Christian Mysticism Part III, The Real Mystery of God

The Metaphysical Perspective

I’ve heard it said that it requires mysticism to experience the mystery of God. I disagree. I will point out again the Christian culture has mixed a Greek metaphysical view of nature and super-nature (that realm of supernatural).  For clarification, I will state that some of the synonyms for this concept of nature might include; creation, the seen, and the material. Within this Platonic framework, as I said before, nature is subordinate to the spiritual. Some would go as far to say that nature is evil, part of Satan’s domain.

In a much more Biblical view, the material isn’t inferior, as if it came from a Sears and Roebuck catalog, rather than from God’s creative act. It is of great significance and value because it is made by God. There is a continuum between the seen and unseen that is not morally hierarchical, but linear. Both are God’s stuff and of equal value. No human understands the character of the unseen (one of many mysteries) and could be the same as the “other universes” (multiverse) that some astrophysicists have described. This is not an attempt to reduce God to the material or to deny the fact that He can work outside of the laws of nature, but it is to elevate the material from the low position that Christians have unfortunately ascribed it to. As a guest pastor implied last Sunday, to really, really experience God, you must enter into the “crazies.”  He meant irrational.the-fire-breathing-dragon-17473

Imagine that you had several kids that loved to play hockey. You set up them space on the paved driveway for roller hockey. It took you about ten minutes. But a year later, you went to the great expense to build them a wonderful ice hockey rink on the other side of your house.  Then you start to notice that they never used the professional-level hockey rink. You ask them why. They informed you that the driveway, while inadequate, was from you, while the ice rink was built by the guy down the street, and he was not a good guy. They, out of honor for you, preferred to use the space that you quickly created for them. How would that make you feel? Confused?

God created this material world for our good pleasure and He did it with great mastery. This includes our physical bodies. He also made the intangibles like reason, beauty, emotion, and logic. The pastor from last week was implying that God only made the inline skate court in the driveway, where the kids had to pretend they were on the ice. In other words, God only created the spiritual and to really know Him, you have to encounter him there.

I will close this section with an answer to an imaginary question or argument. You may say, “Okay, so the material is more important than I thought. But, to have a balanced spiritual experience, you should embrace the beauty and wonder of the material and that of the immaterial.”  If you are talking about the irrational, then you are going back to the Platonic concept that there really is a place of irrationality, where God dwells. I doubt that.

The Historical Perspective on the Mystery of God

If this were 2500 years ago and you lived in a small village somewhere in modern-day Europe you would be surrounded by the possibility of nearby mysteries. If a visitor came to your village and reported that they had seen, in Africa, a huge flying reptile that breathed fire and a horse that was orange and had the ability to stretch its neck far up into the trees to graze, you would be likely to believe both. We knew very little about the world at that time and both creatures were equally plausible. Mystery was everywhere and close at hand. But as discovery and science became more dominate, we got to know the world better and better. At this point in history, we have searched the four corners of the earth and there are no fire-breathing dragons or probably never have been. There are remains of creatures millions of years ago that could pass as a dragon. But we know with certainty that Giraffes exist.

So, much of the close at hand mystery has been resolved. I’ve heard it said (in a lecture once) that there are no mysteries left so we are a sad and depressed people. That is NOT true. The mysteries have only become more distant. There are still many unknowns on this earth, from the abyss of the Pacific to the sub-atomic and the microscopic. But the greatest mysteries, in my opinion, are in the realm of physics and astrophysics and the unexplored universe. Some of this mystery is garden variety, such as the concepts of magnetism and gravity. These forces have only been described (for example Newton describing gravity) but no one has a clue how either really work. Then we move on to the mind-boggling concepts of things like Dark Matter and Dark Energy (not to give moral connotations of “darkness” as not from God, but dark meaning not observed or understood). Another name for Dark, as the astrophysicists use it, is enigmatic.

So, people who argue with me that you must have irrational mysticism (spiritual in the unseen realm) to experience God’s mystery wholly, I disagree. I mean quantum mechanics is irrational. The dark energy is irrational. Not everything in this material world is rational and should bring awe.

Others will say that my position is based on a non-Biblical philosophical concept of Materialism (physicalism). That all of existence is within the boundaries of the material and there is nothing else. That is not my position at all. That position comes from the Enlightenment where an arbitrary position was taken that if something cannot be observed, it does not exist.

So, what is the harm of creating mystical experiences that are in the spiritual instead of the material (assuming that things like quantum mechanics and dark matter and energy are still “material”)? After all, I do believe in the immaterial.

The harm is two-fold. First, is falling back on the erroneous belief that this material world is not enough. God didn’t do a good enough job with it, so we need something more. Or that God didn’t even make this wonderful ice rink but only the (supernatural) clearing on the asphalt. My major point of resistance is that a focus on the spiritual, for the sake of the material, creates a place of great dishonesty. As I said in my first post on this subject, when I was a charismatic, it was the most psychologically dishonest time of my life. We were all faking miracles, happy to report them in each conversation.

This guest pastor (like many other mystics) told of supernatural experience after supernatural experience.  These stories are very alluring, especially to the immature Christian. But I would bet that these stories are false.  I have seen Christians caught up in the sensational “lying for Jesus” mode many times. When he told a story of healing a woman from liver cancer, I was seriously tempted to find out her name and to investigate the story.

