Sunday, July 29, 2012

forgive, sort of

Forgiveness can rattle your world. I'm the kind of guy who does forgiveness posturing pretty well. I can talk about grace and how healing it can be when you open up the darker places in your soul to someone who will listen with few words and stand with you in your shame, allowing God's Spirit to gently heal and nurture you back, where you find yourself more humble and grateful and awake to life with its mixture of suffering, shame, and joy. But looking like someone who forgives and being a forgiver are different. Love, wisdom, humility, grace, forgiveness, patience...the idea of these is so attractive but safe. There's hardly a cost to an idea. You can read about them, hear about them, study them, be inspired at the coffee house with friends who talk about them. And hopefully this will be a launch pad. But for me, I've become comfortable being busy. Loving my three loves. Wearing the banner of tiredness to justify non-action. By the way, this is a good way to lose good friends and keep yourself from having to make new ones. Most of the time I don't want to step it up and abandon my pride so I might actually do some forgiving and loving. I'm too tired. This person won't change anyway- they qualify for at at least five DSM IV diagnoses. So why bother? I give out way more than I receive already. Do you know how much time it will take, the kind of conversations I will have to endure, the misperceptions, the ad hominem accusations? I just don't know if it's worth it. The cost-benefit analysis in my head doesn't add up. And yet I know this is scarcity thinking. I'm assuming that I have such limited resources, that once I expend them, once I make the call (or receive the call) and go through the exhaustion of listening and restraining and attempting to forgive, that I will be so depleted and angry that I won't see it as being worth it. If I had more faith, I would believe that God can give me unlimited resources at the exact moments I need so that I can be a genuine person, one who forgives and loves and extends the time of day to people who tend to deplete me. I guess I just don't want to live by faith as much as by what I can see and do and manipulate.

 I wonder if it makes a difference if the person you need to forgive actually wants to be forgiven, or if they just don't see it. They have done nothing wrong in their own eyes. There's been no ethical violation, no emotional trespass, no half-truth, no crime, no wake of destruction for the decisions in their life. This is the person for whom forgiveness seems impossible. They don't want it. They're not asking for it. They're just asking for acceptance and endorsement of their lifestyle, and they're pretty blind to the effect of their choices. And they just can't understand why you won't accept them. But the one who says I'm really sorry for what I've done, that I've hurt a lot of people, that I was wrong, even selfish, that I can't imagine how this has affected you and others, and that I want to live different, I'm going to try, and if you need space from me, take it, I am learning to respect space, and I hope we can meet again on healthier terms when I'm ready and you're ready. I can much more readily forgive this person. And it actually makes me look at myself and see where I might need to confess and change and grow. God's rules are hard to follow. Forgiving someone multiple times when they offend repeatedly. I'm more of a one-time forgiver than a multiple forgiver. And even then, it's usually when I feel like the person is genuinely sorry and showing some change. Otherwise, I count the cost and usually conclude that it's probably too much. Relational cut-offs are easier. But when is something a cut-off or just a healthy and strong boundary? Do I have to be in relationship with someone after I forgive them? If not, then did I really forgive them? How do you know when real forgiveness happens?  There is so much to consider and sort through. Cheap forgiveness, like the students who make banners saying"We forgive you" to the guy who shot and killed 15 kids in their classrooms the day before. That's hollow. That's cheating. There's no cost to their "forgiveness," but it's a nice banner and it's newsworthy. I've heard of people forgiving the perpetrator after he's dead, and the freedom that finally comes to the forgiver. I guess I just don't know if forgiveness is supposed to be unconditional, or if it is, how that really works.

What I do know is that I need to ditch the scarcity thinking, the world of ideas alone, and trust that God will provide the means, the strength, the stuff, the whatever it is, to get out and forgive and love and become the person that I'm not yet.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dutch Role Model

