Built for the Truth

You know what’s always bugged me? That guy in The Matrix. The first one. The one who betrays all his friends so that he can back into The Matrix.
There is a lot that bugs me about him. I don’t like the way he sells out his friends for his own selfish needs. But there is something else that bugs me even more: I can’t come up with a logical reason why he shouldn’t want to get back into The Matrix.
A thought experiment: What if he didn’t have to betray his friends? Or shift the focus a little bit. Earlier in the movie, Morpheus offers Neo his choice of two different pills. One of the pills would pluck him out of the world he had always known, the matrix. The other would allow him to see the world as it is.
Why do we admire Neo for stepping out into the truth?
Sometimes, being disconnected from reality, in the long term, leads to suffering. I don’t think this really explains it, though. Our desire for truth isn’t conditional. We don’t generally say “I want to know the truth if my ignorance is going to end up hurting me in the end.” We basically say, “I want the truth.”
Even the fact that we fight so hard to maintain our delusions doesn’t really detract from this. The question I am thinking about isn’t “Who would we actually be like: Neo or the guy who goes back into the matrix.” The question is “Who would we want to be like: Neo or the guy who betrays them?” Even if he hadn’t betrayed them, I think we admire and want to imitate Neo in the little things and in the big things.
Many ethical systems want to claim that we are seeking amusement, pleasure, satisfaction. They claim that the good is in what ever maximizes these. The bad is in whatever diminishes them.
While we do so many things to feel some version of warm & fuzziness inside, it seems like there is a more basic drive to who we are. It seems like we know that our desire for truth should come first. At our best, we act on this.
This is why we hope we would hang out with Neo in the real world, and not enter into the matrix. This is why we ask the hard questions. This is why we watch movies like “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” This is why we might choose to not shop at Wal Mart or boycott Coffee that was not purchased at a liveable wage. This is why we value those friends who have the wisdom and courage to tell us what we need to hear, not what we want to hear.
I believe that we humans are weak and broken. I believe that we are not the center of the universe. I believe that we owe something to the being that created us.
Even if a thorough understanding of our nature didn’t carry other benefits, I believe we are hard-wired to seek out truth ahead of nearly everything else. Even if there were no other benefits, until we find this relationship, we would still be left looking, and seeking, knowing that there is something more.


A Theology of Life’s Suckiness

Matt Clinton National Hill-Climb Champion 2008
Matt Clinton National Hill-Climb Champion 2008 (Photo credit: Phil and Pam)

When we need Jesus the most, in some ways, that’s when he is so hard to find.

I have been rocked by all these challenges.   In these I cling to this truth that Jesus is closest to us when we are hurting.  I know that he is a savior he weeps with us.

But I cling to the truth because if I didn’t cling on to it, that truth will float away from me.   And I know that about Jesus in my head, only. 

It’s so hard to feel it right now.

In the middle of this terrible, terrible time, I am being tested in so many ways.  Intellectually, I get it, that we are not promised a life of roses and rainbows.  But I struggle with not being angry at Him.  It’s like, Lord, you have spent this time in such intimate contact with me.  And I have with you.  How could you do this to me?

I know it’s foolishness and wrong-headed.  The sun shines on the good and evil.  The rain falls on all of our heads.

It’s easy to lean on Jesus when it’s easy to believe that he loves me.  Right now, it’s like I am having to trust the beliefs that I had.  Because now, in the moment, it’s hard to believe that He has a plan, and he loves me.

One of the thing that carries me through is the practice and discipline I built up before, in easier times.  Practice and discipline in praying and reading the bible and believing in a powerful God who loves me. 

Another thing that carries me is the love and support of friends and families.  Their hugs and acts of kindness and reminders that they are there for us.  And also their example: they serve as reminders, through their actions, of the things I should be doing, the person I should be, even when I don’t want to.

These two things: discipline and friends, a pairing like law and love, like grace and obligation, these two things are what will carry me through.  I am assuming I will get through.  It is as though when times were easy, when things were good, I was building up speed, building up intertia.  Perhaps, I am on a bike, accelerating down a hill.

But now the slope has turned against me, and it up, and above, and I don’t know how high up it goes.  I just know that whatever I accumulated before I am spending now, desperately hoping it is enough to carry me through.

