A New Question – Prayer

We’ve been receiving Christmas cards. They’re a bit fun, but I wonder how many people send them out, not because they just love to do so,  but because it’s an obligation. An obligation because if some certain person doesn’t get one, that person will be angry or hurt or feel excluded. An obligation because this is just what we have always done so we keep mindlessly doing it. An obligation because we have to keep up the facade that we are doing just fabulously fantastic, and we need to let all our even near acquaintances know that we are great, even if we aren’t. I’m not trying to be a downer on Christmas. I love Christmas. And I recognize that it certainly is completely possible to just love sending Christmas cards and to do it for pure and honest reasons. But I’m suspect what is behind the majority of card sending, especially when I get one that has some pretty picture, a machine printed message, and a signature. What’s the point of that? Anyway, this is a side issue and an introduction to my main question.

That question is about prayer. One of the cards we have already received (And maybe that is part of the message of this particular card that the senders are doing so very fabulously good that they sent their cards out before Thanksgiving even. But maybe they are just very organized and know they will be busy and not have time to do it after Thanksgiving.) told about a significant illness requiring hospitalization for a few days but that the end result was complete healing which is certainly a wonderful thing in my book. The card went on to describe how there were numerous prayer chains reaching up to the heavens and that if it wasn’t for those prayers, the result would not have been what it was. The author went so far as to imply that the prayers were THE REASON why this person got better. It felt a bit hollow as I read it initially, and as I read and re-read, I wondered what benefit there was in all that, hanging that entire thing on prayer. It just doesn’t seem to sit well inside me, like hoping in a pipe dream or a fairy tale of some sort, almost like falling for some dishonest propaganda or something. And knowing the person who wrote this like I do, I can’t help but wonder if there was a sense on their part that they must approach it in this fashion or else they wouldn’t meet the approval of others in their community of friends, family, and acquaintances. Let me try and clarify a bit.

I’m a physician and take care of gravely ill people in the ICU all the time. It’s a regular part of my existence. And I’m not trying to say that it is the physicians who cured this person and that they are the ones responsible for the healing. I don’t have a physicians-are-gods complex, and that’s not what I’m getting at here. I see people day after day get better and respond to proper medical treatments. It doesn’t take any prayer. You have an ear infection. You get an appropriate antibiotic. And you get better. Without prayer. It doesn’t take any prayer. Get as complicated as you want to get, and it still works the same way. It doesn’t take any prayer. So why add it in there? I don’t pray that God help me eat my dinner well. I don’t pray that God help me know when to go to the bathroom. I don’t pray that God help me remember how to get to WalMart. So why add prayer in here?

At this point some may say that studies have shown that people who are prayed for have better outcomes, and you’d be right. But you wouldn’t be fair unless in your statement you also acknowledge that there are at least an equal number of studies that show no difference between prayed for and non-prayed for and that there are also studies that show those who are prayed for actually do worse. Which means, to me, in the end that there is at least no scientific evidence that praying for others results in disease healing. It’s a wash. But prayer in this way seems to me to be something that we use as a tool to accomplish something for us. In this case, healing, and also maybe being able to talk about how much prayer you were doing and how it is more important to you than food and water. I think I remember Christ telling us to pray in secret, and in the model of prayer he gave us, I don’t see anything about asking God to accomplish things for us. That doesn’t then mean that it’s improper for us to do so. But too often it appears to me that we are praying selfishly and then liking to talk about how we rely so much on prayer. That kind of praying and placing faith and hope in a God who responds to that kind of praying seems to me to be completely useless.

