Thursday, July 17, 2014

Humble Pie: The 7 Harshest Moments of My Life That Actually Changed Me for the Better

One cannot truly advance in the spiritual life unless one is willing to allow God access to the most sensitive and intimate aspects of our being. Until that happens, we will inevitably remain spiritual children guarding those areas of our lives most in need of genuine transformation. Sometimes God even sends the shock troops in (i.e. our enemies), in order to expose those areas of pride which we are least likely to expose on our own. Yet even if their motivation isn't absolutely pure, these enemies of ours may serve as tremendous allies in the larger framework of our salvation. And of course, on occasion, even our loved ones are charged to do the same. Yes, perhaps especially the ones who love us the most will be tasked by God to scourge us in a way that we never expected. This may not seem like love or growth at first blush, but recognizing the value of this kind of painful experience can ultimately be the difference between wisdom and ignorance, between progress and a spiritual lacunae. It is interesting that people tend to think of angels as innocuous little creatures, or at best spirits that intervene to save us from something extremely unpleasant, but if you observe their role in Scripture, you discover quickly just how terrifying and harsh they can be. In fact, nowhere in Scripture do we see the appearance of anything like those dreadful "Hallmark angels," or even that sweet and ineffectual Clarence from It's a Wonderful Life. The truth is some of God's "angels" do seem to be very kind, but then again there is another type, or at least the same type on another kind of mission. Indeed, sometimes God sends his angels out to whack us in the face with a plank of wood, which from a heavenly perspective may simply amount to a gentle caress. Even so, if we were to somehow see things from God's perspective, we too might be tempted to react as George Bailey once did in It's a Wonderful Life, hugging everyone and everything in the landscape, including those most responsible for his initial decent into despair; "Thank you, Mr. Bank Examiner! Isn't it wonderful! I'm going to jail!" Below are seven "glorious" examples from my own life in which my pride was completely eviscerated. I offer my gratitude to each and every one of the following individuals for the role they have played in my sanctification… really!

1. "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life"  - in the illustrious words of my good friend Marc after I told him what I believed about God and the Universe

Call him an "ass" if you like (I know I often do), but had my friend Marc never spoken these words to me when he did, I would have continued to walk around in a sea of spiritual piffle for who knows how long. To provide a little context, I was about twenty one years old at the time, and absolutely certain that I was completely enlightened and in no need of any spiritual guidance whatsoever. I was a religion unto myself. Hence, when I finished relaying to Marc one night- by a warm and wizened fire- what it was I believed and why, I firmly expected him to stand up and applaud and tell me how brilliant I was. To this day I cannot remember exactly what it was that I said, but I do remember feeling a sense of self-satisfaction flowing through my veins when I finished my speech. And then came those famous words like a shot out of the dark; "that's the stupidest thing I've ever heard in my life!" What a tremendous blow that was to my ego- but it was exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. He made me doubt myself, precisely when I was so sure that I was a genius. As I was happily marching myself over the cliffs of oblivion, he drop-kicked me in the teeth and left me reeling back on solid ground. The truth is I never would have questioned my own self-serving view of the universe had he not given me that rhetorical slap in the face. Indeed, had he not challenged me so directly on that evening, I cannot say for certain that today I wouldn't be in some groovy New Age cult, speaking in a creepy placid tone, with my eyes unnaturally wide.

2. "You will never be a great basketball player, because you have no heart!" - uttered by one of the assistant basketball coaches to me at UNC basketball camp

If I remember correctly, I was goofing around during one of the drills he was conducting, when he looked me square in the face, with what I remember to be a look of contempt, and spoke those words to me. And the worst part about it… he was right! I had a decent amount of talent, but I had no drive or heart. He wanted to push me, and more importantly, he wanted me to push myself, but I just wanted play around. Like I said, I do not remember exactly what it was that I did to annoy him so much, but I can surmise what my attitude must have been. "Here's this little rich punk, who's never had to work hard or push himself for anything in whole his life, and he has the nerve to come in here to my camp and d*** around during one of my drills. I don't care if his precious little mommy and daddy pay for every damn thing from now until eternity, he's not going to come in here and pull that crap with me." Now that I am a tennis coach, I encounter some of that same mentality, especially when I coach kids that grew up in a similar way that I did. The real question is how do you teach a kid to be hungry for something, when he has never experienced any real "hunger" in his whole life? How do you teach a kid to play with real urgency, when he knows that there will always be someone there to bail him out? Perhaps it is something of an ironic penance for me then to have to inculcate in young athletes the very thing that was lacking in myself at their age. At any rate, I often hear that particular coach's voice in my head, especially when I myself am out doing exercise on my own, be it running or some other strenuous activity. St. Francis referred to his uncooperative body as Brother Ass, as for myself, I have my own inner drill sergeant whose name I cannot recall, but whose direct challenge to my gustiness (or lack thereof) is always a great source of motivation.

