Rethinking the Fall of Man

Lucifer cast out of Heaven

There is only one sin, and it’s six words long.

Lucifer cast out of Heaven

Sure, there are a lot of things we call sin, from theft and murder to gossip and gluttony. But all of them are manifestations of one single burning impulse six words long.

Does that sound like reductionism? Any list of things can be generalized down to a smaller set, right? To one common trait (no matter how tenuous)?

It’s a fair concern, but this one’s a little more compelling. Why? Because it’s the same story as the Fall of Man. It’s original sin.

There is only one sin, and it’s six words long:

I’ll take care of this myself.

Do you see how much that clarifies? In this one understanding, I can reconcile a loving God with the concepts of sin and condemnation, because these six words make so incredibly clear what sin is.

Sin is that which separates us from God. Not because God expects us to be more perfect than he made us to be. Not because God is so perfectly Good that he can’t tolerate being in the presence of any evil. It’s so much simpler than that.

Sin–the only sin–is the act of turning away. Turning away from God doesn’t distance us because of his decisions or his personality or his ineffable characteristics. Sin distances us from God because the only sin there is, is a human choosing to step away from God.

Thus grace. Thus redemption. Thus the prodigal son’s ebullient welcome home. None of that is because God is so very good that, under the right circumstances, he’ll forgive us completely and pretend it never happened.

No. God is so much better than that. He’s unchanging, unmoving, and permanently loves you as much as he possibly can. Which is more than you could possibly imagine. The only way to dim that glow is to turn away.

Adam did that in the garden. We all did that as children, chasing independence. It’s the fall of man, and it happens over and over and over again every day.

I’ll take care of this myself.

Yeah, don’t. You don’t have to, and you probably can’t. Don’t even try.

Choose love. Dwell within it. Enjoy the bounty of providence. And take time to feel the power of God working in your life. It really is a lot more fun.

I love you all. Have a great day today.

May You Find Meaning in Your Life

The power and purpose of spoken blessings

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about blessings. I don’t mean I’m practicing gratitude and feeling #blessed (though, y’know, I’m working on that when I remember to). No, in this case, I’m talking about “blessings” as the counterpart to “curses.”

I’m talking about a statement of intent and power. Something of this sort:

May you find meaning in your life.

– Aaron Pogue

Well, I can’t make up a new one every time! But there you go. It’s a blessing in a format any of us would recognize. It’s something that can feel hokey or jokey, but it’s also something that can feel overwhelming with the ancient weight of antiquity and magic.

What a Blessing Is

So! Here’s the thing:

The ordinary person wakes up every day in an ordinary world, doing ordinary things, having ordinary experiences, and dreaming of some distant not-quite-ordinary future.

We are fish swimming in a vast sea of Ordinary. Ordinary isn’t bad, but it numbs the senses and dulls the brain. It suppresses the spirit by engaging the body. It makes us feel more like animals than princes of the universe. It’s all just math and stuff.

A long time ago, the word we used to describe all that malaise in the last paragraph was “profane.” Profane meant “ordinary” with all its tedious baggage. Profanity was the dull ordinariness of actual life.

We are fish swimming in a vast sea of Ordinary.

The counterpart to “profane” is “sacred.” A sacred space is a space that has been set apart. It’s a bubble of spiritual stimulation floating distinct within that great sea of Ordinary. It’s something other than Real Life.

That’s not a difficult concept to grasp when you think of temples, cathedrals, altars, shrines. These are the places that have been set apart. They are made to feel Other. When you step into these places, you’re meant to feel as though you’ve left Real Life (in the ordinary sense) waiting for you outside.

Ancient peoples used temples and shrines to create on earth a dwelling place for heavenly spirits. Through a sacrifice (of labor and valuable land, if nothing else), and through an act of will, people set aside a place that could be filled with the presence and power of God.

And now I come around to the point of this whole section: A blessing is exactly the same thing. The purpose of a blessing is to create, through an act of will and supplication, a sacred space within the profane world.

What a Blessing Does

Why does all of that matter? I promise I’m after more than just word count.

No! Here’s the thing. A blessing, properly applied, is much more than just a friendly statement. It’s more than a wish.

When someone speaks a blessing with the intention of creating a sacred space, that space will come to be. It’s a space created by words, so it’s a mental place, not a physical one. But it’s a mental version of a temple–a place where God is welcome to dwell, and his presence can coexist with creation.

These are spa experiences for the soul.

