So last night I was listening to Johnny Cash’s God’s Gonna Cut You Down and I had an epiphany. I want to tell you about it, but first I need to back up a bit.
W.C. Fields once said, “I was born with a fatal facility to juggle.” Because of his natural juggling ability, he fell easily into vaudeville and subsequently into comedy. Personally, I was born with a fatal facility to con people. We all have good qualities and bad. I’m just being honest about one of my shadow sides and con artistry is one of them. Luckily, I’m both risk averse and at least fairly moral, so this tendency has never veered into criminal territory. Instead, it has been relegated to my personal life and various aspirations. Historically, anyway. I’ve been drifting away from this modus operandi for awhile now, and since late September I’ve picked up speed.
During my first counseling session with Father Pat, he told me I wanted to “steer” – by that he meant orchestrate outcomes. I’d always mentally referred to it as “bending the universe to my will.” Note to any self-professed Christians who may be reading this, if you sometimes use the phrase “bending the universe to your will” you should probably invest in some self-examination. In order to bend the universe to my will, I’d use my ability to read people to put events into motion and hopefully secure the outcome I’d deemed the correct one. I had some talent in this arena, but more than that I had a habitual way of thinking. I was always looking to game the system. Two exceptions were writing and riding. I’d learned nothing replaces a work ethic and dedication when it comes those activities. Somehow, those lessons didn’t spill over to the rest of my life.
Somewhere in 2011, I was playing cards with my dad at the cabin. We were talking about faith and I told him that I felt I was pretty solid in all areas except obedience. I knew about my penchant for thinking I knew best and universe bending. My dad kind of laughed and said, “That’s the most important quality a Christian can have.” I blithely thought, “Huh. Oh, well.” Cue Johnny Cash singing, Sooner or later God’ll cut you down…
I got cut down, alright. But it didn’t fully change my thinking. I started down the road, but I kept returning to my steering mentality. (No doubt, I’ll tend toward that my whole life. “It’s a process,” to quote my friend Charlie Grey.)
Part of being a con artist lies in control of information. Or, as my mother has said, “You like to keep your cards close to the vest.” And I do. Even here, on this blog. People give me a lot of credit for being brave, for sharing personal information, but there’s a degree of illusion in that. I do genuinely share. My eulogy for Little Bastard pops to mind as something I wrote on this blog that cut deeply. But I don’t share quite as much as it seems like I do. So, even as I tried to give up steering, I held onto my Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler mentality – living in constant analysis of what cards to hold, what cards to play.
Recently, I was struck by the largeness of God and the smallness of man. An image came to my mind of boys on a beach at night, scribbling in the sand, their noses inches from the ground. At their backs was the moonlit ocean, above their head was the vast, starlit sky. This scene came to me one night when I was feeling particularly fatigued at the prospect of walking around the doctrines of men. And I do mean “men.” I have no woman in my life that I must similarly walk around. For whatever reason, it’s much easier to look up at the stars with women. Men want to show you their scribbles in the sand and tell you why their scribble is better than their neighbors’.
C.S. Lewis said repeatedly in the Chronicles of Narnia that “Aslan was not a tame lion.” Even as a child I was struck by the brilliance and the necessity of this observation. On Monday, Pope Francis spoke to Curia, telling them, “The Church shows herself to be faithful to the Holy Spirit to the extent that she does not seek to regulate or domesticate it.” It is precisely the same sentiment and it is the engine behind my image of the night sky above the scribblers on the beach. When we tie ourselves into the knots of doctrine we lose the vastness of God. Doctrine is important. It is a needed map. But it is inherently human in its construction. When we lose sight of that, we bind ourselves to something smaller than that which our doctrine describes.
For awhile now, I’ve been cognizant of the fact that the more authentic and honest one is, the better your life will be. Fabricated and edited personalities are where the seeds of unhappiness take root, and we edit ourselves out of fear that our true selves won’t be accepted. It’s Bad News Bears, you guys. It is our job to embrace the idea that we are wonderfully made, to celebrate it and live joyfully. This hit home for me when I recently visited my friend Mary Tannery. Mary’s boy Lachlan is in the hospital with leukemia, and it’s been awhile since I’ve had a chance to spend time with her. I’d been having all these thoughts rattling around in my mind, but to be with Mary was to see these thoughts in action. Mary, in so many ways, is living the way I want to live. So many of the rooms in the pediatric oncology ward were sad, drab affairs – and this during Christmas. Lachlan’s room was a celebration of life and to walk into it was to walk into a party. How healing for him to wake up to that! Laughter is good medicine. Mary’s ability to not only be her true self but to choose hope, faith, and joy blew me away. Seeing Mary’s choices in action made me aware of how often I choose the opposite – and for absolutely no good reason whatsoever.
Not long after visiting Mary, I went to Midnight Mass at St. Anthony’s of Padua. Father Pat’s homily was about the Christmas truce of WWI. It was amazing, as always. Then he talked about how Christ died for us, how “He died to save us from ourselves. To save us from phrases like, ‘Whatever,’ and ‘As long as nobody finds out.'” This struck me, but not yet in a fully formed way.
Then, last night, I cued up a Johnny Cash song, but instead of the one I selected “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” started to play. It’d been a long time since I’d last heard it. Along with the refrain of “Sooner or later, God’ll cut you down” there is the stanza:
Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s done in the dark will be brought to the light
And this is what brought me to my epiphany – that my Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler mentality stretched all the way to my relationship with God. Subconsciously, I felt I could control the information I shared with the Almighty. I could withhold cards from Him. Granted, I wasn’t so stupid to think this intellectually, but I realized that on a subconscious level that’s exactly where my head was at. Or perhaps more accurately, I thought I could bargain with God via the way I thought. Again, a note to any Christians reading this – if your conversations with God resemble Clarice playing quid pro quo with Hannibal Lector, it’s time to take a second look.
As much as I was wanting to be a stargazer, I was scribbling in the sand, too. Worse yet, I wasn’t even scribbling primarily for my neighbor’s benefit, but for God’s. My con artistry, my bent toward gaming the system, included a twisted belief that I could game God. Listening to Johnny Cash, I recognized I’d paid a lot of high prices for my lifetime of disobedience, but what also struck me was that, to quote Shakespeare, “The truth will out.” Aslan is not a tame lion. The Holy Spirit cannot be domesticated. I cannot manipulate God into manifesting anything other than the truth, for God and the truth are one and the same. With this thought came the realization that all my mental aerobics amounted to nothing, and with that realization, great relief and freedom. The actual words that came to mind were, “It doesn’t matter.” My assessment of what “should” be doesn’t matter. It’s not my job to bend the universe to my will, to make things happen. That’s God’s job. My job is way easier. Namely, be true to what God made me to be and let tomorrow take care of itself.