Now this pessimism doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to prayer and that I think it’s worthless. In fact, I think it can be very valuable. For one, the act of praying forces us to slow down and self-reflect which is a good thing in this fast paced culture. Yoga does a lot of the same thing, and I think yoga could be prayer in action. I’ve even prayed some while doing yoga myself. But I think the main value in prayer is not at all that we can ask God for things like healing or wins or losses or parking places (Yes, I know someone who believes that God gives them parking places close to the door when they pray for them.), but in the humility that it brings the person who is doing the praying. Honest communication with God that is not focussed around bargaining or asking for this or that or that is not for the purpose of later on declaring how much you pray and how much you rely on prayer for your very existence, brings forth the acknowledgement within ourselves that there is something greater than ourselves responsible for our existence. And that kind of humility is something that is very obviously critically needed in a world where the powerful and seemingly invincible in sport, business, and government repeatedly fall victim to their money and their attitude and their lust for more power. If you don’t have something or someone or both in your life which do a good job of keeping you humble, of helping you realize that you do in fact need other people, you are heading for a painful decline. Prayer, when approached with an appropriate attitude and mindset, I think accomplishes just that.

An Examined Life

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates

Just a brief race report for those interested and then back to some serious blogging. My wife, Karmen, tells me that I was distracted in the weeks leading up to the race. She’s probably right (and she is usually right) . I do feel a sense of relief and freedom in these now 10 days since I raced. So I’m ready to give my blog the attention it has lacked for a time. Now to the report…

As I examine the race I find myself very satisfied, and oddly enough it doesn’t have much to do with the fact that I improved my time over 2008 by 2 hrs 17 minutes (total race time 13:13:15). It mostly has to do with the fact that I did it twice. I did the Ironman twice. I wasn’t “one and done.” It now feels like it’s not just some challenge that I faced and conquered. It feels like it’s part of who I am. Ironman. It’s part of my fiber. I like that. It’s the most satisfying thing of the whole experience. Race day was good. The weather was near perfect except for 62 degree water. My improvement over 2008 was across the board with an equally good swim time, a dramatically improved bike time, and a significantly improved run time. My overall place was very near the 50th percentile. I’m satisfied with all of that and am relishing wearing my “Finisher’s” jacket with a great big Ironman logo and the word “Finisher” across the back, but I don’t feel like it’s to brag on my accomplishment. It’s because it’s now part of who I am, more so than it was before. Thanks to all who watched the live feed online and followed me around the course via the athlete tracker. Thanks to Karmen and Jack and Jace for actually coming to Tempe to support me and for putting up with all the training. Now it’s time for a rest. Soon it will be time to gear up for number 3, Ironman Arizona 2010. I’ve still got room to improve. Now on the important stuff…

In my pre-race post, I mentioned I was reading a book by Laurence Gonazles called Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things. It’s a great book. He is largely making a case for not leading an unexamined life, for not blindly going through life and letting the culture think for you. That kind of unexamined living leads to a great deal of evil. I’d like to quote a section from chapter 8, pages 141-142:

“…When we are not living examined lives, when we aren’t paying attention, when we are not practicing self-reliance, other forces slip in to dominate our lives, our behavior, and ultimately our fate and our future. Relying on others and losing our own abilities has made ours a fearful and vindictive society. Societies, like individuals and institutions, build emotional systems. Shocks to the system can accumulate and lead to overreaction. For example, in 1982 someone put cyanide into bottles of Tylenol and replaced the bottles on shelves in stores. Seven people died as a result. The death of seven people is not a very large event in our country, but that event produced a deep change in our cultural emotional system. Every conceivable kind of package was quickly sealed up beyond any normal individual’s ability to open it. That’s just one shock to which we overreacted. Safety measures work like technology: they suffer from a ratchet effect. They can only go in one direction. Once you invent the car, you can’t go back to the horse. Once you seal the bottle (‘for your protection’), you can never again sell an unsealed one. Over the years our society was shaken by many such shocks, from the Columbine High School massacre to the collapse of the World Trade Center. Each shock led to more control, and our society began to lose its flexibility, its adaptability.