In other words, it’s a set of words that you can dwell upon. But it’s also a mental space that you can dwell within. It’s a quiet place. A sanctuary. A moment set apart, where your life can intersect with something more than Ordinary.

How to Practice Daily Blessings

Because, let’s face it…it’s not ordinary to speak a blessing with real intent. It’s not ordinary to go looking for one every morning. It’s not ordinary to actually stop your day just to sink yourself inside some nice words someone else shared on social media.

But that’s how I encourage you to think about it. When you encounter a proper blessing (especially one of mine), think of that encounter as a rest stop beside the busy, rushing highway of Real Life. There’s a scenic overlook, and a chance to stretch your legs and catch your breath and maybe, just maybe, experience something incredible.

You won’t find the Profound every time, but you should find comfort. Restoration. These are spa experiences for the soul.

And then, from time to time, the Profound will show up out of nowhere and change your life forever. Because you gave it a chance. Because you showed up in a sacred space. If you’re always living in the Ordinary, how can your life be anything else?

If you’re always living in the Ordinary, how can your life be anything else?

That’s why we need sacred spaces. That’s why we need our faith, our sense of spiritual connection, our hunger for Truth. All of it drags us out of the arithmetic of ordinary life, driving us to find some nook, some cranny, some uneven edge in the universe where something bigger, better, and far more interesting can shape our destinies.

The irony of it all is that it’s there to be found–all of the mad, chaotic, boundless possibility of Dream is there to be found–but it’s waiting in the quietest, calmest places you will ever find.

Step into a sacred space today. Dwell there for as long as you can spare, breathing in the air and waiting patiently as your cramped spirit finally gets to stretch its legs a little. (You’ll know you’ve found the place when your soul feels like it’s drifting lazily on still waters.)

Breathe. And see what happens. You have no responsibility in a sacred space. (You have no power there.) Your only job is to show up, and make yourself available, and see what happens.

Here’s your chance. Ready? Now.

May you find meaning in your life.

– Aaron Pogue

I’ve made this space for you, and I have begged the God of Heaven to keep it open for anyone who knows my name. That’s you. And you are welcome here.

Journal Entry: September 28, 2009

Wednesday after work we met K– and N– at Johnny’s Charcoal Broiler — carrying on a tradition started the first time T– took AB to church, and we ate there for lunch. The food was delicious, of course, and it was a fun time getting together with friends.

Afterward, everybody but K– and me walked over to church for Wednesday night classes. K– came over to my place to help me with T–‘s broken computer. He had a hard drive caddy handy, with connections for all manner of hard drive, and in no time at all he had the data from T–‘s laptop copied over to mine. That solved the biggest of T–‘s fears (lost photos and work documents), but of course the laptop was still broken.

After church the family came back home, and we spent the evening watching TV while I played WoW.

Thursday I had to prepare a tutorial/lecture for my students, and I spent a significant chunk of time after work reviewing it and getting it posted to the website. I also spent much of the day (and evening) reviewing the students’ submissions for the first document packet, and fielding questions from them (by email, of course).

Karla made us some incredible quesadillas for dinner. D– came over for that, and to play some WoW with me, but mostly to pick up T–‘s dead computer and take it home with him. He spent the evening getting it resurrected (with the help of a spare hard drive he had sitting around, which probably saved me a hundred bucks), and getting the OS back on it.

Apart from that, Thursday night was more TV, and more WoW. We chilled, and caught our breath.

Friday I met Toby for lunch, and we discussed (among other things) a document conversion project I’ve got to get done for work. He had volunteered to help with that when they came to visit at the hospital, and this was my first opportunity to provide him with more detailed information. He sounded optimistic that he could get it done, and we made arrangements to meet at his place Sunday evening.

Then in the afternoon I got home from work a little bit early, so I was there when D– brought T–‘s laptop by, and I installed a few more programs for her, and now it’s better than new.

D– had to go back to work, but he agreed to meet us for dinner. Half an hours after he left, Mom and Dad got in from Little Rock. We introduced them to Alexander (or XP, as he’ll be known hereabouts in the future), then spent some time socializing while we waited for my sister and her family to come over. A little after five we piled into a bunch of vehicles, and headed over to Mama Roja for dinner.

As we were waiting for our table, T– turned to me and said with some surprise, “Can you believe it’s been nine days since we’ve been here?” Her Mom rocked our world by pointing out it had actually been two whole weeks. Craziness.

Anyway, it was a crowded, busy table, but we all had delicious food and enjoyed the opportunity to talk. Afterward, T–‘s parents left from the restaurant to head home, and everyone else came over to our place.

