It is January 20, 2009; one week after being born of the spirit. The past week was quite fascinating; for all of my perceptions, assertions and beliefs about this world and any possibility of there being a God were chucked out-the-window for the truth that had miraculously became so real to me, and God hadn’t quite finished with me yet. He wanted to make sure I knew that I had reached that shore that I wrote about in my letter.
This morning I awoke at 4:30am. As my body is lying in the bed and my mind is slowly passing through some space between unconsciousness and consciousness, I realize that my spirit is experiencing a vision from God.
I’m on that very shore now; the one I wrote about in my letter; the one just off in the distance from my raft and I. The sun is bright, the sky is azure blue, and the sands are pure and smooth. I’m lying on the sand, near the water’s edge. Propped up on one elbow and looking about I recognize the setting, I smile and my contentment and peace is overwhelming. I rise to my feet, look both ways up and down the shore line, and then turn to look into the vast growth of infinite, dark-green jungle in from the shore.
Again a smile, and I know what I am about to do. Nothing will turn me away for my faith is complete. I walk across the sands, and up to the edge of the jungle. With a sweep of my arm, I move a branch before me and venture in. The jungle is thick, dark, rich and inviting. I awake as I disappear into the darkness of the jungle.
I was content with the vision, confirmed of God’s work upon me, amazed that I have been chosen, and without fear of the darkness I had walked into as I entered the jungle. The last remark about fear was perhaps the most contradictory of feelings I thought I would have. After all, we are taught to fear the darkness, and as I know now, the darkness seems to symbolize being separated from God, being lost, and in the presence of evil. Yet I was quite anticipating and looking forward to this darkness.
The vision was full of allegories; all clear and comforting. The world in my view was God’s realm of creation. It sparkled like a diamond with a multitude of facets; the sun’s glint off of every dapple and deflection of the ocean waters, the myriad of shapes and shadows of the deep, green jungle, and the harmonious clear blue of the sky above. The shore line of pure, white sand was the fruition of God’s great work – mankind; each grain unique in its form and interaction as it forms the one body that stretches up & down the shore line to infinitude. The sun was His love and grace providing warmth, comfort and clarity of all things that are spiritually real. The ocean is His great reservoir of the deep or Tehom. And the forest is the physical world as man knows it and works within. God has shown me this so I may understand.
What else could I possibly feel but pure contentment and peace? It was my moment of experiencing what might be Heaven on earth, and for that moment I was without want or desire. But, a stronger quality arose in me that urged me to purpose. God had work to do and He calls us all to His service. Knowing what He has shown me, I now actually anticipate life in this world; looking forward to its dense nature, fearing not the trials, engaging the lush character of life, and loving the call of the world upon me.
So how was I a new man that morning? Was it just a thought in my own head or was there something more? You know, I imagine that when someone has an extraordinary, surreal event come into their lives, it is probably quite confusing and introspective. For me, I knew what had taken place was not only all of that, but was deeply spiritual, and this is a realm I had never experienced before. We take our consciousness, our self, as that immaterial essence of who we are, and attribute it solely to the physical realm; at least that is what I had done my entire life. In addition, I believe people perceive their self, or consciousness, as static and unchanging. But now I am now confronted with the simple and clear fact that there is another entity within a body that I had always taken for granted as being alone; a whole new force and complexity that has changed that very essence of my ‘self’. There he is, unchained; my spirit. And this spirit has a will of its own that naturally, instinctively seeks out its creator, God.
That first morning presented itself as contentment, with time in the slow motion. Each moment was real and self-satisfying. There was no sense of my activities as being more rewarding upon the attainment of a goal and less so as I strive for the goal, but rather each moment of time was simply good. The work became as enriching as the reward. One might call it peace. I still have that quality, and while I certainly do have stress, pain, loss, anger, and the whole myriad of other trials in my life, as we all do, I know that they are but the true immaterial of this world while my life in God’s presence is the true material stuff of this world.
And that leads to the next change in my life that morning; the loss of fear of being mortal. I can truly say that I am ready for what may and eventually will come. My spirit is free, unchained as I said earlier, and seeks God. I know that means a lot to Him, and I know He gives me credit for it – the liberty of the spirit. It’s not that the spirit dominates my mind and body. Oh no, my mind is still quite the irascible and petulant force. Oh no, my body still inclines to the concupiscence that I know is sin. Rather, my mind, body and spirit are in that self-sacrificing condition of love that God wills into all of our lives through His grace. My spirit now has the ability to pick up that gift and cherish it, and it does just that. I now know I can actually move my fallen nature towards that which is good through a patient walk. I can now love my self.