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I work in medicine. I was once in a practice where a lady had terminal lung cancer. Out of desperation, she went to a traveling faith-healing tent revival that came to our town. The evangelist under that big tent cast a demon out of her and proclaimed her cured. She called our office and said she didn’t need to come back because she was cancer free now. Her family circulated the story about her miraculous healing, even to my church. I was an elder ther

e and heard the story shared over and over of how great God was. I was not allowed, by law, to state that her last chest CT showed a progression of the disease, as expected. To everyone’s shock, she suddenly died from the disease a few months later. I imagine that some people lost their faith due to the delusional notion and assurance that God had healed her when he had not. It was part of the “supernatural” charade. The traveling revivalist? Well, he was long gone, on to the next town where he would proclaim people were healed. Some, I’m sure, had a treatable form of cancer, but stopped their treatment because of him. They probably died due to lack of treatment caused by the lying evangelist. That’s the harm.dreamstime_s_43697528-720x380

In my book, Butterflies in the Belfry, I make the point (several times I believe) that, if God is there, he dwells with reality. The closer we are to reality, the closer we can be to him. Psychological honestly goes hand in hand with spiritual maturity, not sensational, but untrue narratives.

The Emotional

In closing, I must be clear that “experience” is a key part of our knowing God. But, my point is that it is okay to call that experience what it is, emotions. Emotions are not “of the flesh” as inferior, but God-given. It is part of who we are and would naturally be part of any relationship. So it is okay to say that when I went up on the mountain to pray, I felt an overwhelming joy when I considered all that God has done for me. But if I say, while praying I felt an angel come down and whisper in my ear that God loved me and then I turned and saw the angel flying away, that is an old-fashioned lie. Sin in other words. But can God work outside the material? The Bible as accounts of this. But it is rare. The ice hockey father may prefer to play with inline skates and a ball on the asphalt at times, rather than their beautiful rink. But it does not devalue the magnificence of the rink.

 

 

Part II—The General Side of Mysticism Resistance

I will make the point once more that the purpose of this article is not to criticize those who find mysticism as an important part of their lives or spirituality. My purpose for writing is for those, like me, who have no desire to be mystics, at least in accordance with the popular definition. We need to understand that it is healthy to have our view. There is an unspoken belief that the really “spiritual” Christians seek the mystical expressions. I’m here to say that is not true.

Mysticism Within the Philosophical-Historical Context

I will try to make this simple and cover only one small facet of the question. Within Christianity, the tension starts when the early church was painted on the canvas of the Greek culture. The Church adopted, in part, a Greek-Platonic metaphysical view of existence. I say, “in part” because the early church leaders pushed against this idea through their great Church councils, yet it was still woven into the fabric of the new religion.

Without saying too much, this Platonic-Christian view sees this

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material / physical world has less importance than the spiritual, which was defined as residing within an unseen world in the heavens. Some, such as the Gnostics, saw the material as not only inferior but evil. This was the devil’s domain and heaven was God’s.

Within this mindset, it became automatic that an experience, which could not be explained by material world constructs (reason, logic, empirical investigation) was superior to those that could. For that reason, mysticism was very attractive.

We just had a guest pastor who was explicitly clear that the true experience of God is irrational because God is irrational. I profoundly disagree with this conclusion and I think such thinking is very dangerous, setting up the believer in the irrational-mystic to living in a surreal world underpinned with a lot of self-deception. God is the writer of logic, reason, and the giver of rationality.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty of the historical developments (which I do cover in my book, Butterflies in the Belfry) I will just say that when this desire for the spiritual/mystical reached a pinnacle, the cultural manifestation was the Dark Ages.

Jumping ahead, a different Greek philosophy, Aristotelianism, began to seep into Europe north of the Alps after the Dark Ages. It was a very reasonable view of the world starting from the premise that truth is reached by the empirical observation of our senses and then processed through our deductive reasoning. This new trend evolved into the Enlightenment of the seventeenth century. This brought many great advances to our western culture. During the Enlightenment, however, the thinking evolved to the point that if something could not be observed empirically, then it was not important. Finally, it reached an arbitrary point of saying that if something can’t be observed with our senses, then it does not exist. This was when the first great atheistic movement began. You can’t handle or observe God; therefore, He is not there. That tenet is still widely held today, especially within the science community.

The enlightenment, in contrast to the Dark Ages, carried a great hope of human’s reaching a state of utopia. Many great things did come from it. Some of this optimism lingered, at least in America, into the 1960s. However, most of this hope was dashed in the bloody American Civil War, the trenches of WWI, the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, WWII, and the threat of thermonuclear war during the cold war. When there is disillusionment in the material world and human reason, there is always a tendency to return to the draw mysticism for a new hope.

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The turning point for modern American Christianity was the revival on Azusa Street in Los Angles in 1906. This was the birth of the modern Pentecostal movement, which emphasized emotional and irrational experiences as the essence of deep Christian spirituality. This movement swept the US and Latin America of the subsequent 100 years. This movement has had a profound influence on, not only the charismatic churches but all denominations Protestant and Catholic.

Along with this evolution of the western culture, within the framework of the great disillusionment of reason, the secular culture started to turn to Eastern mysticism for meaning. The big introduction of this type of mysticism happened in the 1960s with the experimentation with psychedelic drugs and the Beatles introduction of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. So, for a long while the secular cultures and the Christian one was on parallel but distinct paths. The secular embracing what became New Age spirituality and the Christian experimental or mystical, and for the same reason, a disillusionment with the hope of reason.