I took Mom up to Homeland to pick up the necessary supplies, then when we got back to the house I mixed up a pitcher of rum margaritas. They went over pretty well, but T– and I had a hankering for the real thing, so as soon as the pitcher was empty I filled it up again, with tequila this time, and we had a grand ol’ time.

Saturday morning T– and Mom headed up to Edmond (with XP in tow) for pedicures with my sister, and Dad headed to Edmond for a conference at Memorial Road Church of Christ on an educational framework called Journeylands. That left me at home with AB. We played in her room, we spent half an hour or so on my laptop playing the Memory game, we read from her books, and we practiced telling each other stories.

Then T– called to tell me we were all supposed to meet Dad for lunch at Jason’s Deli, so I had AB watch some TV while I got ready, and then we rapidly got her dressed (and I made a humorous attempt at putting her hair in a ponytail), and headed north.

Lunch was awesome, and afterward T– and Mom took AB with them to go shopping for baby stuff. Dad headed back to his conference, so that left me alone. I ran home, took care of some stuff on my laptop, and then headed back out again for our monthly writer’s group at Courtney’s.

That probably deserves its own post (as it’s gotten in the past), but I’m feeling lazy now and I was sleepy and distracted then, so I couldn’t do it justice anyway. Shawn was missing, so it was just the three of us. We started out talking about dreams (and nightmares), and I told the story of my first nightmare (the killer shark in the apartment swimming pool), and my most recent (last week, when T– walked away from our marriage because I left her to fend for herself when we found ourselves caught in a swamp surrounded by killer snakes and spiders).

Then from there we talked more about our creative influences, how we come up with titles, and how we cope with the constant temptation to jump to new projects — leaving old ones unfinished. We also talked about another OKC writer’s group we might try to crash sometime, and a potential addition to our group, and traditional versus non-traditional publishers. I also dragged the conversation toward magic in the real world for a bit, and we each seized that opportunity to feel a little bit foolish.

Then it was 4:30, and time to split up. I got home just after Dad, and Mom was still there with AB (who was taking a nap). T– was already up at the church, getting ready for a crop, and she had XP with her.

So it was just me and Mom and Dad, and I took the opportunity to ask them for some advice and analysis on parenting. Specifically, I wanted to know how much change I should expect in AB in the coming years. I feel like we’ve weathered the differentiation called “the terrible twos” at this point — we’ve seen it, we’ve found ways to address it, and at this point, though her rebellion can be frustrating at times, it isn’t baffling. It’s predictable, and addressable, and I feel like we both know who she is.

So my question was, how many more major change events are there, in early childhood development? I was relieved when Mom and Dad both agreed there really aren’t any. We can reasonably expect AB to be pretty much the person she is now for most of the next nine years. I’m happy with that answer. I like the person she is.

They also had some good information about how to handle the challenges of her differentiation events in her teenage years, but I really didn’t enjoy thinking about that. Not that I’m worried about the rebellion or family drama or anything…I just don’t like thinking about her being a teenager. It feels far too close, and that’s only a handful of years before she’s gone. Miserable thought, that.

Anyway, that took up most of an hour, and then I went and woke AB up so she could go to the church with Mom. A few minutes later K– came over, having dropped his baby off there, too. We ordered a couple pizzas and loaded up Beatles: Rock Band. An hour or so later, my brother-in-law called to ask if he could come join us, and we rocked out for two hours before he and K– had to go pick up their little ones.

Right around then Mom and my older sister came home with AB, and after she went down to bed the rest of us played some more Rock Band. I mixed up a pitcher of strawberry daiquiris for us, too, and we all had a good time. By the time T– got home my sister was gone (to stay at my little sister’s place), and Mom and Dad were in bed, so it was just me still awake, playing WoW.

I didn’t stay up too late, though. I was tired, so I went to bed around 11:30 with no regrets.

Sunday morning we had a full house getting ready for church, and all of us running a little bit late, but we managed to get ourselves together somehow and showed up no more than five minutes later for service.

The sermon was on the various social values of hymns in a congregation, and before Rob was done Dad leaned over and said, “I want you to introduce me to your preach after church.” Turned out that was a sermon Dad had been wanting to preach for years, and while he’d heard lots of sermons on the topic, he’d never heard anyone express the real benefits and perspective that Rob gave in his sermon.