3. The (one and only) time my father ever slapped me

To be spanked is one thing, but nothing really compares to the level of shock and humiliation that one feels when one is slapped across the face. My dad was not much of a disciplinarian when I was growing up, though on occasion he did apply a modest spanking. He would do it if he had to, especially if  prompted by my mother, but otherwise this was not something that was particularly feared by me or my siblings. So imagine my surprise when I felt his hand firmly swack me across the face! "Completely stunned" are the only words I can use to describe it. What was it that provoked this solitary and unique incident? I was in fourth grade at the time and had become quite obsessed with talking on the phone for excessive amounts of time with my "girlfriends". In any case, I was caught in some sort of web of lies by my mother regarding (I think) video games. As a consequence, my mother told me that I couldn't speak on the phone for two weeks. I completely lost it. I went wild with rage and got into my mother's face, yelling and screaming about how unfair this was and "how she couldn't do this to me!" Then all of a sudden, I felt a giant whack come out of no where, and it completely stunned me. It's not that it physically hurt me. Frankly, it didn't (he got me on the bony part of my cheek), but it was so unexpected that I think it actually knocked me back into reality. When I realized all that had transpired, I immediately broke down in tears of embarrassment. I know there are those out there who think that there is never a just cause to slap a child, but I tell you, I am grateful to my father for this divine slap. First of all, I am grateful because he showed me just how unacceptable it was to get in my mother's face like that. Secondly, I am grateful because it gave me greater respect for him, for though he was standing right there, I simply ignored him and went straight after my mother's verdict, in essence demonstrating how little regard I had for his authority. There are some things worse than a parent slapping you, and one of those things is showing contempt for your parents authority. I had lost my mind and my perspective, and maybe I could have used a timeout with Barney, but I thank God to this very day that instead of receiving the latter, I received the slap heard round the world, or at least the slap that I will remember with gratitude for the rest of my life.

4. The time my aunt Amanda said this to me; "You like talking about yourself quite a bit, don't you? How about asking others how they're doing for a change?"

Ouch! In my teen years I really enjoyed talking to my aunt about spiritual matters. Consequently, on the rare occasions I would see her (she lived in New Jersey and I in North Carolina), I would immediately run up to her and start talking about the latest book I had read and what I thought about it. However, during one of these encounters, my aunt abruptly interrupted me, and made the above inquiry. I can still remember how brusque her statement sounded, and how much it stung me to the core. Here I was rushing to tell her my thoughts on my latest reading, and here she was giving the coldest rhetorical stiff arm I had received to date. Could she have said this in a kinder way and more charitable way? Probably. Would I have remembered it to this day if she had? Probably not. Ever since she spoke those words to me, I have been ever cognizant of making sure that I ask others how they are doing before getting into details about myself. I am most grateful to her for saying this to me, not just because it taught me to get outside of myself and consider the thoughts and feelings of others, but because, whether intending to or not, she taught me that the key to real intellectual curiosity begins with interest in the lives and experiences of others.

5. The time I had my butt handed to me by a kid named Adam Johnson                                        

From about third grade to sixth grade I was a bit of a bully. Just about everyone I got into a fight with I defeated. When sixth grade rolled around, I was so cocky that I was practically picking fights just for the fun of it. Enter the new kid Adam Johnson. Adam was what we would call in North Carolina a country boy (some would even use the derisive term "redneck"). He was so country that he even used to brag about the fact that he drank Tequila with his "diddy" in the the woods. But none of this made much difference to me. He was new territory to conquer, and that alone made him interesting to me. The rest of the guys picked up on this rather quickly, and so one day they decided to instigate a fight. Subsequently, one of them (I still am not sure which one), threw my books on the ground and said it was him. I knew it wasn't his doing, but I didn't care, for I was that type of bully that really does enjoy his circular brand of argumentation; "Why you wanna throw my books on the ground, huh?" "I didn't throw your books on the ground." "I think you did! Why you wanna throw my books on the ground?" And so on. From there it quickly escalated to the point that we were soon firmly engaged in a brawl… Check that, he was firmly engaged in turning my head into a punching bag. I had never encountered anyone who punched that rapidly in my life. I literally could not even lay a glove on him. And as if that weren't bad enough, at one point I happened to slip and fall on the floor (on my own books, how's that for irony?), after which he proceeded to kick me while I was down. Finally, I got up, and like a fighter who's trying to slow down his opponent, I simply hugged him and called the fight. Needless to say, I was humiliated, and from that period forward no one was at all intimidated by me. In fact, for three years going forward I lost all the previous clout that I had accrued on account of my previous nastiness. I was reduced to a bottom feeder on the social scale. Even some of the unpopular kids were embarrassed to be seen with me. Yet as terrible as all this seems on the surface, like the symbolic hug of mercy that I gave to Adam, I could genuinely give him that same hug today. I deserved everything I got, but what I got was more than mere humiliation and misery. In the end I learned humility and empathy. By being brought low, I discovered what it felt like to stand with the outcast, because I was one. Indeed, as a result of the bully getting bullied, I learned how to laugh at myself, and most importantly of all, I learned how to see in such difficulties, God's providence stealthily chiseling out the man he wanted me to be, as opposed to the little monster I was.          