The problem, however, was that the reason that gave hope during the Enlightenment was not a healthy Biblical understanding of reason to start with. The Biblical view of reason is that it is not inferior to experience or “of this world,” rather it is good, wonderful, God-given . . . but weak. Due to the fall of humanity, you cannot reach perfect truth with reason. You certainly can’t reach perfect truth through an emotional experience, which is very elusive. Most horrible cults were built on the backs of pastors who had mystical experiences, where God spoke “truth” directly to them. Such horrible “truths” as “God wants you to give me your daughters for my sexual pleasure.” We, as Biblical-thinking Christians, must understand that we live in a world and a time when we must settle for a lack of certainty because certainty is not obtainable with our mortal minds.

Conclusion

Sometimes I feel that I’m living in the movie (the remake with a terrible ending) the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In that movie, the protagonist is losing friends, one by one, who’s bodies have been taken by the invaders. In the last scene, his very last friend is taken. Now, it seems like every time I start to connect with someone, even intellectual people, that they eventually confine to me that all their Christian spirituality is wrapped up in mysticism. Dreams, voices, strange and trite miracles (which I think are self-deception). I hope, someday, to find thinking Christians who recognize the deceit of fake experiences and embrace the true spirituality of thinking, reasoning and enjoying God with their sober minds.

 

Well, I’ve Been Told I was Not Raised Bigotted.

I was working on my Part II about mysticism. However, something has come up that I wanted to comment on.

A few weeks ago, I did a video (written narrative only) about my confessions of being a bigot. I posted that on my FB page as well.  Some of the people I grew up with were a bit taken back that I would describe our community in NE Tennessee as bigoted. They grew up in the same environment as me and from their perspective, we had no bigoted influences or tendencies, then or now. For me to say that, seemed to them, to be a liberal Pacific Northwestern person (who I am now) disrespecting their cultural roots.

Okay, maybe I was wrong. Maybe I misinterpreted what I thought were bigoted ways of thinking. I will give a few examples.

My parents (otherwise good people), my siblings and the kids on my street taught me about Ns (the letter I will use for the “n-word” because that was the ONLY word they used to describe blacks).  They were dirty. Dangerous. Ungodly. Will steal or kill at a drop of a hat, and frankly very stupid. Did I mention we were taught that Ns were very afraid of ghost?

I remember putting a quarter in my mouth about age 4 and people screaming “What if a N had touched that?” I remember asking my mother at that age why are Ns so dirty. “They just are. They are like animals that we took out of Africa. They have never adjusted to a civilized life. They don’t bathe, don’t use toilet paper but wipe with their hands.”

So, I guess I was wrong by my interpretation that this was a bigoted view, after all, I was only 4.

We lived in a small town of 1500 people. It was pure white. The one and only black citizens were there only for one year in 1940. My mother remembered them well. It was a black man and his sister. No one wanted them to move in. There were even discussions about a lynching.

My grandfather and a few of his friends snuck up to the black folk’s shack and stretched a wire around the post of the porch at neck height.  They then took one of the black man’s sheep (he had 2 I think), dipped it in kerosene, set it on fire and threw it in the shack’s back door. Then they ran around to the front of the shack and watched the man and his sister run out (when a ball of fire came running through the house late at night) and the wire caught them by the neck. The men laughed their heads off.

There were rumors that this black man was having sex with his sister. So, a group of teenaged boys, with the good-ole-Baptists people’s blessing, went up to the “sinners’ shack.” They dragged the man outside. Rather than lynching him, they staked him down to the ground and used sticks to blind him. The man and his sister moved away after that and no black people, until this day, have ever lived in that town again.

The boy who led the high school group that blinded the man, well he became the town sheriff and was the sheriff when I was a kid.

But, again, I may just be reading into things as being racist when those high school boys were just doing “God’s work.”

And speaking of high school, a classmate created the first KKK club at my high school. He applied to be an official club with photos in the yearbook. However, the principal said the liberals down in Nashville would not allow such a club in the state schools. But, they could meet just off campus and the principal said he would give them moral support, just off the record. That man who started the KKK is now the funeral director in my small town and deeply respected man.

I remember our boy scout leader apologizing to us. We were going to a regional jamboree and we were assigned to camp next to a troop from Johnson City. He said that troop had Ns in it. He had to stay in the same barracks as Ns in the army and they stink, he warned us. They never bathe and smell like foul ammonia. He said that our stuff would not be safe in our tents with the Ns camping nearby so we had to lock all our belongings in his car. That was the same car that he used to hide booze and pornography for his favorite 13 year-old-troopers. Those special troopers got to sit in his car with the 40-year-oldd leader, looking at the porn and drinking booze until the windows were too fogged up to see them. But at least he wasn’t a dirty N (in his thoughts). But I digress.

Oh, did I mention how I heard my mom prayed out loud that MLK would be shot, and then he was? Or comments from neighbors about how stupid Pollocks or Hispanics are. Not to mention how we should nuke the Iranians for taking our people hostage . . . “Kill every one of those brown-skinned bastards,” was what I heard.