So we caught Rob after church (after waiting through an impressive line), and Dad got to compliment and thanks Rob for his sermon, and Rob got invite Dad to come give a marriage and family seminar to Britton Road sometime — something he’s been wanting to talk with Dad about for a while. So that’s pretty cool.

Then afterward we all went over my sister’s place for an Italian-themed lunch of salad, chicken pasta, and cheesecake for dessert. Everyone agreed the food was incredibly good. AB and her older cousin weren’t getting along terribly well, though — probably because they were both in severe need of a nap — so we split up and went back home to put AB to bed. Mom and Dad decided to head home around the same time, too, so we got them packed up and said our goodbyes.

And then, suddenly and unexpectedly, the house was quiet. For the first time in ten days.

T– watched some Law and Order, I played some WoW, and then AB woke up from her nap and the spell was broken. We grabbed some McDonalds for dinner, and then all too soon it was time for me to head down to Norman for my meeting with Toby.

I didn’t want to go. I was tired and worn out, and it’s not a short drive, but I had made a commitment. And, after all, Toby was doing a favor for me. I showed up, and found out he had, in fact, finished it. He walked me through the code, teaching me what it did (so I could make little modifications on my own), and it’s one of those things where it’s fascinating in its simplicity. He did a really fantastic job. And after a quick test run (and double-checking how the output looked in Word), I was able to put the work stuff aside and we had some time to just talk. That was fun. He’s in the same boat I am — having to work with a new baby at home — but in spite of all the chaos, and petty problems at work, and weird happenings with rent houses in Tulsa…in spite of all that, we’re both doing pretty well. It was fun to get to hear that, and say that, and just to talk programming with my programming teacher for an hour or so.

Then I drove back home, in the weary dark, and crawled into bed and said good night to my weekend.

Other than that, it’s just things and stuff.

My Tens of Thousands

I’m an observant person. I’m introspective and extrapolative. I spend a lot of time thinking about how the world really is, and how that information should affect my decisions. I call this careful consideration my “governing intellect” — not that it does a ton of governing. It ends up being more a source of guilt (that I don’t follow my reason) than a helpful tutor. But still, I sometimes heed its advice — and sometimes to my own detriment.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, the Lord said to my governing intellect, “Come and sit by my side.” I’m not a proud man. I went and I sat. The man had some interesting things to say.

I have always lived a charmed life. This has manifested in mundane ways (a happy, prosperous family environment, an upbringing with a strong emphasis on education, and an inborn talent with the written word), and in ways mystical (I’ve never lost real money in a game of poker).

I’ve long recognized this effect in my life, and rarely taken it for granted. I remember reading the Odyssey early in high school and recognizing an easy familiarity with Odysseus, beloved of Athene. He was clever and careful, but even so, he had help. Things ever fell his way. So also with me.

In our own lore there’s another like him, and I’ve also often compared myself to King David. Chosen and blessed, set apart to do great things, I had nothing to fear from even the mightiest of enemies. That became my refrain. I can’t count the times I’ve whispered under my breath, “Lord, let me pass unseen through the camp of my enemies.”

He took me aside recently, though, and reprimanded me. That has been too much my attitude. When a university-level teaching job fell into my lap — money we sorely needed and an opportunity many people invest years of their lives just to apply for — I spent days and weeks and months just worrying, just hoping that I could survive. I just wanted to get through it, hopefully without drawing any attention to myself, and make it to December in one piece.

Oh humble yes, he said, but humble son of God!

There is so much more to David than the slinking thief, discreetly hemming his king’s old cape. An heir is made not just to survive, but to reign. I’ve spent years hiding in my dirty cave, with nary an adversary on the plains below. Anointed and appointed, spending all my gracious charms on nervous getting by, when my role is so much greater. I should be capturing cities to swell my empire. I should be conquering to preserve my name, and to lift up the names of my sons. I’ve spent long enough as a shepherd, I should long since have become a king.

That failing is on me. The opportunities to rise up are always there — served up to me on royal finery, and squandered in my timidity even as I proclaim that I’m trembling in fear of the Parable of the Talents. The Lord said to my governing intellect, “Come and sit by my side, and we’ll make cautious reason our footstool, because there are far more interesting things going on than your boring old reality.”

I can’t wait to see my Jerusalem.

Sinful Saint (a poem)

I’ve heard you —
full of spirit, right with God —
In reverence and deep humility
Say, “I am just a sinful child
Made clean by God’s good love.”

I’ve heard you whisper hope to hurt
and help to those in need.
I’ve seen you shine
and shape the world
with faith.

