The other day, in response to an extremely sad event that I’ll describe in a moment, a dear brother and mentor in Christ remarked, “Art, you’re a Type-A Christian”. He was right. I thank him for it. It was not meant as a compliment. The McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine describes a ‘Type-A’ personality as:
A relatively distinct set of character traits, commonly observed in aggressive, hard-driving, ‘workaholics’; a temperament characterized by excessive drive, competitiveness, a sense of time urgency, impatience, unrealistic ambition, and need for control.
Lest anyone think this essay is a diversionary swerve into navel-gazing with no wider application to what we usually talk about here, just hang on.
Before the Lord’s pursuit of me became too insistent to ignore, roughly nine years ago, my Type-A attributes worked themselves out via twice-a-month business travel across seven, and sometimes ten time zones in an effort to “get ahead” and earn more at a highly demanding job that seemed the natural extension of nearly two decades of academic preparation just as competitive.
At the same time, I was training for Ironman-length triathlons in places as far away as New Zealand — racing not just to finish, but in pursuit of ambitious time and place goals I had set for myself. The fleeting sense of god-like immortality and exclusiveness that came with those achievements was intoxicating… and self-reinforcing.
At the time, I was unaware of the poem ‘Invictus’, by William Ernest Henley (most recently adopted as the title of a Clint Eastwood-directed film, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, about the South African national rugby team). Had I known about it, I surely would have agreed with its famous closing stanza:
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Except for that little thing about aging and death that we all have to face…
I was a huge fan of the late atheist writer, Ayn Rand who evinced much the same philosophy. (Her presciently anti-Communist critique was right on. Unfortunately one cannot fight atheism with atheism, since it is presumptuous, foolish and false.)
My days back then were programmed down to the minute: arduous 5:00AM swim sessions three or four days a week, 5-7 hour bike rides and 2-3 hour runs on weekends in addition to the usually intense hour-long sessions I would sneak in at ‘lunch’, alternating one or the other on consecutive days.
This was all a natural extension of the single-sport obsession I had adopted in an effort to gain control of my fate in my mid-teens. At that time, I averaged 8-10 miles of running per day, once completing a ‘streak’ of 63 days in a row. All the while I was charting my weight two or three times per day. It was my sick, private badge of pride and it led me into anorexia — an ailment which I somehow hid from my parents until decades after it had (mercifully) lost its grip on me without clinical treatment.
I was a control freak. There was no room for error.
I can still vividly recall one Saturday “long” bike ride, in my early 30′s, where the mere fifteen minutes needed to change a flat tire, forty miles out from home, sent me into a crazy rush that almost caused me to miss my flight to Helsinki, Finland. I absolutely had to be on that plane so as to arrive 5,000 miles away by Sunday afternoon, just in time to catch a few hours of sleep before a high-level executive meeting I was to lead early Monday morning (which felt like 1AM body-time).
My recurring nightmare now seems quite comical: I would be running (the third leg of a triathlon) filled with overwhelming anxiety as to how fast I would be able to change into my business suit and grab my briefcase in the next “transition area” in order to complete the “fourth leg” of the race: catching a plane and serving the client.
God’s Providence in all this was not just that my wife stuck with me (and that we’re more in love than ever) but that our kids have turned out far far more balanced and focused on others than I was at twice their ages.
God’s Word makes clear that we are to be obsessed with Him only. He alone is the one in control. He alone is coach, boss, client and time-keeper — the four ‘gods’ of my previous life.
Here comes the sad part.
Despite nine years of walking with the Lord (sometimes in a straight line, sometimes swerving, sometimes eagerly, sometimes slowing down) I often still imagined I had it all wired… that diligence in spiritual disciplines was my new triathlon.
I still thought I was in control. I still thought I could juggle ten things in the air (with God’s help, of course) and not ever drop one — blog, kids, spouse, house, work, athletics, church, friends, etc. I still nursed this habit of thinking that personal logistics and hard work would set me free…
…until I accidentally killed our dog last Thursday by leaving him in a hot car.
I mean, what can you say to that except to cry out in spontaneous I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening anguish: Lord, I am a screw-up. I am a sinner. Help me. Have mercy on me. Please redeem this absolute horror that I have brought about in my single-minded belief in my own strength.
It’s basically where I got to (including catching early but distinct glimpses of His redemptive work in this) after crying my eyes out, along with the rest of the family, burying the poor guy, and grinding through several semi-sleepless nights during which I kept re-playing the events of the day, wishing I could press Cntrl-Z on just a few tiny slips-of-mind that would have changed the outcome of the whole thing.
It’s pretty much what we all should be saying all the time, if we really truly grasp the pervasiveness and deadliness of our sinful nature…
Lord, I am a screw-up. I am a sinner. Help me. Have mercy on me. Please redeem this absolute horror that I have brought about in my single-minded belief in my own strength.
This is not pity party though. Those of whom I’ve shared this with already, I thank you for your prayers, but honestly, we’ll be OK. I can think of many many things worse that need prayer more urgently. God is “on it” in any case. I can see that already.
The main reason I’m writing about this (and it took a few days to get up the courage and get my brain functioning again, out of the grief-fog I remember all too well from my brother’s death not quite five years ago) is because, a) I’ve seen God working powerfully in it, and, b) I believe it carries lessons for those of us who have made a hobby of watching world events with a high degree of eschatological expectancy.
First, the workings.
This has reminded me of the finality and physicality of death. Animals and people are very VERY different. (Read that again before flaming, please.)
But it has led me to consider, with increased awe and reverence, what our Lord suffered voluntarily on our behalf in utter trust that the Father would keep His promise and resurrect him. Yeshua’s death was not a swoon or some remote theological abstraction but an historical event that many saw and touched.