When I became a Christian and was in college, attending a PCA church with great theological certainty, the “N” word was not used as much among my Christian peers, at least not in public. However, they did say things such as God created slavery to bring the black people out of the dirty, swampy Africa, to America where they could be civilized and Christianized. That they lived very well under the control of their Christian owners. These PCA friends spoke very highly of the Confederacy. Generals like Lee and Andrew Jackson were men of God, doing God’s work against the liberals up north. That the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery because most of the black people in the south favored slavery.

But again, it was just my perspective that they were bigoted. What was I thinking?

The last event that I remember, which I wrongly thought was bigoted, was when I visited my sister’s big, all-white Baptist Church in 1981. The previous day the University of Virginia, with their superstar Ralph Sampson, played in the NCAA final four. The first thing that their pastor said from the pulpit was, “Did you folks see that seven foot four N on TV yesterday? And the liberals argue that ‘coons’ are not closer to apes than us, but they are obvious still apes. That man swung from the rim, like an ape in a tree.” The whole congregation of 400 + people screamed in laugher. I walked out in the middle of the service. My family thought I was being ridiculous.  However, I didn’t stand up in the middle of the service and scream out, “You people are a pile of bigoted pieces of white shit,” because I was too bigoted myself to realize how serious the offense was.

So, I guess I grew up in a loving, tolerant culture after all and I just misunderstood them.

I also must apologize that I misunderstood all those social cues as being racists. Again, what was I thinking? They certainly sound racist to me, but I’m just a Pacific NW liberal snowflake.

 

 

A Skeptic and a Mystic Walk into a Bar

Part I – The Personal Side of Mysticism Resistance

I am meeting more and more thinking people, who surprise me, by saying that their Christian faith has now taken them into mysticism. I’ve always known the unthinking types who preferred the mystical approach to faith. Those that would feel God, hear God talking to them very directly, even in real, audible words, or having emotional experiences that defile explanation. They would see the face of Mary in a cloud or the shape of a cross in a water stain on a rock and know that God had put it there just for them.

I, personally, have dabbled in mysticism. It happened during my junior year of college when the charismatic movement was sweeping through our campus. I was involved with a chapter of The Navigators and historically, they had not had a charismatic leaning. But like all trends of culture, eventually, a popular idea penetrates deep into the crevasses of all of the society (in this case, Christian society). It is hard to hold back a wave of the sea with such momentum.

My experimenting was a strange fit for me. Indeed, I may have been the very last person in our group to take this path. It was only when the social pressure became overbearing did I take the plunge. The reason that it was not a natural fit is that I’ve had some type of unusual wiring in my brain, that has always rendered me as the most skeptical person of any group I’ve been a part of. I can remember even in elementary school, being pointed out as a non-believer. That was specifically, as a nonbeliever in Christian things (which was heretical in the Bible belt), or in general things, like Big Foot’s existence or UFOs.

I suspect that I have some, yet un-named, position on the spectra of Asperger’s syndrome. I excelled in things that required reason (I got to teach a high school class in earth sciences when I was only 13 and won the physics category of the regional science fair), but did poorly in language (spelling, grammar) and in social skills. I’m not trying to make myself sound special and we all are on some spectra of personality and rationality. My point is that I’ve always been extremely rational and I think it was genetic more than learned. I also have children who have these same traits. In other words, we relate, in a very personal way, to the Klingons of Star Trek.

My mystical experience as a junior happened during my night-time sessions of walking and praying. The walking and praying at night was a habit of mine when I was with The Navigators. I would do this every night for up to an hour. But before my mystical detour, I would pray rationally. I would pray about things in the world and in my life, seeking God to resolve them, using clear English.

One day my spiritual leader, who by nature was on the polar other end of personality from me, very social and mystical by nature, suggested that I seek a new, higher level with God. He pointed out that it would need to be non-rational—if not anti-rational—in the approach. Tom emphasized that if I had this experience, it would make me more spiritual. I wanted to be spiritual. There was a great peer pressure to be spiritual. I remember one by one of our group would come to the breakfast table in the cafeteria describing their mystical experiences from the previous night. As they told their stories, the others in the group would be very impressed. I wanted to impress people too.

I felt uncomfortable with my quest for the mystical, at least at first. But I started to pray, in my rational voice, that God would do something supernatural in my prayer experience. I wanted to be special too.

Then I started to try and stir myself up emotionally, into a frenzy.  I started to pray and speak gibberish (voluntarily) and continue working up my emotions in a corkscrew pattern, into higher and higher levels of bliss. Because I was doing this from social pressure, I was happy to report back to my peer group that I, too, had a supernatural experience. I could read the smiles on their faces of approval.

My mystical Christcharismatic_chaos08ianity did not last long. In my heart of hearts, I knew it was fake. I’ve always been an honest person, at least to myself. I understood human emotions enough (I was working on a degree in psychology at the time) that I was aware of how easy self-deception can be constructed when there was a will to do so. We all had such a resolve to have that construct. We all wanted to be spiritual.

The climax of my mystical endeavor led me to an off-campus “Full Gospel” group. One of the Christians in my dorm had been asking me for months to come with him. Finally, I went. I will summarize here by saying it was horrible orgy of emotional masturbation, self-deception, and the manipulation of others. To me, it was an anti-spiritual experience. I sensed God was more distant and more obscure to me immediately after that meeting. The details of this experience are in my book, Butterflies in the Belfry.