But life is long
and comfort short
and sharp the Tempter’s sting.
So time to time you’ll trip and fall,
or turn and walk away.
Time to time you’ll come to earth
and leave Heaven behind.
Time to time you’ll gutter
let your flame almost go out.
And then you tremble, full of fear so far from God.

But I am not afraid.
I’m not ashamed, I’m not surprised.
From time to time you fall, as do we all.
But nothing you could do —
no angry word, no selfish choice, no foolish indiscretion —
There’s nothing in your power to make untrue
The words you knew with confidence before.
From time to time, from day to day,
No matter where along your way
The best and worst you’ll ever say
Is “I am just a sinful child
Made clean by God’s good love.”

Don’t be surprised. Don’t be ashamed.
Don’t ever be afraid.
Your God forgives, and that is why you call him Lord.

Wrath of God

As you already know if you’ve read through my many posts on religion, I don’t really believe in a punitive Hell. If you think that frees me from fear of God, though, you’d better think again. No, I live in constant, trembling horror of the threat in the Parable of the Talents. I wonder if I’m alone in this.

Mission Report: British Isles Campaign

I always blush and give a little apology when I write a blog post four or five days late. The lag on this one comes remarkably close to a true decade.

The summer after our Sophomore year at OC, T– and I went to the British Isles on a mission campaign led by Dr. John Maple. I mentioned it in passing the other day, because a chance name on Facebook brought back memories of it, but I’ve had a deluge of such chances lately. I keep coming across unexpected recollections of that time, and I finally stopped to think about it.

I don’t have a great memory of my personal history. That’s why I keep such excruciatingly detailed logs of my activity here, because even going back and reading through a page of my life last year floods me with startling memory. Going back two years or three without that assistance is a real stretch, so my college days — and a mission trip nine years in the past — is mostly nothing but a blur.

Sometimes things fall into place, though, and the veil is parted, and as that moment in time swam into view recently, I encountered insight with an unexpected shock. There’s something I’d never realized before. When I went to Scotland, I didn’t know I had social anxiety.

Social Anxiety
I talk about social anxiety sometimes, but not much. I’ve been told I hide it well, but I’ve been working hard at that for six or seven years now, so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. The anxiety is there, though, and it’s been there…pretty close to all my life. Maybe not in elementary school — at least, not early on — but it was well and truly in place by the time I got to middle school. I used to call myself “anti-social” because I thought it sounded cooler than “shy.” But I wasn’t really either one. I’ve always craved relationships. I make relationships work, and I depend on them, but I’m no good at socializing. Interacting with people on a casual level makes me sick. Really, actually, everyday sick. Low-grade anxiety feels like having the flu. A full-on anxiety attack feels so bad it’s commonly confused with a heart attack. I get these things from small talk.

That’s the difference between “shy” and social anxiety. And it’s something I didn’t really grasp when I was a kid, because a kid doesn’t have any reference point but his own experience. I got up into college and started encountering a lot more people with a lot of different life experiences, and I started to get a clue. I graduated and got a real job and learned about having to interact with people on a casual level day in and day out — and my paycheck depending on it — and that’s where I really discovered the truth about myself. These days I’ve got some good barriers and I’ve got some coping mechanisms, so I can survive in the workforce. But I learned that all two or three years too late.

The Mission Trip
We went to Britain for six weeks. Dr. Maple invited me personally, and I was ecstatic about the opportunity. My favorite books growing up were The Hobbit and Ivanhoe and The Three Musketeers (and, believe it or not, one of the sequels to The Three Musketeers takes place almost exclusively in England, so that counts!). I couldn’t wait to go.

Before we could do that we had the planning sessions, though, and I met the other missionaries we’d be working with. We had meetings every few weeks for months, and I never really enjoyed those. I kept looking for excuses to skip them, but if we passed a certain number of absences we got kicked off the campaign, so I managed to show up. Then we flew over to London — and that was my first international flight — and of course that was draining. But we got in early in the morning on a Friday and Dr. Maple didn’t want us all crushed by jetlag for a week so he insisted on keeping us all awake until sunset. We went to the British museum and had lunch in town and went to Something-or-Other Square (which is famous) and did a bunch of shopping and sightseeing, and we were all miserable by mid-afternoon. He finally set us loose on the town after dinner, and I remember I went to see Les Miserables at a little theater just to grab a seat in the back row and snooze in the dark. That was one of the happiest moments on my trip.