We no longer know how to react to ordinary events. In White Plains, New York, in July 2007, eight students taped alarm clocks to the walls of their high school as a prank and were charged with the felony of ‘placing a false bomb,’ which carried jail time. This is not an isolated incident. It is a widespread trend in this country toward ‘getting tough.’ In December 2007, a ten-year-old girl in Ocala, Florida, was sent to school with a lunch that included steak. In her lunch bag was a small knife with which to cut the steak. Her teachers at Sunrise Elementary School saw the knife and called the Marion County sheriff. The girl was arrested and faced felony weapons charges. When a society turns on its own children, it is no longer functioning normally. Getting tough is only necessary when you have already lost control. And the fact that we can no longer distinguish between terrorists or violent criminals and our own children – or for that matter, between eating utensils and weapons – is an ominous sign. By this reasoning, the baseball team would be arrested for wielding clubs. But if you can no longer think, you can’t be reasonable.

It is the failure of thought and reason that leads to such outcomes, in which people have followed a seemingly logical path to reach complete nonsense. Hence the phrase, ‘intelligent mistakes.’ When people abdicate responsibility and come to rely on a system of rigid rules, matters can take an ugly and dangerous turn.

When reporters came to question the authorities as the Sunrise Elementary School, they were told that the teachers had no choice about what they had done to the little girl. ‘Anytime there’s a weapon on campus, yes, we have to report that,’ said a spokesman for the county school system. A spokesman for the Marion County sheriff’s office defended his actions against the little girl in the same way: ‘Once we’re notified,’ he said, ‘then we have to take some kind of action.’ The most frightening element of this drama is the refusal of ordinary people to think at all. Their answers are reminiscent of those given by officers of the German Reich during the Nuremberg trials, in which they said, as if it were obvious, that they were following orders. And of course, they were.” (Emphasis mine)

I believe these are profound words to be taken deeply to heart. Gonzales is right. When we let the culture, the institution, the government, the corporation, do our thinking for us, we walk a dangerous line. The unexamined life is truly a very dangerous path to travel. I think it happened to me in the area of faith. Karmen and I were actually told from a board member at the church we used to attend that what we thought didn’t matter. It was just our job to follow the leadership of the church. Wow, that’s just a few steps short of the way a cult works, and it didn’t feel right then even though we weren’t quite sure why, and it absolutely doesn’t feel right now, and what Gonzales has laid out here is the reason why. If we are not intimately and deeply involved in examining ourselves honestly and understanding why we do what we do and thinking through the consequences of our actions, we are heading towards a mighty intense crash, not only as individuals, but as churches, as corporations, as governments, as cultures, and as humanity as a whole.

And you know, I think Ironman racing, the training, the discipline, the lifestyle, helps me lead a deeper examined life. Thanks for reading.

Race Week Mosaic

My path for the second time around comes once again to Ironman Arizona. The intense training and work is now over, just the racing is left, and this is a rest week leading into the race. Just enough training to keep myself loose. Just enough rest to completely heal. I want this week to be one of introspection and increasing self awareness and deeper self understanding. I do this because I love it. I do this because of the challenge. I do this to better myself. Accolades or lack thereof are unimportant and not sought after. I compete mainly against myself. This thing is the one thing I do solely for me. It focuses me. It brings me peace. It is my outlet. It is pure. Race day is this Sunday, November 22. If you like, you can follow me on ironman.com/ironmanlive.