I felt a period of discouragement as my peers continued down this path and I stepped off the charismatic train and waved goodbye to them. I think each of them ended up in one form of disillusionment or another. Several eventually left Christianity altogether because the corkscrew of experiences–following the law of diminishing returns–took them to higher and higher planes, but left wanting. A couple, by no coincidence, leaped from charismatic Christianity into LSD and other hallucinogenic substances (which they had experienced before their conversions). One of them had been the leader of the local Campus Crusade chapter. Others went down the rabbit holes of various peculiar cults and the most just returned to normal, secular life with no spiritual interest whatsoever. I have never had a desire to seek the mystical since that experience.

In my present church, there is a broad cross-section of thinking. But even here, there is one group that has charismatic tendencies. I was in a small group (very small) and a reasonable option was suggested that we combine with a much larger group. It was during my first meeting with this larger group that the conversation quickly turned into the mystical.We had just had one of those terrible high school shootings and it became clear within the thinking of some in the group, that the motivation of the shooting had nothing to do with the rational particulars. These specifics include the fact that the boy was being abused at home, was being abused at home, just had a painful betrayal of a girlfriend (per the shooter’s perspective), and had readily access to unpermitted weapons. But members of this group cited the fact that rumors had spread that the community (it was a native-American community) had been dabbling in the occult and they were sure the shooting was the result of demonic oppression.

I had a problem with that perspective because when you have mystical causes to problems, you cannot find rational solutions. The finisher for me was moving then into a session of tongue-speaking and other mystical experiences.

I left this group, but with kind words for them. I simply made it clear that I love them, want to be their friends, but it was not the right fit for us. I said nothing else. Yet, I received a couple of e-mails that suggested that maybe I was not the right fit because I was not a spiritual person. That is the typical reaction in these situations.

I’m going to pause at this juncture before I move away from my personal stories and continue in the broader thoughts about the history of mysticism and why it is so popular again today. But first I want to clarify why I am writing on this topic. I am not writing this two-part post just to be critical of the mystics. I am not writing it just to share my story as if I need a place to vent. I don’t. My goal is to communicate to those, like me, who feel uncomfortable with mysticism so they know that they are not alone and to know that mysticism is not a higher run on a spiritual hierarchical ladder, to which they must aspire.  Mike

The Death of the Nocturnal Artist

Keep your day job. That’s the term we have heard when an artist, usually a musician, doesn’t quite have the talent to make it professionally. I believe that most of us have an artist, or two, inside us. If we won a lottery, many of us would immediately give up our day jobs, which we do for subsistence, and do the art that we love to do. We would paint. We would sculpt. We would sing or play some musical instrument. I think of Paul Allen, who earned a few billion, then creating his own rock band (plus hundreds of other personal interests endeavors). Not that his band was any good, but it was one of his many loves and he didn’t need the money of a day job to distract him.

Then there are the artists who create, even if it means resulting in their financial ruin. I’ve seen incredible houses build of scraps, but arranged through the eye of a talented sculptor. Usually, it was an old man with no training in the arts, who the whole village thought was nuts. The stories behind these people are that they spent every penny they had, and their family had, on the building and died in poverty, but without regrets.

We are all artists at heart because we were created in the image of the great artist. The one who created the spiral galaxies and the colors of the Mandarin Duck is the same who wrote the software of our souls. Few of us can earn our living by what we create. Blessed are the artists who do. Really blessed are those who do it so successfully that they are able to move out of the ranks of the “starving artist” into the realm of the comfortable artist. The comfortable artist does not have to waste emotional energy worrying about how to pay the rent but just create.DSC00041

While some people have a hidden painter, pop-singer, sculptor, woodworker, shipwright, or architect inside them, for me it is writing. There’s a lot of us. Five thousand new books are published every day on Amazon alone. Probably many times that over are the writers who write but never attempt to publish.

The Demise of the Dream

I am sitting and thinking about this topic because I just got my first royalty check for Butterflies in the Belfry—Serpents in the Cellar. I will not belabor this, but I will cut to the point. It cost me $7,000 to get the manuscript to print. That’s typical. There are legal fees, editing fees and then running the presses. This $7,000 does not include marketing. I have spent $2500 on that alone. I am being told that I have been very successful. I’ve sold several hundred books. I’ve received great reviews in public and private (even from some very successful, but un-named, authors). However, my check today was for $92.  That’s it.

I’m not shocked as I had been notified that the check was in the mail and I knew the amount. Also, I knew that most of my book purchases have occurred through Amazon, which bills about $19 when you include shipping and handling, but only .30 of that makes it to the author. That’s right 30 cents.

When you become a realist, which I tend to migrate towards, I know that I would have to sell 31,666 books just to break even. That would be considered very successful and end you up on the New Times Best Seller Top 100, list. That would even start to pay me back for the estimated 600 hours of work I put into it. But, like most humble artists, we expect to give the labor for free. It’s really a labor of love. The other reason that I’m not surprised about the math is that this is my third book. As they say, I’ve been to this rodeo before.

The Passion

There is nothing on this earth I love more than sitting and writing while drinking a cup of coffee like I’m doing right now. Nothing. The only caveat is doing it is a better setting. I’m in a coffee shop in downtown Anacortes, Washington. It isn’t bad, but last year, I spent three weeks sitting in a small outdoor café on the edge of the Mediterranean, just outside my (cheap) castle flat. Yeah, an old flat that was recreated out of the dungeon of a seventeenth-century castle. I was finishing up my book Butterflies in the Belfry. I was surrounded by men restoring their gondolas and fishing boats during the off season. Life could not get any better than that.