We went out to the site of our first VBS Saturday, got set up and went over our plans for the week, and on Sunday morning I showed up at church and Dr. Maple told me I’d be helping out with a skit during the morning lesson. I’d be wearing robes and performing a children’s play in front of the whole congregation. I learned this at eight and went on stage at nine. I was sick for the rest of the day.

That’s really how my whole trip went. I was hanging out with these awesome kids, experiencing my first visit to places I’d dreamed of all my life, and I hated it. I hated every minute of it. I hated showing up to teach classes, I hated getting together for Dr. Maple’s stupid devotionals, I hated meeting with the other missionaries to discuss class schedules, I really hated going out to dinner at the local church members’ houses….

I was on a mission trip. I was there to do God’s work, and I was surrounded by enthusiastic, happy, encouraging people. And the whole time I felt sick. I was tired, I was frequently depressed, and all I wanted to do, pretty much every minute of every day, was go off to my room, lock everyone else out (because I was generally sharing a room with one of the other missionaries and ten to twelve elementary-school boys), and just hide in the dark, alone, and try to catch my breath.

I don’t talk much about social anxiety and when I do, I don’t get a lot of sympathy. That’s fine. I understand. But the real tragedy of this memory is that, back then, I didn’t know. I didn’t understand that I was sick. All I knew was that this should be the most amazing, uplifting experience of my life, and I detested it. I couldn’t find any excuse other than my own weakness, so I spent more and more of my time hating myself. It astonishes me to read my writing from the time before that, to remember just how much I considered myself a real holy warrior, a dedicated disciple out to fix the world with words and Truth. I went to England, took a real stab at it, and learned that it made me miserable.

That broke my faith. Not…it didn’t hurt my belief in God. It just shattered my belief in me. I would sit in the corner — while everyone else laughed and joked over paper cups of punch and cheap cookies — I would sit in the corner and hope nobody tried to talk to me, and call myself monster. I spent most of six weeks doing that.

I can manufacture fond memories of the things I should have enjoyed while I was there, but the three times I was really, truly happy, I was alone. I remember those stolen hours in the playhouse on our first day in London. I remember the weekend between camp sessions when we got to go stay with my Uncle Perry and his family, and even though I was never too close to them it felt like sweet sanctuary compared to the chaos of church camp. And then I remember an afternoon at Saint Andrews.

I went off alone. T– went browsing in the town’s little shops, and I wandered away, down to the seaside, and sat by myself on the sand, looking out over the cold North Sea. I was there for hours, just sitting by myself, and then I wandered up to the old ruined abbey and sat among the graves for a while, enjoying that, too, until T– came and found me. And I smiled for her, and hugged her, and she showed me the headstones so old all markings were obliterated, and the path up to the belltower she’d found, and it was fascinating, but it was work. Even as I smiled for her, I felt that day’s peace slipping away. The three moments I really felt happy, over the space of six weeks, were moments when I was alone.

Looking Back
Knowing what I know now, there’s nothing wrong with that. Knowing what I know now, I could have carved out a lot more of those moments and felt a lot less selfish about them. I could have said no to the game of kickball. I could have found a quiet spot instead of seeking out the quiet kid who needed to be talked with, because that’s what I needed to do my job. At the time it just felt like weakness, and selfishness, and I never spoke up.

I wish I had known. I don’t bother wishing I were free from social anxiety, because I think a lot of what makes me special has grown from the quiet time alone that I’ve sought, throughout the years. But I wish I had known already what it was, and what it meant. Lacking that, I wish I hadn’t gone on the mission trip. It was a wonderful experience — even with everything I’ve said, it was a wonderful experience — but my reaction while I was there planted a seed of doubt and disappointment and darkness in me that quietly grew and grew. Years later, when we were living in Tulsa, that darkness became a deep depression, a crippling self hate that nearly wrecked my life.

All because my heart beats a little too fast when someone says hi to me. All because I can’t quite catch my breath when a stranger reaches out to shake my hand. It’s sad, really.

But I’m getting better.

Greatness: Heart’s Desire

There’s a verse in the Psalms that took me by surprise, first time I read it.

“Delight yourself in the Lord; and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

That’s Psalm 37:4. It’s in a familiar vein, “Ask and you shall receive,” and the kid asking his father for a loaf of bread, and even the insistent widow. That’s all Jesus, though, right? I mean, he was a generous guy. It struck me, though, reading the psalmist saying the same sort of thing….

