, his very soul.

He didn’t film from afar with a telephoto lens, quietly narrating from the safety of an all-terrain jeep. Instead, he brought his audience face to face with the wildlife he loved, into their world and their environment. It was impossible not to feel his passion and exuberance, his all-consuming love for his life’s work.

And it was this passion and utter genuineness that broke through the barriers of distance and airwaves, and made Steve Irwin seem like your next door neighbor or your favorite cousin, instead of just another television personality.

Steve’s passion, and compassion, was undeniable, and infectious. I think anyone who loves wildlife, anyone who has ever marveled at the colors on a peacock’s tail, anyone who has ever watched a flock of birds swarming in the late summer sky and felt a sense of oneness and peace with nature – anyone with a basic love of the earth and all her creatures has a little bit of Steve Irwin inside them. Steve simply had a unique gift, an ability to voice his passion, and the means to bring it to the world in a unique and enduring way. Steve Irwin, indeed, changed the world through changing the landscape of wildlife conservation and bringing awareness to so many countless millions.

When I first saw Steve Irwin almost ten years ago on the Discovery Channel, I was fascinated. Who wasn’t fascinated with this man who willingly went one on one with crocodiles and came face to face with the most poisonous snakes on the planet, and did it all with an enthusiasm that was contagious and entertaining? I was an instant fan, instantly captivated. And I learned much from Steve Irwin. Through the veneer of catchy language and heart-stopping wildlife encounters, I learned to have a greater and more broad appreciation of the world’s fauna, to see the beauty in the animal kingdom, to view animals not as our enemy or as game to be hunted, but as co-habitators of our planet, to be respected, cared for, and loved. Indeed, Steve Irwin taught me the idea of wildlife stewardship, something I had never genuinely considered before. Wildlife is not just to be gawked at for entertainment or slaughtered for food – it is our responsibility, as stewards of the planet, to ensure that all of the earth’s creatures are cared for, respected, and appreciated. Human beings are not lords of the animal kingdom – instead we are, and should be, caretakers and custodians, neighbors and co-habitators with wildlife on this little blue planet.

I was frequently amazed and inspired by Steve’s passion for his work. It was clear that he had a true and all-encompassing love for the animals he dedicated his life to. He put himself in constant danger, both wildlife danger as well as political danger, to protect the animals he loved and to bring his message of conservation to the world. Who couldn’t be inspired by a naturalist who would go into war-torn East Timor to rescue a suffering crocodile? Some might have called him crazy, but he was not crazy at all – he was simply filled with a love and devotion that most of us never have the privilege of experiencing.

What I learned from Steve Irwin was this: if I can love like he loved, if I can have passion for my life’s work like he had passion for his life’s work, if I can pour myself into life with gusto, verve and vitality like he did, then I can live a life worth living, and I can affect change in my world too.

Steve’s spirit of love, compassion, and stewardship for our world came at a time when such awareness was sorely needed. In a world rife with hatred, terror, war, and religious hypocrisy, Steve’s boyish enthusiasm, ability to love completely and utterly, and his message of conservation was, and continues to be, a welcome respite. So instead of focusing on the tragic nature of his death, I prefer to focus on his spectacular life, his infectious zeal, and the importance his life’s work has had on the future of our world.

To me, Steve Irwin was not just a wildlife expert who taught me more than I ever thought I wanted to know about snakes and spiders. Instead, he was, in fact, a role model for living. A personal hero, someone whose fervor and vivacity were inspirational, someone whose passion, ardor, and conviction I want to emulate in my own life.

My only regret is that it took Steve’s death to make me realize these things. I was confused by my reaction to the news of his death, because I had not realized, consciously, what a role model he had been for me. I did not realize until after his death how much his message and life had touched my own life.

But Steve is still here, still with us, his spirit lives on in the wild, reminding us how to love utterly, to live fully, to appreciate the beauty of creation, and to care for the environment and the wildlife that inhabits it.

I still see Steve Irwin everywhere I go, in every bird, every bug, every cat creeping along a tree branch. Every time I see a creature that people love to hate – a spider, or a snake, or a colorful little lizard crawling across the pavement – I think of Steve, and I see Steve, and I hear his message of compassion and conservation. He gave his life for what he loved, the greatest gift anyone can give. He has not left us...instead, he has given himself to us completely and utterly, and that’s a gift that does not go away just because the earthly body has died.

So here’s to you, Steve, to the family and friends you have left behind, and to the legacy of love you have forged for wildlife and human beings alike. Your spirit is in our hearts, in our souls. And when you have touched people’s lives like that, you can never die. Indeed, you live eternally.

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