Real Success

The odds of making it as an artist are one in a million, literally. Those odds are not determined simply by talent. I’ve known many talented artists, including my sister, who never achieve the comfort level professionally. Most don’t.

For a writer, it must be the combination of notoriety, talent, subject matter, timing, hard work, and luck. The best example of that last item is a friend of mine. He was not passionate about writing as I am. I sense that his talent and experience in writing were limited. However, someone suggested that he put his work stories, in writing. Then he happened to share a cab in NYC with the editor of one of the big publishing houses. He handed the guy the manuscript. Not only was it published, reaching great success, but was made into a movie.

In today’s market, notoriety is the biggest asset. When you approach a big publishing house their first question isn’t about your experience as a writer or even the subject matter, but who do you know and who knows you? That’s business. They don’t print books for altruistic reasons. If I had taken Oprah to the prom and she owed me a favor, then my book would be published and promoted because with Oprah’s exposure, it would be an automatic success despite the talent.

Blessed are those that do succeed. I’ve never had the fantasy that I could earn a comfortable living by writing. That hasn’t been on my radar. I started writing in the 1980s by writing articles for journals. I was paid about 65 cents per each hour I worked on them. I wrote about thirty for national and international science journals. I did have the dream of, some day, earning enough from writing to pay for some of the expenses of getting a manuscript to print. This was my goal so I could keep writing. It was this week that I realized the death of that vision and that death seems final. Of the 5,000 new daily titles, one will be financially successful. Not comfortably successful, but reaching the break-even point. It is like the fisherman who catches just one little fish, enough to keep him alive another day to fish again.

What Does This Mean for Me?

So, why am I writing about this? This is a personal journey of mine and I think many others share some version of it. The practical implications include the fact that I have stopped all promotions for Butterflies in the Belfry. With the return of a couple of pennies on the dollar for advertising, it just doesn’t make financial sense for me to keep on, and I’m not a rich.

My purpose for writing Butterflies in the Belfry was never financial. It was because there was a story there that had to be told. It was my mission to get that story out, in the same way, that a war correspondent must get the news out of what’s really happening. I wasn’t even hoping to recoup all the money that I spent, but to get close enough to stop the financial hemorrhaging. I had about 10 more books in mind that I wanted to write. I have never tasted “writer’s block.” But those books will have to remain unwritten. That is my greatest remorse.

The other practical implication is that my last book, a novel, The Waters of Bimini, which went to the editors this week, will be my last attempts at writing. It too will cost me thousands to get into print. But, unless a miracle happens, it will be my finale.

My wife has always suggested that I write just for myself. “Create a book, then delete it,” she said once. That would be much more financially sensible. I just can’t. I think all artists would agree that it would be very difficult to create a work of art, for your eyes alone, and then destroy it. The passion would be lost. All artists, I assume, savors the sharing of their art as their purpose for creating it.

For me, it was never an issue of fame or adoration. I would be happy to write books as a ghost-writer. As a writer, it is the joy of having others authenticate your observations of reality, your deductions, your talent for syntax, and your discernment for beauty. Last year when I sat in the cool January air, two feet from the edge of the Mediterranean harbor of Senglea, Malta and I wrote, I did not write for me. I did not write in the same mood as I would construct a “do list” for a day off. No, I could visualize the readers as if they were sitting at the same table and listening, sipping their own cappuccinos. It was so real to me that I remember giving my waiter my order one morning and then looking across the empty table as if there would be other orders. I could see those, like me, who were struggling to makes of evangelicalism. Like me, those whonotebooks-569121_1920 were seriously thinking about leaving the Church or even leaving life, by choice. My writing was for them.

So, as it is for so many of us, the death of a dream to give up those hopes. To put away the easel. To put the guitar in the case for the last time or sing karaoke with the last dream of making it work. Maybe it is pulling the sound-proofing off the garage walls, knowing that rock band will never practice there again.

Blessed are the artists who make it, even if that making it does not set them completely free from poverty. They are truly blessed. There is nothing better than creating, nothing that pulls you closer to the creator.

 

 

 

Conversations with an Evangelical about the Trump Administration

This is a fictional account, trying to capture the essence of conversations we have all had.

EC– Evangelical Christian

PC-Progressive Christian

EC: I am a little surprised that you, as a Christian, would say negative things about other people, and really surprised to hear you say negative or hateful things about our Commander in Chief.

PC: Well, I guess you can say that I’m a little surprised that you worked so hard to get this fool elected and that you still support him.

EC: I would be careful with your words. Remember, the Bible says that if you call someone, especially a brother, a “fool” or you would be in danger of hellfire.

PC: Okay, let’s just call him, a narcissistic, pathological liar, and con-man.

EC: (acting shocked) I don’t understand where all that anger comes from. I’m just surprised to hear—what I thought was a mature Christian—voice so much anger.

PC: Really? Well, I AM angry. I’m angry that this con-artist could take rule of our country and to destroy it from the inside out. I say it because I am a patriot.

EC: My trust is in God. He is sovereign. The Bible says that God puts the rulers in their position and directs the heart of the king.

PC: But that is no excuse for electing this man. We have personal responsibilities for making choices of who we vote for. History does matter. Our choices matter. And, speaking of anger, don’t you remember all those videos you sent me about Obama being a secret Muslim and having a mosque built right in the White House? Remember you saying you had proof that Obama wasn’t born in the US and that he was sworn into to office on a Koran, rather than a Bible? Do you remember the video that you sent me during the election, supposedly showing Hillary selling stinger missiles, HERSELF, from a van outside of Washington DC to leaders of Isis? Where did all THAT anger come from?