Prayer is a serious thing, in the Bible. It’s a powerful thing. We are encouraged and ordered to use it. And not just for meditation, not just as an opportunity to spread our lives before God, and hopefully gain a new perspective. We are directly instructed to ask for what we want, because God wants to be our provider. He makes that clear, again and again. Look what he was trying to do in Eden.

That Psalm caught my attention when I was a boy, back when I was about sixteen, and I put it to the test. I felt confident in that time, because I did delight in the Lord, I was certain of that, and more importantly, I knew without a doubt the desire of my heart. And I didn’t have it.

So I prayed. I prayed, and in the night I had a dream, a glimpse of the life I wanted to have, years off, and that was enough for me. I took confidence from that moment, and I received what I asked for then.

That was a powerful experience for me.

A prayer isn’t a birthday cake wish, y’know? I don’t think it needs to be a secret. Sitting in church last Sunday, the man was saying this or that about relying on God, about letting him exercise his power within your life. That’s something I believe in, as all of you know. I believe the world is a malleable thing, that reality can be bent for the purposes of God or man. I nodded, understanding and encouraged, even, and suddenly I remembered high school, and that desperate prayer….

I have a heart’s desire, in my life today. I have lots of things to ask for (and hope that they will be given). We have a baby on the way, and I want her to be healthy. I want Trish to be healthy through it all, and I worry about that. I want lots of little things, the comforts that require wealth beyond what I already have. I pray a lot. I ask for a lot. But those are just things. Somehow, in my head at least, I’ve separated such prayers, such petitions, from the sort of desire the psalmist was talking about.

My heart’s desire, today and now, is to be a best-selling writer. I want to publish a work, and have it read by the world. I want to write, stories and lessons and snapshots, to show readers what the world was and is and could be. I want my name to be remembered, for the words that I said. I have a message that I want heard, I have talents, gifts, that I want to use. I want the money. Not that — I want the opportunity. I want my writing to be my life.

I was an A student in elementary school. I was good at everything except multiplication. I could teach myself, given the right books, and I usually managed to get them. I had a lot of plans for the future. For most of my childhood, they had nothing to do with writing.

A lot of you have known me for a long time, but if you haven’t heard me tell this story, you don’t know this story. That is to say, most of you know me as a writer, but none of you were there, at the crucial moment, when I discovered why I was a writer. Maybe Josh, but no one else.

I was maybe twelve. Probably eleven. We’d had a handful of writing projects over the last year, and I’d done well enough on them (but, then, I did well on all of my projects, as long as they weren’t based on multiplication). One day I was thinking through the writing process, though. The actual job description, of the sort of person who writes stories, and I realized it would be a home job. Maybe a nice office, maybe just a pad of paper on the kitchen table, but it would be a home job.

I wanted that, because I wanted to be home for my kids. I wanted to be home with my family, even when I was working. That picture stuck in my head, and I’ve never shaken it. Even times when I was certain I didn’t want kids, it was mostly because of some variation of the disappointment at realizing I wouldn’t be able to realize that picture.

I was twelve. That’s how I thought when I was twelve. Yeesh.

That’s my heart’s desire. I have a great job now, a fantastic one, that pays well and demands nothing of me but those things at which I excel, those things I can do easily and quickly and well. Given some of the things that have been discussed recently, it could get even better. And it’s a better job than I deserve, considering the effort I’ve put into it. I chalk that up to a blessing, a gift. I’m in no position to complain, and I realize that.

But my heart’s desire is to be a writer, just a writer, completely a writer, for my family. That last bit matters, too. I could have been a starving artist. I could have refused to take a job, and chased after every avenue available to me to get a book sold (in a market that is incredibly difficult to get a foot in the door), but it’s about more than that to me. That’s why I described my picture, my goal when I was twelve. I want it for my family, not in spite of my family. I want something better than I deserve to have, something I maybe had a shot at in the past, but I’ve squandered my opportunities. I want something that would completely change my life. I want it as a gift, served up on a silver platter.

Why not? It’s happened before.

I do delight in the Lord. Maybe not as loudly as I did back then. Certainly not as dogmatically. But I do. And I crave this, looking through the few short days between now and then, I want this very much. Please, let it be so. Amen.

Journal Entry: September 26, 2006


Trish just called. (No, that’s not why!)

Right, well, as you all know, we lost our renters in Tulsa a long time ago (however long it’s been since the last time I posted — so, ages). Actually, we lost them a month before that, but it took a month for our rental manager to let us know.