6. The time I broke up with my girlfriend in college and she wouldn't take me back

My first year of college I met a really nice girl who cared for me quite a bit. In fact, I think she loved me. However, for some reason or other, I wasn't well-equipped to be loved at that point. In part, I think it was because prior to that I was so used to chasing girls who couldn't be caught that it almost seemed boring that a girl would be willing to give her heart to me right off the bat. At any rate, in spite of the fact that she was attractive, had an interesting personality, and was so disposed to love me, I was indifferent to her. Finally, after about six months I got sufficiently bored with the relationship, and I broke it off with her at the end of the first year of college. It is difficult to remember what happened in the ensuing months, but at some point I realized with great horror what an ingrate I had been. In desperation, I came up with a romantic plan to win her back. I even wrote her a poem (it was terrible, but thankfully, I lost it), and I met up with her at the beginning of our Sophomore year. What was her response? Was she angry? No, that would have been much better. Rather, she received everything that I said quite graciously, as a generous celebrity might receive the greeting of their "biggest fan". You know, the one where the fan feels like they know the celebrity, but the celebrity (for obvious reasons) doesn't share the same sentiment. That's what it felt like. She was as nice as she could be to someone she had never met before in her entire life. It was as if we were meeting for the first time again, but this time there was absolutely connection, or even a hint of the possibility of one. So why in retrospect was this a good thing? I really grieved the loss of her. It was the first time in my entire in which I had lost someone, and it was completely my fault. But more importantly, it created an indelible mark within me, a deep and abiding awareness that it really is possible to lose something precious, and I never wanted to experience that kind of heartache again. Today, I credit this mistake and my subsequent repentance for it as the key to a happy marriage. I do not say I had to hurt anyone to learn my lesson (as if Alice were some sort of convenient doormat for my personal evolution), but rather that by the grace God, this mortal flaw in my character was turned into a holy ache. That self-inflicted wound now is a constant reminder in my own marriage that I must never take for granted my wife's love for me, lest I repeat that mistake to an even worse effect.            

7. The time I had a dream about Jesus and he looked at me like he didn't know me

Before writing this post, I had never associated the above event with the relationship I had with Alice. Now I can see an interesting correlation. Both happened within a few years of one another, and both seem to relate to a kind of profound experience of unrequited love. The first one relates to losing the love and commitment of a girl who was certainly worthy of the same, while the second relates to losing (or at least the appearance of losing) the love and commitment of my Lord and God. We live in an edge where nothing can be lost, and so everything is expendable. Consequently, the disease that afflicted my soul at the time reflected this kind of "throw away" mentality. I was passionate about my own feelings on things, but indifferent to everyone and everything else. And so in spite of feeling a tremendous sense of dis-ease within my soul, I didn't at all want to go to the real Doctor because I realized His cure might cost me a great deal. So I turned and ran from the cure, worshipping my own will, while simultaneously despising God's will. I created my own Build-A-Bear God, and tried to convince myself that that would be enough for me. Eventually I did come to recognize that Jesus was God, and that I couldn't just believe whatever I wanted. Nevertheless, while I recognized this intellectually, I didn't want to change my life accordingly. Then one night I dreamt that I was in a giant banquet hall immediately following some important feast. Twenty feet in front of me were people in rags marching out the door, as if they were going out to battle. Standing right in front of me to my immediate left was the Mother of God. I looked back at this strange procession of weaponless soldiers. All of a sudden, the line stopped. Standing directly in front of me, a man turned his head and looked straight at me. It was Jesus. He looked straight through me. I do not mean that he "looked straight through me" as one does when they know someone intimately, but rather, He looked at me the way I would look at a blank canvas. He turned back and the line continued to process out. I looked back at Mary, as if to say; "What the heck does that mean?" She said nothing, yet her eyes seemed to implore me; "Are you coming?! Are you coming?!" Then I woke up. Immediately I got up out of bed and went to get some water muttering to myself (and to God) "I get the point… I get the point". Whether or not the words of Matthew 10:32-32 were being played out in this dream for me, I cannot say, but what I do know is that in that instance God was not using a mediator to give me a slap in the face- He was the Mediator, and He was the one telling me in essence, "The train is leaving kid, and if you don't get on now, I can't promise you there'll be another chance." As a matter of fact, it was something a bit harsher than that. If I am to take the dream literally, God was saying in effect; "I don't even know who you are, but my mother seems to have a special place in her heart for you… Oh well, whatever." The point is things can be lost irrevocably, even those things which are most priceless. And never have I received a more blissful and magnificent kick in my head than this one from God. Yes Sean, you too can lose God… f-o-r-ever! God in his mercy was showing me what a future without Him would look like. Oh God, now I know the truth. The only thing more terrible and horrifying than a look of indifference from You, is a look of indifference from your dear Mother. Thank You for shielding me from that terrible death blow! Twenty years later, I am still reaping the benefits of God's harshness, which when looked at in the proper light looks suspiciously like His mercy.          


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