EC: Oh, I wasn’t angry. (EC smiles with a sweet smile) I was using discernment and, as a Christian was concerned about the direction the country was going. We are living in the last days. Those videos came from a very reliable source. It came from a godly pastor who had insights on those things. We can’t keep burying our heads in the sand because the liberal agenda is destroying American. It is our responsibility to do God’s work during these last days and to be faithful.

PC: But you just said that God is sovereign and that He is the one who puts leaders in place and directs them. So, didn’t God put Obama in leadership over America?

EC: (Shaking their head) Well, all I know is that Jesus is coming back soon and none of this will matter. Every discerning Christian knows the spirit of Obama, that it was from Satan. My job is to be faithful every day and that’s all that concerns me, rather than all of this political stuff.

 

Can a Good Christian be Politically Partisan?

I have a question and I will not say with certainty that I know the answer. But can a Christian be faithful to their faith and have a political party loyalty?  I am starting to doubt it and I will explain why.

Beginning in the 1980s, my experience with the evangelical church had an unwritten position, that a good Christian can only be a Republican. I was too naive at the time to understand this was the game that the RDemocrat and Rebulicanepublicans were playing (intentionally using evangelicals part of their base of power).

I was a very loyal party supporter for many years. I was so much so, I would vote straight party line in major elections by checking the party box at the top of the ballot. Then, about ten years ago, I started to have doubts about the logic behind that. This year, the theory, in my opinion, was blown clearly out of the water. So, the most anti-Christian candidate America has ever seen (when you compare Donald Trump’s life principles with Biblical principles of living) was overwhelmingly supported by American Christians simply because he was their party’s candidate (some will argue with that over-simplification but I stand by it).

But in my effort to find some space for sanity, I have aligned myself with many anti-Trump Christians. However, I am beginning to sense a deep party loyalty among them, towards the Democratic Party. So much so, that I predict that if Trump had run as a Democrat, and he easily could have, they would have voted for him. They seem to see their political savoir as not being in the right individual and right policies, but in the Democratic Party brand.

Some argue that you can align political parties with your view of Christian practice, based on the platform. The problem with this is, while at one point in history there could be some synergy between the basic Christian principles of life (which I list as simply, practicing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with God), and a party, there would never be complete agreement. Secondly, there is platform drift. This drift happens over time and from candidate to candidate. For example, there are many great Republican presidents in history I could have supported. Look at Abraham Lincoln. He was a principled man, I do believe that his principles of doing justice and acting kindly with humility, while not perfect, were to be admired. He was a champion of freeing slaves. I think he is turning in his grave to see so much bigotry coming out of the party he once represented.

So, when we align ourselves with a party, and a drift of principles occur, it is human nature to go with the tidal drift of our party and friends than to be anchored to Christian principles. I have many evangelical friends who see me as turning my back on God because I did not support Trump. I despise Donald Trump, but if it had been a less-toxic candidate, but still one whose principles I didn’t fully embrace, I can see the temptation to follow the crowd (in this case your church or Christian friends) rather than acting independently.

Look at this passage in II Corinthians:

14 Don’t be teamed with those who do not love the Lord, for what do the people of God have in common with the people of sin? How can light live with darkness? (II Corinthians 6:14, The Message)

While, I am not trying to say each political party is evil and we must not associate with any, as one of my Mennonite friends would say, I am saying that we should question party loyalty. In any given year, I think we can support a particular party’s candidate. We can work for that candidate, give money to that candidate, and certainly vote for that candidate. We can even work within the party to avoid the drift away from Christian principles as salt and light. But I am having doubts that we can commit ourselves to one party for the long-term. So, for me at least, from this point forward I will always consider myself an independent. At the same time, I will be cheering for the Democrats, Independents, and even the Republicans who have not become Trump-conformists.

The Sad Confession of a Presidential Schadenfreudite

During the 2016 presidential campaign, I considered the entrance of Donald J. Trump as a publicity stunt or novelty . . . at first. As the primary continued and he continued racking up victories, I entered a period of concern about the “small” disenfranchised group that would vote for this man. I could not believe that so many people could believe in him, the man I had known as a narcists and a con man for decades. As he was becoming the sure nominee for the Republicans—as an ex-Republican—I grieved the death of the party.

Even on the eve of the election, I reassured my son’s girlfriend—who was very worried that he might win—that he was not electable. I really thought we would see, not only the loss of Donald Trump but the total collapse of the Republican party and the Democrats taking over all three houses (Congress, Senate and WH). I wasn’t worried about that. Hillary was not my favorite candidate, but I could sleep well with her at the helm of the country, but certainly not the Donald.

I sat upTrump that Tuesday night, watching returns pour in . . . in a state of disbelief. The news commentators shared the same feeling as I had, expecting Hillary to win but feeling the wind leaving their sails. It was only a matter of time until all the votes were tallied. It was clear that he had won.

During the first few weeks, after the election, I had “conversations” with about 25 Facebook friends who were evangelical supporters of Trump. We had sparred a few times during the election. However, I was confident that I would be vindicated after the votes were counted. That, of course, did not happen.