There are a couple of other loose ends that I wanted to mention which is the mosaic part of the title. I was having a spiritual discussion this weekend with some good friends and my wife. Our church had a retreat out in the Flint Hills and part of the formal material presented was about God as good and with our best interest in mind and how we can see that in creation and nature if we just slow down and look. But that doesn’t completely register as true with me. When I look at nature I see a system with physical laws that punish for bad choices as strongly as they reward for good choices. Slip off a cliff while rock climbing and you die or at least suffer significant injury. Ignore the tide suddenly going out 3/4’s of a mile leaving flopping fish in its wake and you drown in a tsunami. If I believe in a God that created all this then that God is responsible for the system. That doesn’t seem like a system of care and concern and benevolence and best interest. That system seems harsh. So we discussed, and the explanations that I anticipated were the ones given leaving me in much the same place at the end that I was when we started the discussion. BUT…I do find these days that I have an inner peace, for about the last 9 months, that wasn’t previously there earlier in my life. Even though I am not fully convinced that what God offers me is grace and love and acceptance without the anger and judgment and penalty, I feel peace, and I don’t feel the frantic need to get it figured out right now. I ask of God that he help me understand him the way he intends to be understood, and I’m listening more to what is within me as I look for the response to that plea.

The third thing is a quote from a book that I am reading called Everyday Survival by Laurence Gonzales. It really is about the psychology of survival and takes his first book, Deep Survival, and extends it a bit further into our everyday lives. It’s kind of a Deep Survival meets Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell). I just want to include a quote I read last night. On page 69 (paperback edition): “Bureaucracies force us to practice nonsense. And if you rehearse nonsense, you may someday find yourself the victim of it.” I don’t want to be practicing nonsense.

Things I will be reading on my trip: Everyday Survival, The Science of God, Too Big To Fail, What The Dog Saw. Next up on my reading list are: The Hidden Face of God, The Misunderstood God, The Greatest Show On Earth, Why Evolution Is True. Maybe I’ll post along the way this week if I have anything to say. Maybe I won’t. But at any rate, this time a week from now I’ll be an Ironman again, the second time around.

A Person Here AND A Person There

I know you all probably think I’m a bit crazy with all this talk that trends along the lines of heaven or hell, in or out, included or excluded. If that is the case, so be it. This is a point that I am stuck on, and I know of no other way to get unstuck than to get it out of me. I think I slowly am feeling the wall crumble beneath me though so I’ll keep yaking away.

I’ve been reading Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer. It’s the story of Pat Tillman. Great book and just the kind of thing Krakauer is best at writing about in my opinion. I like Krakauer, and now I love Pat Tillman. I’ll be at Arizona State University in 3 weeks for my next race, and I’m going to walk around the campus and ponder what I know about Pat Tillman. Think about the man that he was. Think about the sacrifice that he made. And I’m going to buy a Tillman jersey at the bookstore. I find myself significantly impacted by the book and who he was as a person.

I’ve been thinking about two people. One is Pat Tillman. The other is “Joe Christian.” Over here on the right is Tillman. Tough yet sensitive. Strong yet emotional. Confident yet humble. He drank some alcohol on occasion. He used some less than choice words on occasion. He passionately defended the weak and downtrodden. He was passionate about honestly and truthfulness. He was passionate about loyalty. He was well read. He asked questions, lots of questions. He journaled. He was a devoted husband. He met his wife when they were children and stayed loyal to her the entire time. He was a devoted friend. He loved relationships. Pat Tillman was a loving, and largely moral man who defended the weak and less fortunate. He was willing to risk his life and eventually gave it up tragically because of the principles on which he based his life. And he was not religious, at all.

Then over here on the left is “Joe Christian.” Joe Christian is strong and sensitive. He is humble. He’s not afraid of emotion. Christian gives of himself to the weak, the downtrodden. He believes in loyalty and honesty and truthfulness. He reads a great deal too and is not afraid to ask honest questions. Christian is a devoted family man and a solid friend. But Joe doesn’t drink any alcohol, never touched a cigar, can’t remember a time when he used a “cuss word.” Joe also goes to church 3 times a week and teaches Sunday School (man I don’t like that term). Joe has said the “Sinner’s Prayer.”