The Mystery of Walking a Mile In Those Shoes

Through a series of surprises, disasters, and unplanned circumstances I have ended up a Special Education Teacher. That was never part of my plan for my life. It’s just what happened, and I thank God every day for it. (O.K., actually that’s probably not true. I try to thank God every day for it; I should thank God every day for it.  But in fact, I probably don’t thank God every day for it.)
For over a decade, I have worked in the poorest and  biggest inner city schools in Massachusetts and in residential schools for troubled kids in Los Angeles and on the East Coast. I have had students who have done drive-bys and been third generation gang members. I’ve tried to teach kids who’ve been prostituted by their parents for drugs. I’ve worked with kids who have sexually abused hundreds of other kids. I have worked with kids who have been abused hundreds of times.
There was this boy who had scars on his arms. When the voices told him to light himself on fire he did. There was this girl, over 6 feet tall, probably 225 pounds. Chronologically she was 17 years old, but on the inside she was so much younger. She was 11 when she found her parents dead, in bed, a suicide-murder. She hadn’t grown emotionally a day since.
It’s hard to get beyond the cliches in this situation. I learned so much from these kids. It was such a privilige and a joy to work with them. Those things are true. But maybe I get beyond the cliches by telling the whole story. Because those sentences are not false… but they are only half the story.
The full story is this: There were days I was sure I could not do it. There were days that it didn’t feel worth it.  There were many days that I came close to hating the students, and a few days when I actually did hate them.

Two years ago I sprained my back breaking up a fight between my students.  I spent a month on disabality.  I was warned, quite off the record, to watch myself.  The school district had a history of wanting to sever ties with teachers who could prove to be legal problems down the road.  Unsurprisingly, my contract wasn’t renewed the next year.

I spent last school year at a middle school that was on the verge of being taken over by the state.  To say that it was a tough situation would be to understate the case significantly.  Student, teacher, parent morale was abysmal.

After ten years of these sorts of schools, a different kind-of position fell into my lap.  An affluent, mostly suburban (with a bit of rural thrown in) smallish school district was looking to begin a class for behaviorally challenged students.

Sometimes, I felt like I was at a country club.  It was easy to view this as a bit of a sabbatical.  I was desperate for a moment to catch my breath, but it didn’t feel like what I’m really called to do.
It was strange to have enough supplies, technology, and support to actually impact these kids.  Occasionally, I’d have these perverse flashes of guilt that I’m not working in an absurdly hopeless situation.

Mostly, though, it was easy to see my new position as bordering on the trivial, to see the severity of these kids’ issues as comparitively light-weight. Like lots of realizations that come easy, this easy realization was  dangerous.
There was this Freshman girl. Let’s call her Lori. Lori is a tough kid, as kids within this particular district go. Like many kids she’s received absurdly inconsistent expectations, parenting, and boundaries. She’s learned to push, test, and manipulate. She has this great smile and a big heart, but it’s easy to lose sight of this when she’s cursing and yelling.
One of the keys to my job is deciding what I’m going to fight over and what I’m not going to. Giving up on the areas I’ve decided to dig my heels in can create some problems for both me and the kids. I do my best not to.
An area I decided I wasn’t going to compromise with Lorie was around the issues of wearing shoes in my class. Every day she would come and want to take them off. I figured this to be a power game with her. There was a wide variety of areas I gave in on with her (and my other students.) There are some areas where I don’t. This was one I wasn’t going to budge on.
Every day we’d lock horns. Every day I would instruct her that shoes needed to be worn in my class. Every day I’d level consequences when she didn’t meet my expectations.
I was proud of myself when the day finally came that she gave up on taking off her shoes. I had known it would come. These kids are used to wearing down the adults in there lives. They can be outlasted, but it’s not easy. I put a tally mark on the mental chalk score board in my head under my own name: Score one for me.

The days and weeks went by. I made some progress with some kids, I didn’t make as much with other kids. I worked at building relationships while I taught them, I worked at caring for them as I worked with them, I tried to be there for them as I held them accountable. The great thing about being a special Educator is that I get to see many of my kids for significant portions of the day. These are kids who often have no meaningful relationships, especially with adults.
With Lori… Not so much. There was this wall. I figured I could wait this out, too. I felt confident in my assessment, proud of my abilities; I’d seen it all before, in kids twice as tough, twice as desperate.
I hope you’ll share my surprise when I tell you that a co-worker approached at some point in the middle of all this. She’d sent Lori to the nurse. Lori, it seemed had these tremendous blisters.
She’d been cramming her feet into shoes two sizes too small. She’d been wearing them to school every day. She’d been wearing them home, every day. She’d been wanting to take them off in my class, every day.
And I was so proud of myself when I one that battle with her. I was so proud of myself when she gave up trying to take them off. No wonder she was never focused on what was going on in class. I wouldn’t either, if you crammed my size 11 feet into size 9’s. (And who knows what other ways she’s been and continues to be neglected… it’s quite likely that her shoes are pretty low on the list of troubling issues in her life.)
There are these lessons that we learn over and over again. One for me is that God can be trusted. Another for me is that there is work to do wherever I am. A third is that the teacher-student relationship is not a simple, one sided deal. There are ways in which the “students” teach me more than I teach them.

But perhaps the most important thing is this: Sometimes when we are the most sure in our beliefs, that is when we are the most wrong.