Sometimes I think about the people who shaped me, whether or not I knew it at the time. The role models. Or the others. One "other" was the philosophy prof. at Long Beach City College whose outspoken agenda was to dismantle the faith of his students, should they believe in anything transcendent, by carefully and systematically, using the best philosophical arguments, exposing the weaknesses in any and every belief system. But primarily the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its archaic myths and internal inconsistencies. He wanted to show, without emotion and prejudice, the supremacy of science and reason, and, in turn, the foolishness of believing in the unseen. So when he stood up on his desk during one late Fall lecture and shook his fist at the ceiling, shouting "I can't wait till the day of judgement...that's when I will judge God!!" I began to wonder about all the preceding stoic, "unbiased" lectures. And there was a hush that fell on the classroom over the deists and atheists alike and everyone in between. I learned something valuable that morning. There is a strong psychological and emotional drive or undercurrent behind every belief. Worldviews don't exist in vacuums, and the rational and emotional are somehow interwoven. What you believe is fueled by more than just facts. Experiences, your emotional wiring, your fears, all of that, is part of the mix. I asked my instructor after class if Socrates really existed, or was he just a figment of Plato's imagination, and that led to a ten minute rabbit trail ending in the horrors of the Depression and his family and growing up with nothing and the fear of loss and where the hell was God when I was a kid starving in the mid-1930's.

I didn't know it then, but that semester was a springboard for further philosophical inquiry in my college and graduate years. I realized that even good teachers are biased despite the banner of objectivity that supposedly governs the classroom. I taught for a few years as an adjunct, and I was biased, although I tried to make that clear at the outset so the students would learn how to think more than what to think. And at the end of the the eight-week intensive, after all the teaching about Kant and non-consequentialist ethical theories and the Modern anti-thesis mixed with the Pre-Modern thesis creates the Post-Modern synthesis, where meaning trumps fact as the way to ascertain Truth, because Truth is just language, afterall.... the students would fill out a written evaluation. And there was one recurring comment that surfaced more than others during every quarter: "the instructor asked us about our posture toward I defending the truth or pursuing it?" (ironically I first heard that question, not in a classroom, but over a coffee break on the roof with my boss painting a house in Simi Valley after the Northridge earthquake in the mid 90's). I didn't want them to leave my class with simply a new package or twist on what they ultimately believe. I didn't want them to be content with the recycling of doctrine and theology that you get from the latest sermon-series or well-intentioned Christian radio or forwarded emails or youth group curriculum. I wanted them to dig deeper than the familiar, to get dirty and sweat. There's nothing more satisfying than holding the piece of gold with blistered hands.

College professors are often role models, especially to kids who don't know what they want or where they're going. That's where I found myself in the early 1990's. Philosophy, theology, biblical studies. Not really marketable degrees unless you want to teach. And I was never sure what I wanted, other than owning a shack on an Indonesian white-sand beach and taking tourists out for a coastal cruise in my Boston Whaler. This was before the Corona commercials. So, what else to do than teach like Dr. So and So? Better get some more education. But the more you study something, the larger that particular world gets, and you realize there's so much you'll never know, so you have to specialize in something. I finally stopped this pursuit when I realized that it would take some years to become a specialist in Second Temple Judaism where I would discern the importance of Siniaticus Codus A and the Qumran findings.  And it didn't exactly pay too well either. I was making more money painting houses in Pasadena than some of the tenured profs at APU. When you have a house payment and a wife and a child, you don't worry so much about college professor role models. Life is more simple and hard and real, and you get on with it.

