July 24, 2010

Patience, faith, and wisdom

I've been thinking about making a post like this one for quite awhile now. No links, no references, no attempt at logic or scholarly justification, just pure unadulterated opinion straight from my forebrain into yours. It ain't pretty, but it's pure me.

I grew up in a couple dozen towns and cities scattered between two states, California and Oklahoma. During my childhood I lived in places as small and insignificant as Jones, Oklahoma, as cosmopolitan as Los Angeles, California, and just about everything in between. I went to an elementary school in Los Angeles where kids offered to sell me everything from marijuana to black tar heroin, spent a year at a middle school in Oklahoma where the only drug was hand-cured tobacco, and ended my early education at a combined junior/senior high school in Calistoga where the entire school had fewer students than a single year block at the elementary school in L.A. I've been in fist fights with kids in big cities and small towns, had friends from every shade of humanity imaginable, spent three years living in Hawaii, and finally earned a B.A. from a university in Japan where I spent twenty-five years raising a family. I have seen Paris nights, morning in Venice, the bustle of Milan in the afternoon, sunset on tropic beaches in three countries, sunrise on mountaintops in four. I've eaten rice and kimchee provided by a Korean farmwife in the middle of a snowstorm, French and Italian gourmet dinners from the pristine kitchens of world-famous chefs, and greasy fast foods from more cultures than I could possibly name.

I don't have a string of letters and awards after my name, but I know people, real people, from every walk of life. Some of them I love more dearly than life itself and some of them I hate with a passion that would make a terrorist blush while most of them I get along with just fine even when we discuss lightning rod issues like politics, religion, and romance. I haven't shaken hands with a king or danced with a princess, but I've had coffee with global securities traders, drank beer with world renowned scholars, and argued politics with a prince. I've bought drinks for strippers, shared afternoon tea with nobles, compared knuckle scars with mechanics, and startled more than one certified sommolier by turning down a bottle of wine they themselves hadn't initially recognized as having gone bad.

I know good food, good drink, and good art. I have an eye for color and an ear for music. None of those things matter to me. I've lived the good life and hobnobbed with the rich and famous. My preference is still a run-down honky tonk alongside a two-lane highway where the waitress is a high school drop out with a couple kids, the entertainment is a lone guitarist who dreams of Nashville but will never make it, and the bartender inherited the place after the childless owner died from too many cigarettes, too much whisky, and a lifetime of sleepless nights.

I became a Christian when I was sixteen. God and the Bible are still the cornerstones of my life and I filter everything through a theology born in Martin Luther and revised through ten generations of Baptist preachers. I carry a gun everywhere my permit allows and love American tradition with a passion no liberal progressive will ever understand. God, Luther, Locke, Jefferson, Lincoln, and a dozen cowboy philosophers form the backbone of my personal beliefs. I've read Marx, Engels, Heidegger, and Nietzsche, as well as Dawkins, Hitchens, Jung, and Freud. I've read and written about "On the Origin of Species", "Beyond Freedom and Dignity", and "The Wealth of Nations". I nearly flunked a high school history class and a university sociology class by arguing against factual errors being taught by men who should have known better. In both cases I finally grit my teeth and regurgitated the answers they expected, finishing both classes with a B+ after failing or nearly failing the mid-terms.

In my personal life, on my personal time, and at my own personal expense, I have cared for prostitutes injured by violent men, fed homeless wanderers, faced down pimps, gathered evidence that sent drug dealers to prison, and campaigned to prevent the closings of both daycare centers and strip clubs. I have walked the devil's playground, repaired shattered lives, helped start new churches and finish corrupt merchants.

I have spent my life encouraging honest people and fighting for their right to live however they choose, even when I disagreed with some of their lifestyle choices. My purpose in writing this post is not to trumpet my successes, mourn my failures, or demand acknowledgement and acclaim. I really do not care about such things. Nor am I seeking to validate extreme positions I sometimes take in politics, philosophy, religion, and other discussions. I lost the need to justify my own existence in a Denver alley one night when I stopped a rapist from hurting a friend who had walked into my life a few days before and walked out again a few days later. I often wonder how the rest of her life unfolded and whether she remembers that night as vividly as I do.

So if I am seeking neither justification, acknowledgement, nor acclaim, why am I writing this whimsical, wandering, self-congratulatory bit of narcissism? To be honest, I don't really know.

I do know that tomorrow I am getting on a plane and flying to New York. Six days later I will get on another plane and fly back to Ohio. At the end of August I will be taking a bus to Washington D.C. to attend a rally the New Black Panther Party is promising to interrupt, perhaps violently. In September I am flying back and forth to Boston, and a week later flying to Japan, only to fly back to Ohio at the end of October. I am going to be doing a lot of traveling over the next few months, most of it on airlines that will be facing both rising costs and greater difficulty securing financing. It is quite scary, a perfect storm of negative conditions that is no doubt going to result in many airline crashes over the next six months. I am wondering if I will be on one of them. If I am, if tomorrow (or any of the half-dozen flights I will be on before year-end) is my last day in this life, I would not want to exit this world without leaving some final footnote on a life well-lived.

It has been a hard, difficult life and I have spent it fighting both physically and spiritually to make my corner of the world a better place. I have not been perfect and like anyone else I have caused much pain, sometimes even in those whom I love dearest. I grieve for each and every person I have hurt, no matter how small the damage. Each mistake has been a lesson and I have tried very hard to learn them. Repentance has been a constant theme for the past thirty-three years. When the balances are totalled and my life is weighed, I know my sins will be washed clean by the blood of Christ, but I also know I will carry the memory of both my victories and my failures into eternity. There is a reason this life has been so hard, these lessons so deeply ingrained. I don't know what that reason is but I am certain that when the time comes I will understand enough to celebrate both the lessons learned and the scars required to learn them.

When I was sixteen or seventeen a visiting evangelist preached a sermon about patience, faith, and wisdom. He pointed out that if we pray for these three virtues God will provide them; however, he will provide them through lessons built on pain, suffering, and defeat. He will do this because it is only through defeat that we truly learn the importance of victory. So before we ask God for anything at all (and especially before we ask him for patience, faith, and wisdom!) we had best prepare ourselves for a long, painful learning process, because it is only through fire that gold can be purified.

I don't know if I have become gold. I do know that I have walked through the fire.