His crucifixion was Mel Gibson ‘Passion’ ugly — and that, because of our sin. The price he paid for us was beyond comprehension. We should not forget that the Father suffered also as he allowed the cross to play out in every excruciating detail, something that hit home for me in a new way as I realized my role in pooch’s death.
This has also reminded me of the power of forgiveness — the hardest part of which can be accepting it from God and other people.
Thursday night was a near-literal mental-emotional hell. Friday morning, I wrestled with a thousand scenarios of potential shame, embarrassment and judgment as I considered whether to go to my weekly men’s Bible study group. (Notions of what I would think about someone who had let happen what I let happen colored my thoughts to the negative.)
Somehow though, I managed to get back in the same car from which I had dragged poor pooch’s body just a few hours before and drive to the study. The outpouring was beyond my most fervent hopes. God had even seen fit to place a man there who had gone through the very same thing several years earlier. With his arm around my shoulder, we both stood in awe, realizing our stories differed in only a few small details.
Variants on that scene have been repeated several times with friends and family members who, I had felt almost certain, would judge me as harshly as I have judged myself. As you Type-As (and spouses-of) out there can attest, that can be the worst of all.
Perhaps most amazing among them was our younger daughter, ‘Springy’ who was studying out of state at the time. We elected not to tell until I picked her up Friday afternoon. ‘Shredded’ emotionally that day, I and others prayed that my awful duty of revelation would work itself out somehow. I was ready for a river of tears, anger or (worst of all) the sulking teenage cold-shoulder.
A few minutes before I picked her up, utterly exhausted, I finally prayed, “Lord, whatever has to happen to me in this, if it will bring ‘Springy’ closer to You, please just do it.” Basically, I gave up. I ceded control.
Five minutes later, I could not believe my ears when the first words out of her mouth (through tears, as she met my eyes) were: “Dad, it’s OK. It was an accident. It could have happened to anybody.” She forgave me. Instinctively. And she meant it.
Five minutes after that, she was reflecting to me on how it reminded her of a Francis Chan video we’d viewed together about the need to love God above everything and everyone in this world. (Why? Because he is the font of all good things.)
It had not quite been clear to me before how easy it is to slide into the habit of not counting and attributing our blessings… how easy it is to prematurely terminate the love we owe to the Father onto ordinary, earthly things — like a friendly, loyal, innocent, furry pooch. There’s nothing inherently wrong with loving your dog — or your family — but it’s easier than we think to make those loves into idols and forget their source. To paraphrase Job (1:21) — dog-less I came into this world and dog-less I will leave it… I will choose to worship God nonetheless!!
The overflowing grace I experienced with Springy, quite clearly in answer to prayer, was so amazingly, joyfully, abundantly far beyond what I had been willing to expect from God that, I’m ashamed admit, as David Wilkerson notes this morning (“How Big is Your Jesus?”), I may have been settling for a ‘small’, “salvation-only” view of God, his character and his capabilities.
Finally, some larger lessons for us in these times.
This incident has caused me to ask myself: How much do I need to be right about the schedule, the dark ‘players’, and the precise details of end-times events — and with that, gain a sense of chess-board mastery and told-you-so control over them as they play out — versus how much am I willing to believe that God is good and that he has it worked out for the best for those who love him (Rom 8:28) and that it’s really very simple: I just need to listen carefully (scripture, prayer) for my marching orders?
To put it another way: To what degree do I need to see and work out all the details before I’m willing to trust God? To what degree do I need to be a god of sorts, on par with the Real One, before I’m willing to give up control and simply trust?
Because, ya’ know something? This has taught me, with a vengeance, that no matter how much we may think we’re on top of things — that we’re “masters of our fate” and “captains of our souls” — we simply aren’t. Henley, Rand, Nietzche and all the rest who thought so are all dead. We can’t see the big picture. We won’t get all the details right.
We’ll miss the plane to Helsinki, or kill the dog, or something worse. We’ll forget one or two small things (crack the windows, listen for barking, check in once in awhile) and that will make all the difference. Without a forgiving, omnipotent and wholly good God who sent his wholly obedient, Only Son to the max for us, it’s all pretty senseless. Thank God He did. Thank God it isn’t!!!
ONE — Thursday morning, before the incident, it just so happened that my daily reading progression took me to Matthew 15:
22 …a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Dogs here, of course, are symbolic of the gentiles. (They were mostly pack-traveling scavengers in those days, and thus quite ‘unclean’, much like in Iraq now). I’m not quite ready to consider the possibility that the senseless death of my dog is symbolic of anything, much less the destiny of unbelievers in these times of impending judgment… but the thought has crossed my mind.
TWO — I was only passingly familiar with L.A. Marzulli until someone who didn’t know a thing about these events tipped me off to his blog. His dog died Tuesday. As with our pooch, his came in relation to a family bout with leukemia. As with our dog, his was an escape artist. As with ours, his had white feet. I don’t write about UFOs nearly as often as he does, but hey, we’ve all got our niches. He’s a good read.
THREE: Still loving the Eric Metaxas biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (H/T: LCC… I think…) This is one of the best books I’ve read in years.
A few days before our dog died, I ran across an account, in the book, of Bonhoeffer’s time in Barcelona in the late 1920′s as a young pastor. His lengthy, loving reply to a young boy who had lost his dog is absolutely fascinating. A hundred pages or so later, after our dog was gone, I read about how he had adopted a St. Bernard during his time in London and how shaken-up he was when it was killed in traffic. It was reassuring not only to realize that God knew I’d be reading this book at this time, book-ending our mini-tragedy, but that a true giant of the faith wrestled with precisely the same questions we are in this and came up only with the pain of loss, more questions than answers and ultimately, the well-placed hope that God redeems all Creation in the end.
FOUR: Yes, I’m looking into last night’s Chile quake. Initial research is intriguing.