So here we have two guys, and I mean to present their qualities as just about equal. They both love. They both are moral. They both live a life that is defined by love for humanity. Yet many Christians that I know, including myself a mere 3 years ago, would say that Pat Tillman lost out, that he is going to eternally suffer while “Joe” will be fine with an eternal loving God. And now, at this point, that just seems utterly ridiculous to me. Am I really supposed to believe that Pat Tillman who lived as fine a life as anyone else I can name is damned because he drank a bit, cussed a bit, and never said that he loves Jesus? Really? He lived a life that is the very definition of love, supposedly the most important commandment according to Christ, the very thing that God is about if I am to believe many who surround me these days, and he is going to suffer because he didn’t define himself by the things he didn’t do and failed to say a few critical words? Really? Is that what Christianity wants me to believe? I just don’t think I can buy it any longer. I may be at the cracking point where I throw that piece of me out to the goats. If that’s really what God is about, what I don’t do and a few choice words, do I even want any piece of that God? I’m not sure that I do.

Some of you seem amazed that this is an issue for me. And the reverse is that I’m amazed that it’s not an issue for you. I’m not sure where this came from for me other than to say that is was a part of the culture in which I existed for the first 35 years of my life. That culture defined itself, maybe not in words but certainly in its behavior, but what it didn’t do, and it was those things it didn’t do that supposedly made it pure. And of course you had to say a few little words. And I innocently believed it and did my best to live it. And now it feels in my core somewhere that there is a little voice telling me that I was deceived. Like that was the wrong message. And when I read about Pat Tillman, I think that little voice inside may be right.

Man is this a hard idea to get out of my heart and head.

“Religiously”

Had one of those little light bulb epiphanies today. As I was working with a resident, we were talking about a diabetic woman who is on A LOT of insulin yet her diabetes is not ideally controlled. One of the ways in which that scenario can occur is if something is not taking their insulin as honestly as they tell you they are taking it. So you have to pry a bit deeper and get people to open up a bit. In our discussion, we talked about and used the phrasology, “Is she taking it ‘religiously.'” As soon as I said it my mind saw the irony. I was using and we collectively use that term, “religiously,” to mean that someone is following the rules to the last letter. Wow! That’s a massive Freudian slip on all of us. Religion is the fortress that is supposed to free us and yet it is the veil that binds us to the rules. How warped is that?

You have just been the beneficiary of my shortest post ever in my history of posting.

The Herd and Failure

I like Colin Cowherd on ESPN radio. Nothing new. I’ve talked about him before here on this blog. My local sports radio station used to carry his entire show from 9 AM to 1 PM, and I almost always at least had it on in the background. Then they recently, for reasons I don’t understand, replaced his show with Dan Patrick. Patrick is good but not nearly as good as Cowherd. Cowherd is more philosophical and ties life lessons to sports almost daily. Patrick is more of a jokester and tries to be too cute. So I downloaded the ESPN radio iPhone app and can listen to The Herd, Colin’s show, in its entirety. I’m sure my local station doesn’t like this, but I don’t want to listen to Dan Patrick. I want Cowherd.

Today was one of those days when Colin said something very valuable to not just sport but life. He talked about failure. His quote: “Everyone who succeeds has failed.” Man is that ever true. He expanded on that to say that if someone is not willing to admit to you that they have succeeded without failure, they are lying. And he’s not talking about little mix ups. He’s talking about near catastrophic failure and listed several individuals to back up what he was saying. Bankruptcies, divorces, prison time, major injury, etc. Devastating failure. If you plan to succeed, you better expect major failure along the way, because if you don’t fail, you also won’t succeed.

So why don’t we see our faith’s this way? Why do we always talk about reaching some level of perfection or “sanctification?” Does that even make any sense with what we know about what it takes to grow and improve? I hesitate to use the word “success” when it comes to faith and belief, partly because I myself am trying to get away from the notion that it’s all about a set of rules. “Success” can very quickly turn into needing to earn something. Probably a better idea of success in faith (and maybe this is only pertinent to the Christian view) is when we realize and are truly comfortable with the idea that we don’t have to do anything to earn anything. Accepting grace is success. And the road to that place involves failure.