But one role model keeps coming to my mind. I was 14 or 15 years old. It was the late 80's in Long Beach, CA. I was a high-school kid who surfed and skated, got A's and B's, played soccer, and got a job with my mom's business partner in the rougher areas of downtown. His name was Dick Dekreek, and he owned a lot of duplexes and small buildings. I went to work for him for a few dollars an hour, mostly picking weeds among beer cans and cigarette stubs in the ghetto. I worked hard and advanced to hosing off balconies and courtyards, and eventually learned to paint, frame, pour concrete, and look gang-bangers in the eye while loading up the broken lath and plaster in the back of the truck. I drove the diesel to the Paramount dump off the 91 freeway,  and I mixed with the bulldozers and loaders and smells of sweet trash as I offloaded and swept out the bed. Long Beach Blvd., North Atlantic Blvd., the 710, 4th street, these were my backroads. And Dick worked. He taught me work. I knew a crow bar and a push broom and a dust mask. Dick came from Holland to Canada to the U.S. few decades before he hired me, and he had nothing. He was one of those Dutch immigrant stories that inspire you. And he told me stories over a good hamburger and fries in the hood. He lived on an acre in Diamond Bar (an equestrian community about 40 miles away from downtown Long Beach) with a jaguar in the garage. Every morning he got up early and drove his old diesel GMC an hour to his properties where he'd fix up and collect rent, and I was the grunt worker who knocked out concrete porches with a sledge hammer and gutted old duplexes wearing used leather gloves. Those were hard days, unglamorous, and part of me longs for them again. I remember one time he called me to come downtown to help him board up the windows of the properties during the riots. Hammer and nails, plywood, and people setting their businesses on fire hoping to blend in with the riot damage and collect insurance money. Exciting times. I learned some things about real life, stuff you don't get in school. I learned that you don't give up, that you can't,  just because something doesn't fit right or make sense. You push and you make it work. Another guy started doing what Dick was doing, buying properties, fixing them up, renting them or selling them. He was a lot younger, and he had an eye for design. He put more colors on the outside of his houses, and he looked at Dick with condescension for being rough and less polished. But style wasn't the main thing that separated these two. Jim collected rent from two or three doors; Dick had over 70. Jim lasted a few years. Dick, a few decades. Where Jim would hire something out, Dick would do it himself. If he didn't know it, he would learn it, usually trial and error. It seemed like a long time when I was in it, but it was just a few years. I wish I stayed longer. There was so much I could have learned about business and property and investing and the downtown community. But I got a good taste those years, and the grit and drive to work hard has stayed with me.  He wasn't perfect, but he was a good role model. Different paths lead you to where you are, and I'm grateful for those downtown years with Dick.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Call

Sometimes I think the wandering life wouldn't be so bad. Trade in my truck for a four-wheel drive, put a Lance camper on the bed, outfit it with all the things you need to survive off the grid, like the solar panel, generator, electric jack stands, electric sky vent, wireless remote camera for backing up, ac unit (25000 btu's--whatever that stands for), the micro-convection combo, and upgraded shocks to handle the weight, and maybe the slide-out dinette. With a custom surfboard rack on top, my Taylor 410 acoustic on the queen bed with pillows to keep it wedged, I'd be off somewhere, maybe the outskirts of Moab for a few days, and then Northwest to the Oregon coast, maybe Seaside or something. I'd drive into Portland for a day or two, drink Seattle's Best with Donald Miller and talk about narrative theology. I'd ask him why he's not married yet, and how the speaking circuit is going for him. Then I'd cruise the streets in my lifted non-diesel Bear Grills survival vehicle and pretend I'm John Steinbeck in Travels With Charlie, the soft rain on my windshield, about to head north to Alaska, now dripping with inspiration for the novel I'm going to write. When I reach Seattle, I realize that the time has come for the next vessel. I take a deliberate detour to the local boat building yard, and here I meet the owner/craftsman/nautical sage of the Northwest. He's an old man who lives in a floating shack next to his boat yard and invites me to help him finish his 42 foot wooden schooner. He tells me his name is Herman M. jr.   Like me, he's grizzly, misunderstood, and on the verge of something great. Because he's wise and therefore generous, he gives me the boat at no cost.  I tell him that I can't do the sailing thing, that I tend to get sick on the open ocean, that I've got to get to Alaska soon and don't have time to tack. So we rebuild a twin engine and install it, making this the ultimate hybrid sea craft. He says he'll keep my Lance 4x4 at his yard for when I return one day. And the next morning, early dawn, I'm motoring through the Pugent Sound on my way to open water in my yellow slicker. The seas are heavy at times, the storms fierce, but I sleep like Jesus in the bottom of my boat, knowing, as a seasoned sailor, that the journey is the destination, and my GPS auto-pilot will get me to Anchorage before long. After three weeks alone on the Pacific, the morning clouds part as Natalia (I named my boat) and I cruise into the harbor, coffee brewing in the galley, a few local fisherman waving me in. I get a text from my wife and kids, who flew in the night before, and we're meeting at the wharf for fish and chips in about an hour. The children eat quietly, displaying a deep contentment that is bred from both a self-imposed restraint to electronic portable devices and an exposure to natural beauty. Their mother, sitting mermaid-like next to me, expresses that same deep contentment, saying that the rational life really is overrated, that she's grateful for marrying a real man who thirsts for adventure, who values the immediate over the long-term, who feels before he thinks. And now my path is confirmed. I stayed true, like a martyr, resisting the warnings of many, the naysayers who casted doubt on my calling. Though tattered and weathered, like Natalia, I've come home to my harbor. I, too, am weathered and scarred, but I've earned the respect of my new town. I will live the rest of my days with my family in this seaside village, eating French bread, sipping Merlot from my organic vineyard, retelling the stories of my travels to entertain children and inspire the young men who will carry the torch to the next generation.