After the victory of Donald J. Trump, my pro-Trump evangelical friends became emboldened. They started to celebrate their victory online. I was in a state of mental shock and was almost speechless for a number of days.

Almost immediately after the election, the resistance to Trump started to form and within that group, I felt a new home. I even found some anti-Trump Christian groups. My kids participated in the early marches. My wife and I participated in the women’s march on January 21st. It was during this time my relationship with my pro-Trump evangelical friends took an ugly turn. They were very critical of the marches, while I was defending my family, which had participated in them. They took the position that God put Trump in power because he stood for Christian principles. But then they went further to suggest the marches were satanic. At that point, I could not contain myself anymore.

During this post-election period, a few old evangelical friends—staunch right-wingers—kept comparing the election of Donald Trump to that of Obama. They considered Obama as pure evil (in my candid opinion, it is because Obama’s skin is black but they would never admit that) and used themselves as examples of how good-losers should behave. They argued how they didn’t put on pussy hats and march in the streets when Obama was elected. They pointed out that they were mature and decent people and accepted Obama as president, even though he was evil.

I kept trying to make the point that they were trying to normalize this election as typical partisan bickering. But this was NOT NORMAL PARTISAN BICKERING! I guaranteed them that there would have been no marches in the street, no tears by the masses if ANY OTHER REPUBLICAN had been elected but Trump. Okay, there would be some anxiety if Ben Carson had been elected, but not this horrible sinking feeling that we have entered some new dystopian age of America’s history.

But during that conversation, my evangelical friends started to make the argument that we anti-Trumpers were not good Christians, or good Americans if we did not (now) support Donald Trump as our president. God wants us to embrace him . . . or does he?They painted themselves as the far better Christian. I finally made it clear (in the fog of my disillusionment in the American political system) that I really did want Trump to succeed because he was my president, like it or not.

I have had a change of heart. I also had to jettison all those evangelical Pro-Trump friends, (except for my sister). But now, I must confess that I am a Presidential Schadenfreudite. The German word Schadenfreude is taken from the roots of harm and joy. It means someone who takes pleasure or joy in the harm or failure of someone else. I must honestly say that I want, from the bottom of my heart, for Donald Trump to fail and to fail magnificently. My greatest joy would be seeing him in handcuffs, actually including his entire family, except for Melania, being hauled off to life in prison. Okay, let the kids get out in ten years. My schadenfreude is so severe, that I feel bad during his good weeks and better when he really screws up.

The soul-searching I’ve had to do is to consider if this is sin or not. Schadenfreude, of course, can be sin. For example, take Proverbs chapter 24:

17-18 Don’t laugh when your enemy falls;

              don’t crow over his collapse.

God might see, and become very provoked,

               and then take pity on his plight. (The Message)

Here is a practical example of such a sinful attitude. Imagine someone cuts me off on the road and then I hope they get pulled over and a fat ticket for speeding. An even more sinister example could be where I wanted a certain position in my church and it was given to someone else. Then, I felt some pleasure when they do a lousy job. These things cannot be out of a good character. I have to candidly admit and I capable of these thoughts.

But is desiring the massive failure of Donald Trump sin? It doesn’t feel like sin. I don’t mean this in a flippant way (as if feelings can discern sin). It is because, I want it to be clear if you are an arrogant, narcissist, asshole, then failure will and should come. This is a principle of God’s kingdom. To have such a bad person succeed (unless there is an incredible repentance first) seems to devalue God’s law. I want him to fail, and to fail in a spectacular way. That is not being un-Christian . . . it is not being un-American. I also want it to teach his supporters the foolishness of their ways. Am I bad?

But I close this thought with this passage for contemplation:

Psalm 94 The Message (MSG)

                            1-2 God, put an end to evil;

avenging God, show your colors!

Judge of the earth, take your stand;

                            throw the book at the arrogant.

3-4 God, the wicked get away with murder—

                            how long will you let this go on?

They brag and boast

                            and crow about their crimes!

5-7 They walk all over your people, God,

                            exploit and abuse your precious people.

They take out anyone who gets in their way;

                            if they can’t use them, they kill them.

They think, “God isn’t looking,

                            Jacob’s God is out to lunch.”

8-11 Well, think again, you idiots,

                            fools—how long before you get smart?

Do you think Ear-Maker doesn’t hear,

                            Eye-Shaper doesn’t see?

Do you think the trainer of nations doesn’t correct,

                            the teacher of Adam doesn’t know?

God knows, all right—

                             knows your stupidity,

sees your shallowness.

12-15 How blessed the man you train, God,

                            the woman you instruct in your Word,

Providing a circle of quiet within the clamor of evil,

                            while a jail is being built for the wicked.

God will never walk away from his people,

                            never desert his precious people.

Rest assured that justice is on its way

                             and every good heart put right.

16-19 Who stood up for me against the wicked?

                            Who took my side against evil workers?

If God hadn’t been there for me,

                             I never would have made it.

The minute I said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling,”

                             your love, God, took hold and held me fast.When I was upset and

beside myself,

you calmed me down and cheered me up.

20-23 Can Misrule have anything in common with you?

                            Can Troublemaker pretend to be on your side?

They ganged up on good people,

                            plotted behind the backs of the innocent.

But God became my hideout,

                            God was my high mountain retreat,

Then boomeranged their evil back on them:

                            for their evil ways, he wiped them out,

our God cleaned them out for good.