Third, and this is most hard to illuminate properly, but I feel as if I have transcended faith as Christians know it. There is much scripture that carefully details our struggle with faith, and the need to hold it close within us. I recognize that it can be a most fragile quality for a person to possess. And as I have moved into the world with God’s presence and strength, I have met, worked with and became friends with many people who clearly show me the difficulty of faith in what God is doing with their lives, and especially how all of God’s will is for the good. I have seen those, who seem to be so active in seeking God, ride a roller coaster of faith; falling out of love with Him, being so publicly disobedient to His will, or losing their way in a darkness they were not aware was descending upon them. I could say I keep my faith aside from my life’s events and interactions. It really has nothing to do with my temporal existence in the flesh. God is real. God has shown me He is real. I cannot deny that or let it lie before me. What happened to me was something I recognize as a rare thing and treasure. I must never put it aside or come to think that perhaps it never happened or was somehow less than what it really was that early morning. I just can’t. It’s 2+2=4. No matter what happens, 2+2=4.
I noted earlier that I read little before my birth; perhaps an occasional science fiction book when I had to fly somewhere and needed to kill some time. Now I am addicted it seems, and the material is rather scholarly; covering early Christian sociology and doctrinal development, mission work, philosophy, the Church Fathers, the ‘emergent’ church scene today, atheism, Gnosticism, Pauline theology, and Old & New Testament exegesis. Furthermore, I work hard on my knowledge of the written & spoken word as it applies to my readings. I want to know the ‘language’ of God.
And I am certainly not content with just the reading. I have a passion for writing now; something I never possessed my entire life. I need to write on my experiences, on the world today amidst its tenuous balance of good and evil, on the books I am reading, and just on the thoughts that seem to crowd into my head as if I have some direct link to a downloading website. Obviously, this blog, Travels of a New Christian, is another offshoot of this passion.
And of most interest to me is the change in my viewpoint of people. The best way to illustrate this change is to paint it with a walk through the parking lot of my local grocery store. A busy parking lot is an interesting scene of human activity where people engage in the full range of human will and unconscious behaviors, and it is particularly fascinating because these activities are born into the basic premise that a parking lot is extremely transitional; it’s a launching pad to another destination. It’s condensed humanity.
Before the birth of my spirit, I had a singular view of the people I could see before my eyes; “that person is old”, “that person is fat”, “that person is unclean or horribly dressed.” “Why is that obviously, athletically-declined person dressed like Dwayne Wade, and didn’t the mullet haircut go out of fashion a few years back?” The result of my perceptions always brought the same results of action; distrust, disgust, and a singular desire to avoid the panoply of the human condition. At least I could say, with some measure of sarcasm and self-condemnation, that I was sincerely trying not to be “of this world, while living in this world.”
That same walk in the parking lot was instantly transformed that night. I walk it now and I see God’s children everywhere and in everyone; even the scary ones (though I still tend to not get too close to them). I see everyone as beautiful while acknowledging their flaws; those individual and unique qualities that are part of their gift from God. All things of God are good. I now smile, and I now engage. I have shopped at a particular grocery store for the past fourteen years and few of the steady employees and patrons new who I was. Now, it is as if I am an old friend to many. I engage and I love doing it. It enriches my life as much as I can see how it enriches the lives of those I engage with. It symbiotic and good. My wife, Kathryn, says that I have gained compassion. I think she’s right.
Reading, writing, and engaging. God has something up the sleeve of His imperial robe for me to do. I need to seek that purpose out.
And that brings me to another of the qualities of my life that was transformed through God’s will. I believe myself to have no free will. Now here I know I’m probably going to get into trouble with someone’s Christian doctrine, so let me try to qualify this belief a little.
Christians seem to be all over the place when it comes to the matter of free will. Catholicism, Anabaptists, and Arminianists embrace free will with little clutter surrounding the concept. Lutherans seem to reserve free will only for the day-to-day decisions of life while withholding it from the complexity of salvation. Calvinists are pro-determinism with the corollary that while one can work freely towards their determined life, they cannot work against it. God has it all worked out for you long before you were ever born. And secularists, agnostics and atheists are divided also on this subject. While the sciences seem to point to determinism – that all things have been determined since the Big Bang – every culture around the world overwhelmingly believes and operates their society on the firm ground of free will.
