Thursday, October 22, 2015

What Sort of Gift is the Present?

So there's this old corny saying you might have heard, "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift of God, which is why we call it the present." I've seen it attributed to both Bil Keane (who writes/wrote? the Family Circus cartoon) and Joan Rivers (so there you go). It was unbearably cheesy even when I was seven years old. I love a good homonym, but that's not exactly "good." I've honestly not given it a second thought since first hearing it, but it sprung to mind from the ether recently as I was reflecting on the present.

So much of religion seems to be caught up in the future (or maybe the past - here's lookin' at you, Ken Ham*) - people seem drawn to religious experience as a means of escape. Life is hard or inscrutable and spending time focused on something else, something different, something better, makes the less-than-bearable slightly less less-than-bearable. I suspect this is precisely what Karl Marx was talking about when he appropriated a phrase from the Marquis de Sade and called religion "the opium of the people."

I'm not sure Marx was meaning this as derogatorily as he's gotten credit for (certainly not as much as the German Romantic Novalis, who used basically the same phrase 50 years earlier), but it is an apt description. Religion has, in large part, numbed people to the world around them and greatly reduced the value we place on the here and now.

I listened to part of an interview with the musician Derek Webb a few weeks back. He comes from a pretty staunch Calvinist theological background, but he said something I hadn't quite put together from that perspective (at least seriously), although it's pretty simple. He said (and I'm paraphrasing, even though I'm using quotes), "If God has the end already determined. If we're already destined to be saved or not, then why not doubt? Why not ask questions and seek answers and try to figure things out?" I realized as much as I often take issue with the Calvinist position on things - at least here, we might have wound up in the same spot.

I'm a Wesleyan, with a real emphasis on free will - so much so I tend to fall into the camp that says the future isn't knowable at all. I believe and affirm God is capable of handling any eventuality and will bring everything to its intended redemption, but I happily believe the details are still to be determined. It never occurred to me, that despite the very real problems some Calvinists have with how I believe (and vice versa), we both really do affirm the sovereignty and justice of God as deeply as possible.

I'm real fond of saying, "God's got the ends worked out," and I really believe it. I believe the love of God will, in the end, conquer all - not because free will is a facade, but because eternity is a long time, but it's not long enough to outlast God's love.

What that means, though, is that we have to pay an awful lot of attention to the present. It's really all we've got. I suppose if what I said in the previous paragraph is true, I can just sit around doing nothing and eventually it'll all make sense, but, like Derek Webb, I want to ask the questions, mostly because I'd rather not take an eternity to figure out how to live in eternity. If the Kingdom of God is already here, if the way eternity works is already how the world works (even if that's not always apparent), I want to get to livin' that way now.

All of this is really prologue to the one simple thought that arose this week: maybe it's that desire to get things right that's really the problem.

Hear me out. If the end is not the goal, we're only left with the means. That's what I mean by focusing on the present. The end result of our lives is not the point, the way we get to the end is what matters. But once we adopt that philosophy, we've sort of created another end. Now it's not about getting to heaven when we die, it's about getting the next decision right - doing the right thing in the next moment. And that's still an end.

I've always been very envious of people who are comfortable with themselves. You know, those people who don't apologize for who they are? They might come back and make things right with you if they stick their foot in their mouth, but they're not going to apologize for speaking freely. These people own who they are, faults and all. That's really what it is - not that anyone is proud of their faults, just that they've accepted their imperfect people.

I am NOT like this. I'm constantly upset that I'm not more perfect. I want to give my Nazarene upbringing a pass on this, but I'm not sure that's fair. I think our theology is a bit more nuanced than the popular perception of "perfection" we started out with, but the culture and climate sure isn't forgiving. I had this notion of "always be better" drilled into me from birth (mostly without anyone ever saying those words - sometimes even saying the opposite). It's really stuck with me.

I am constantly measuring the me I am against the me I'd like to be. That makes sense, you know, if you're a clock, say, and who you are and what you do are completely linked. It doesn't work as well for a person. My reactions are my reactions. They are me. Now I can catch myself and evaluate those reaction and perhaps head them off, amending my actions to better reflect the person I want to be, but that doesn't change the person I am. I'm still focused on the ends rather than the means. I'm not being present-minded.

I do believe in transformation and I believe in planning for it. I'm fully supportive of instantaneous, miraculous transformation through the power of the Holy Spirit. I've seen and experienced enough to know that sometimes what changes a person really does come from outside themselves. Yet I also know that we can work to be different - not in the way I described above, simply assessing the output and altering it to fit the image we want to project. I believe we can alter who we are, over time, given dedication and love.

That's the rub. That's where the present doesn't feel so much like a gift. Because in each moment, we need to love ourselves.

I recognize how flighty that sounds (my wife might say "hippy-dippy"), but I think it's really true. People who are comfortable with themselves may still have a lot of problems (don't we all), but they've conquered one hurdle that constantly trips so many of us up: they don't let their own actions determine their self worth. They love themselves.

That's not something you can pretend or fake (at least not for very long) - and I'm not even sure exactly how to do it (sorry), but it seems vitally important to everything else in life. Maybe that's what takes an eternity for some people - just being able to look in the mirror and be ok with what they see?

After all, what we do in the present doesn't really affect the future - not the real future anyway. If Calvinists and Wesleyans agree, God's got the end figured out, the only thing our present can really affect is the next minute or month or year - which are really nothing in comparison to all of time.

Now, for the mea culpa: I've said all this and to this I give strong intellectual assent. The present should really be a gift. But I'll freely admit, I don't have this internalized well enough to live it out. I spend far too much time thinking about how my present affects my future and it keeps me from doing in the moment what I need to do to get things right. I have real difficulty being me and loving me, because I'm not really sure they're good enough for the future I want.

I have no answer here. No good news and happy ending - other than to affirm the ending is happy and we can start enjoying it now if we can just be ourselves in the present.

*Who I won't dignify with a link.

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