What  does all this have to do with mystery?  Well, there’s this great thing about mystery.  The world tells us to pick a side.  The world tells us to evaluate the evidence and the whole-heartedly choose one group over the other.

One of the great things about mystery is this: We are free to recognize that there is truth on both sides of a debate, even if there is only one Truth.  I should have checked my assumptions.  I should have tried to find what truth Lori was living, by taking off her shoes every day.

Lori and kids like her all the least among us.  Scripture tells me that the way I treat her is the way I treat Jesus himself.  What all this means is that one day, Jesus wandered into my class and he wanted to take his shoes off, because there were blisters on his feet.  I wielded my power and I stuck to my guns.  And Jesus?  He put those shoes back on those blistered feet.

My prayer for you and for me is that our hearts might be open to some issue which we see as so very one-sided.  I hope that we can dwell for a while, that we can affirm the little truths that live on both sides of the debate.  Because that’s where Jesus is: not in the right or wrong answers, but in those little truths with a lower case “t”, that eventually will add up to Truth with an upper case “T”

The things we whisper

It takes an act of will for me to get it.

I’ve got to work at realizing some things about myself.

When I take the easy way out, I can be out of touch with some hard to face truths.

In my brain, I have this army of Jedi.  The Jedi, as you might know, can calmly say things.  If they throw in a strange little motion at the wrist, whoever they are speaking to believes them.

I position my little army of Jedi in front of things I don’t want to think about.  Memories I’d rather not go back to.  Realities I’d rather not face.  They stand there, in front of these things, and they say “You don’t want to think about that.”  And “This isn’t going so badly.”  And “You did nothing to feel sorry about ”

Because the Jedi in my brain all have that wrist thing going on, I usually believe them.  It’s an act of will to get past them.

What I’m trying to say is that it’s easy for me to be out of touch.  It’s easy for me to be out of touch with the lousy things I have said.  With the lousy things I have done.  With the destinations that my path has lead me to.

I truly believe I am forgiven of those things that I repent of.   But in order to be forgiven I have to repent.  One problem with the mind tricks of the Jedi inside my brain is that they can cause me to skip over this step.  They can lead me to think that there is nothing wrong.

There are some things about me that no one knows.  That’s o.k.  Some of our errors should only be between us and God.  But this is a place to be particularly careful.  The things I have confessed to a trusted sibling in Christ feel more real, somehow.  It is easiest for me to gloss over those things that I have never confessed.

Can I challenge you a little bit?  Can I suggest that there are Jedi in your brain, too?  (O.K.  Perhaps you’re less of a nerd than I am.  Maybe we ought to call them something else.)

I think it’s easier to keep reading than it is to recognize a hard truth.  I think this hard truth will only get recognized when we stop, take in the silence, and breathe.  I’d go so far as to suggest that one of the reasons we are so afraid of the silence is because these truths come to seek us out.

Take a moment in the silence.  The silence is more important than anything I will say to you.

Now, I’d like to challenge you a little more.

Consider the following:

Luke 8:17 ” For nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”

Luke 12:2 “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.”

Luke 12:3 ” What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs.”

Mathew 4:22 ” For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.”

Mathew 10:26 ” There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.”

Jesus states a truth not once but several times.  It’s not an occasional, wimplily worded possibility.  Jesus does not say, “Hey, there’s an outside possibility that a few minor secrets are going to be hinted at, a handful of  people might have some suspisions about them.”  He uses strong, unapologetic, categorical language.  He says nothing is hidden or conceiled that will not be made known.

We will stand naked and exposed.  All of the things that we try to deny about ourselves?  It’s not only the case that they are currently known by God.  We should expect for them to known by everyone.

My point in writing all this is not to use this reality as a weapon.  I don’t think that obsessing on this truth is going to go very far to alter our behavior.  Partially, I’m writing to share the evolution of my own reactions to these realities.

When I took a full account of all the stupid, hurtful, malicious, and evil things I’ve done, I used to stand in abject terror of the idea that some day they will be known by everyone.  I don’t think the solution, though, is to deny what we’ve done.  Nor is the solution to deny the verses quoted above.

What is the solution?  Well, I think there is one.  But that’ll come next time.

The Great Pleasure Machine

I’ve been pondering how we’re wired to search out the truth.  Even when that truth is irrelevant to our every day existence, even when it is painful we search out the truth.

At the same time, paradoxically, we thrive on denial.  There are things we don’t admit to ourselves.  But denial isn’t the whole story.

Consider the first Matrix movie.   The characters in the movie are faced with a choice: live in the bleary, harsh, dangerous world that actually exists.  Or they can participate in a tremendous illusion, living in the safe comfort of a virtual existence that is much easier and more comfortable.

Or a thought experiment.  Suppose somebody designed a perfect pleasure machine.  While attached to this machine you can do nothing but experience unimaginable pleasure.  Would you want to spend the rest of your life attached to this thing?