Fascinating for someone like me who’s only sincere experience into Christianity so far has been with a charismatic and non-denominational church in which we are basically saying Arminianism rules the day. I thought free will was a forgone conclusion for all Christians. I have learned much since then, and I will explore this matter further at a later time when concepts of free will and determinism become a matter of import, but I will note the following regarding my assertion that I have no free will.
My changed character is clearly a product of God’s action in my life. He acted, I changed, where’s the free will in that? My sister attributed my change to a brain tumor, however, I have passed my usual preventative checkups with my doctor and I’m still alive nearly four years later. The point of my first statement is that God is in control. He acted, I responded. What constitutes free will? I have two comments to state about free will for this posting.
One, I gauge the ability for you to act freely as simply the measurement from God to you. The further away you are from Him, the easier it is to exert your will into your daily life. Conversely, the closer you are to Him, it is geometrically less likely that you will wish to engage your will into the present condition of your daily life, and why would you? Being close to God, in right relationship with Him, is that categorical state of happiness that is fused with sacrificial love. Optional will becomes irrelevant.
Two, a more scientific comment to free will lies in a series of tests that were conducted in the 1970’s. In these tests people were asked to initiate a muscle contraction, like flexing their finger, at any time of their own choosing during a specific period of time. The subjects had electrodes placed on their scalp to note the onset of the brain activity leading to the muscle contraction (EEG), as well as electrodes placed upon their wrists to note the onset of the actual contraction (EMG). The researchers also asked the subjects to note when “he/she was first aware of the wish or urge to act” by indicating the position of a moving dot on an oscilloscope timer. The data accumulated was most interesting.
What came forward was that the typical subject noted their awareness to flex their finger about two hundred milliseconds prior to the actual flexing, but their brain activity leading to that flexing ramped up on average 500 milliseconds prior to the actual flexing. This left a space of three hundred milliseconds between the time the unconscious activity of the brain began and the conscious ‘self’ became aware of the intent to flex the finger. I have to state “became aware of the intent” versus “form the intent”, simply because the unconscious action had already begun prior to the conscious action.
What does that mean to the argument of free will? One can assert that man has free will, and further state that God has ordained it clearly in scripture or tradition, but does that make it so? The data says that the unconscious precedes the conscious; something is driving the bus other than our ‘self’. Many have concluded that free will is an illusion that exists in a predetermined world. Calvinists rejoice. I look at it differently; as did the lead researcher of this experiment, Benjamin Libet.
There’s a three hundred millisecond period of time from the unconscious initiation of brain activity to the conscious awareness of the impending action, and there’s a one hundred fifty millisecond period of time (trimmed from two hundred due to the final fifty millisecond activation of the spinal motor neurones) between the conscious awareness and the actual flex of the finger. What’s happening within those two time periods? I say it’s free will, or as it has been referred to by a few others now, “free won’t”; that ability to suppress the inclination towards the action.
Following the Christian belief that man is fallen; inclined towards sin as a normative behavioral pattern, it would follow that ‘free will’ is actually ‘free won’t’. The bus driver I mentioned earlier is our inclination to sin, or as some may say, Satan. Man has the ability to suppress his sinful intent if he/she so chooses. I contend that in the presence of God, suppression of sin is a desirable and an approximate goal. While free will exists, it is subject to condition. Think of it as, “If I am driving down the street and a police car is clearly behind me, I best not speed.” Or perhaps a better analogy, “If I know that evil is arsenic, and that it will kill me immediately, why would I drink it?”
God never does all of the work Himself, and He did not complete my transformation for me. God left many things for me to struggle with as I go forward. There are many thorns in my side. Some I pulled out quickly. Those are the ones that were self-evident, and not planted deep within me. Some have diminished gradually due to God’s gift of patience and understanding that the moment is the measure by which one steps closer to attainment of God’s lofty redemption and reward. And some are firmly planted still. Those are the most troubling to me because it seems as if I am acknowledging their future presence in my life; thus making me complicit with sin. I guess it’s here where repentance and forgiveness come forefront in our hearts.
It is the work that God calls you to – that within you and without – that is the uniting force between Him and you. Remember, God made us shepherds. That word is a noun whose only meaning comes to fruition through the work it describes.
God Bless and Love