Thursday, July 5, 2012


It's nice when the scaffolding is properly tied off to the side of the house. Especially with the wind. I'm doing a house now that's, well, irregular. Boulders, slopes, decent roof pitches. You bet your life on these metal match sticks that someone else propped up, looking down three or more stories at the small rock shims that serve as your foundation. And then there's the scratchy wood plank, stretching 10 to 12 feet. You ignore the drop in your stomach as it sways and sags each time you cross. But sometimes the planks and poles aren't enough. You can't reach that peak to caulk the joints in the fascia, so you have to haul up your six or eight foot step ladder and try to balance it somewhere on the wobbly platform, usually with an inch or two margin, and then climb. It would be nice if people didn't care about voids, especially the ones you'll never see,  but they're there, and you do your best to fill them. It's here that you're grateful for a piece of twisted wire that's been looped around a cross-bar pole and nailed to the side of the house. Scaffolding tends to be top heavy, and you can enjoy the panoramic views a lot better knowing you're somewhat tied down.

A couple years ago, on another job, the GC didn't think he needed to enforce the straps, and so the whole structure tended to sway a bit more than was comfortable. And the stucco foreman, an arrogant white kid of about 22, thought it might score some points with the GC to grab hold of the base and shake the three story platforms with "all those Mexican stucco monkeys" who were applying the scratch coat. Just give 'em a good scare. I'm not sure why people try humor to form an alliance with someone they hardly know, and, as best as I could observe, the humor and the racist comments evaporated with the dust from the stucco hopper. In the end, no one fell off, the stucco guys finished the job with the foreman calling the shots from the ground, and we climbed the unstable structure and did our paint job a few weeks later.  So here, on this job, I'm grateful for wired ties.

I went 38 years assuming my structure was tied down properly. And by properly, I mean it passed code. There was a wedding ring on each of their fingers, which meant there was a wedding before I was born, and that meant there was a code that would be followed so the structures would withstand the wind and the shaking. And maybe it was solid. Maybe there's a lot I never saw or just assumed. Maybe I never felt the earthquakes. But they were surely there, because the house didn't last. I really thought it would. They went 45 years and then ended it. If there's damage from a storm, you've got to fix it. You can't keep shimming it up, hoping the upper rooms won't someday topple. Did they really try everything? Can the deep holes in two people ever be filled by each other? I've got my own life, and  it's good, it's pretty honest. I've got some fears, I'm over-sentimental, but I'm trying to stay connected with God and get less selfish. I always thought my life was good because of a strong family in the early years. But I'm in this in-between place. I don't know. I don't know if it was all a charade, or just partly, or not at all. I don't know if the scaffolding was ever properly tied down. The fact is that the house got built despite the code not lasting. I'm trying to be grateful for the good, and there was a lot of it. It's just that the memory is so tainted now. Were they unhappy back then but just faked it in front of my sister and me? Was there integrity in their marriage? I'm not hoping for or asking for perfection. I get that we're human. I just wonder how close they were or how far gone they were during the redwoods camping trips and the super-eight movies on the living room wall and the trak ball in the street. Did they stay together because of the kids, and what are you supposed to do with that? Is that supposed to make you feel worth it, or worthy? In some ways, the past really can be undone, or at least edited. Like walking back and forth on that sagging plank, I feel angry and then compassionate. They were an abused neglected daughter and an over-indulged son devoid of a father's adoration who stumbled on to each other and went for it. They built something pretty good, and it lasted a pretty long time. More than most. I just wish it could have gone a few more years. You think you're unaffected by things when you get older, but it's not that way. You're never unaffected. You move forward, you wonder at it all, you feel it sometimes. You get busy building and tying things down and making it as strong and lasting as you can.