Or something a little closer to home: If your spouse had an affair, would you rather live in blissful ignorance?   If your cherished grandfather was dealing crystal meth, would you rather not know?

We cheer for the characters in the matrix who operate in the real world, rather than the imaginary one.  Most of would not want to spend the rest of our waking days attached to The Great Pleasure Machine (though personally, I wouldn’t mind a few minutes.)  We would want to know about our spouse.  Or are grandfather.

I’m not saying we wouldn’t be a bit ambivalent, even tempted by not-knowing.  But overall, we want to know.

To me, the things that’s interesting, is that in some of the cases, you can’t provide a logical account as to why we want to know.  If our spouse was going to bring home a sexually transmitted disease from the affair, it’d be logical to want to know.  But suppose both your spouse and the partner are monogomous, and disease free.  I think we still want to know.

No matter what stipulations we put on these scenarios to guarentee that our ignorance won’t negatively impact us, something in us yearns for the truth.  We’d even rather be hurt by the truth than live in ignorance.

People who don’t believe that their isn’t an absolute and fundamental truth, people who suggest that we were “created” by random circumstances, I think they owe an explanation here.  It’s hard to imagine why all this would be the case if we weren’t wired this way by a truthful creator who wants us to seek him out.



The losers are the winners

I saw a book tonight.  The title was something darn close to “Live Green and be a millionaire”

The subtitle indicated that really, doing the right thing is a win-win proposition.  Apparently, Somehow, being environmentally conscious actually creates wealth.  Who knew?

My sarcastic asides not withstanding, something clicked as I stood there, judging that particular book by its cover.  The thing that occured to me is this:

We love win-wins.  We love it when things work out in such a way that it’s best for everybody.  How many times have we heard variations on the following themes: What’s good for America is good for the world… What’s good for business is good for the environment… Everyone benefits from this arrangement.


The people who oppose these plans that benefits everybody: are they stupid or massochistic?  Clearly they must be one or the other, to oppose their own best interests. 

I don’t want to overstate my case.  Sometimes their are win-wins.  Sometimes there are options which really are the best for everybody.

But the vast majority of situations are win-lose propositions.  There will be people that benefit and people that are hurt by most decisions.  We try to deny this.  It’s hard to choose between being a millionaire OR being enviromentally conscious.  It’s hard choosing between the good for America and the good for the world.  It’s hard choosing between the best interests of the environment or big business. 

Whenever a decision is made, there’s probably some sort of consolation prize for the loser.  There is a silver lining to the cloud.  I don’t have a problem with people expressing that.  I do have a problem with people misrepresenting it, though, and claiming that the home version of the game is just as good as the million dollar jackpot.  In addition to the blatant dishonesty inherent in turning everything into a win-win, this system turns us into spoiled brats.  We live in a world that feeds us the delusion that we can have our cake and eat it, too. 

 There is no way around a simple reality: If we eat our cake, then there are only a few options open to us.  A) Eat somebody else’s cake.  B) Pretend we’re still eating a cake.  C) Actually be mature enough to realize that we don’t have any more cake.

In different times and places, those who have the power looked the weak in the eye and called it like they saw it.  They said “I win, you lose.  I will take what I want because I have the power.”

Sometimes, the power shifted.  Sometimes, the disenfranchised became the franchise.  They put on little red berets and took power… and then, they said that same thing they’d heard so often “I win, you lose.  I will take what I want because now I have the power.”

There are some things which have not changed.  There are still people with power who are taking what they want.  But there are some things that have changed.  These people have PR firms working for them now.  They look us in the eye and they say “I win, you win.  We can both have what we want.”  The idea is not to give the other group a share.  It’s simply to make them think they have a share.

This is why Jeus is such a radical counter-cultural force.  This is why people think they need to repackage him.  He did more than speak the truth.  He was the truth.  He did more than say that there are winners and losers in the game of life.  He identified with the “losers”.

  He said that we should step out of the whole power play.  He did not just take the next step in this never ending dance.  He changed the whole song.   He challenged us to do more than grab after power or accept being dominated.  He challenged us to a third way, a bigger way by being smaller, a way into life by going through death.  It’s not always clear and easy, just how to do this.  It is a narrow door, a hard way, but ultimately the only journey worth the effort.



A small, easy thing

It is no small, easy thing…
this small, easy thing:

To eat unhurredly,
to take small, unassuming bites
to finish them and swallow and pause

just pause.

Wisdom is slow.
Truth speaks in this quiet voice.

There is greatness
in just this:
cool slices of turkey
nestled in a buttery croissant

Knowing that last bite
left me only a little thirsty:
a half-mouthfull of water
from a cup unneding of ice cubes
is enough.


(This poem was linked to Marty’s Monday Moments at http://martyholman.com/?p=227 click the link for some good reading.)