Here’s how rental managers work: They take the first month’s rent to pay for their advertising, cleaning, repairs costs associated with getting the house rented in the first place. They do all that, tidy the house up, show it to people, and they track down people to rent the place.

Then, when they have renters, they handle any problems that come up. They generally have a few handymen on-call who can do small repairs, and anything beyond that the manager takes care of tracking down repair guys to fix. Now, mind, they don’t pay for any of this. And the renters don’t pay for any of this. It all comes out of the owner’s check. Every month, the renter pays his rent to the manager, the manager takes out 10% to cover his answering phone calls and arranging for repairs, then he takes out any money that went to repairs or whatnot, and if there’s anything left over, he sends that to the owner. Bear in mind that, no matter how much the manager sends, the owner has to pay the full mortgage.

When we were unable to sell our Tulsa house, after moving to OKC, we got a rental manager who came highly recommended. It took him about two months to get the house rented out (which is the same as saying we had to pay three months’ mortgage (remember he gets the first rent check) with nothing coming back to us. That hurt us financially, but I was getting contract work from Lowrance that cushioned the blow. Around March, when we got our first rent check, I also stopped getting work from Lowrance.

So now here we are. As you know, our renters bugged out sometime in July. We never got an August rent check. We heard from our manager early-August, around the time we were expecting a check, that we wouldn’t be getting one, then or for the foreseeable future. He did tell us that the renters had left the house in pretty good shape (thank goodness), and that he’d be getting to work finding us new renters.

Three weeks passed, and when Trish called he said that he’d had a few people interested, but that we would need to put carpet in two rooms to make the house more attractive to renters. He estimated $400. Bear in mind, we’re already significantly negative, and he’s asking for more money. Trish and I talked about it, came up with a couple workarounds. She knew she’d be going to Tulsa soon, so she decided she’d maybe pick up some carpet scraps (room-size) on the cheap, and we could just lay them in the rooms. Something like that.

Well, it took her longer to get to Tulsa than she expected. Finally happened today, and while she was there, she went by the house. Then she called me.

Apparently, the manager lied to us. The house is a wreck. There’s crappy old furniture in some of the rooms, and in the garage. They’d asked permission to paint some of the walls (and we gave them a significant discount on one month’s rent to do it themselves) — Trish says that they only half-finished the painting. They stole the very nice fan from the living room. They left, just, trash all over the floor. Apparently there’s old milk cartons in the middle of the living room floor. And, because of the trash, there’s roaches all over the place.

Okay, all of that is kind of expected. That’s how renters leave a house when they leave, really. But, well, it was expected to be that way when they left, two months ago! Our manager’s job is to clean up exactly that sort of stuff. He lied to us, told us it was clean when they left, and then he did nothing for two months to fix it. In the meantime, he’s supposed to be showing the house to potential renters, which means he’s either failed to do that entirely, or he’s been showing it in the state it’s in.

That’s infuriating.

And I mentioned the bugs, right? The ones that are there because of all the trash left out? That is entirely his fault. That’s probably a $150-$200 fumigation bill, that is entirely his fault. And at least two months without rent because he failed to do his job.

Bah. I know, it’s whining. I’m sorry for that. I try not to use my blog to complain, unless it’s in a philosophical-sounding essay, but this one is just…argh. I’m angry at this guy. He has, personally, deliberately, caused a significant amount of grief to me and to Trish.

Bah! Beh. Angry. Furious. Anyway, we’re firing him. That much, of course, that’s obvious. Beyond that, I don’t know what we can do. We’re stuck, once again, in a position where it would be really hard to sell the house (we’re already past the end of the season). We can go find another manager, but, y’know, this one came highly recommended. How do we find someone better? Even if we do, or if we try to manage it ourselves, we’re still months away from seeing an actual rent check. And it’s probably going to cost us (and some subsection of our friends and family, godblessem) a weekend between now and then, whatever “then” is, to get the place fixed up.

Since we hired that rental manager last October, we’ve had to pay about $7,700 in mortgage. After subtracting his fees (and, remember, first month’s rent), we received about $2,600 in rent. If you know us, you know that’s not the sort of loss we can just absorb, y’know? And we’re looking at it getting worse before it gets better.

Yeah, I’m praying about it. And I’m confident it will work out. God’s never let us down, financially, but he doesn’t mind letting it get scary, I guess. My parents have never let us down, either. Nor my friends. I’ve got a great support network, I just hate being a burden on them. On you, basically. Anyway, keep us in your prayers. That’s the long and the short of it.