And God has to know that. He set the system up for crying out loud. The world works that way. Everything in it works that way. Before there is success there is failure. Always. No way to get around it. And then sometimes there’s even more failure. It just works that way.

What does that say about this fear of hell that is so prevalent in Christianity? I would like to say that I am beyond this fear of hell. But I’m not. I think I’m getting over it bit by bit by bit by tiny little bit. But I’m far from being beyond it. It almost feels like I’ve been traumatized in some way. Not sure where that comes from.

Show Me How To Live

First, an apology. Sorry for not being very active in the blogging world of late. Life is busy right now. Both of my boys are playing football on separate teams. Add to that the final stages of training of for my next triathlon. Then add to that a couple of weeks of being on call. And then add to that keeping the priority of my family in place, and I don’t have much time left. My days are usually get up and train. Work. Support my boys at football practice. Eat dinner. Spend some time with my wife. Get to bed for at least 7 hours of sleep. Not much time for other stuff right now. But, even though it’s busy, it’s a good kind of busy filled with the stuff I love.

I’m still finding some time to read and think though. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is how religion turns God into a formula and teaches us to listen to everybody else’s truth instead of our own inner voice. All you have to do is jump through this hoop of theology and this hoop of behavior and this hoop of how of how to think and this hoop of devotion to the church and this hoop of blah blah and you’re good. God will accept you. But wait. Over there, at that church there is a different set of hoops. Is that the right set? But wait. There is a different set over there. And over there. And over there. We end up looking rather schizophrenic and feeling rather schizophrenic in our minds and souls not knowing who or what to trust. And you know what I’m becoming convinced of?…all that division, all those hoops, teach us to not trust ourselves. It teaches us to be directed by something outside of us, not something from within. And if one believes the Christian story, doesn’t Christ say that a helper will be sent to guide us? That can only come from within.

Audioslave has a song, Show Me How To Live, that in my opinion captures the tension resulting from this schizophrenia. See what you think.

VERSE:

And with the early dawn

Moving right along

Couldn’t buy an eye full of sleep

And in the aching nights under satellites

I was not received

Built with stolen parts

Telephone in my heart

Someone get me a priest

To put my mind to bed

This ringing in my head

Is this a cure or is this a disease?

CHORUS:

Nail in my hand

From my creator

You gave me life

Now show me how to live

Nail in my hand

From my creator

You gave me life

Now show me how to live

VERSE:

And in the afterbirth

On the quiet earth

Let the stains remind you

You thought you made a man

You better think again

Before my role defines you

CHORUS:

Nail in my hand

From my creator

You gave me life

Now show me how to live

Nail in my hand

From my creator

You gave me life

Now show me how to live

BRIDGE:

And in your waiting hands I will land

And roll out of my skin

And in your final hours I will stand

Ready to begin

Ready to begin

Ready to begin

Ready to begin

CHORUS:

Nail in my hand

From my creator

You gave me life

Now show me how to live

Nail in my hand

From my creator

You gave me life

Now show me how to live

Show me how to live

Show me how to live

Show me how to live

Show me how to live.

My take is this: It’s no accident that the DJ at the start of the video talks about freedom of the soul, and it’s also no accident that clips from the 1971 film Vanishing Point, whose main character refuses to give into the establishment, fill the video.V1 jumps right into the tension. All these sources telling him what to do. He doesn’t know which one to trust including whether he can trust his inner voice. He is willing to just talk to a priest to try and get the confusion to stop. In the chorus he cries out directly to God to show him what to do. In V2 he starts to figure it out a bit. He reminds those who think they have it all figured that we are all stained in some way so we better be careful in our claims to each other that we know the truth before we define ourselves by the truth we think we need to impose on each other rather than listening to the truth within us. By the bridge he seems to have found that he in fact does need to trust his inner voice and self more than any other source. This is how his creator speaks to him.

And I believe that, my friends, is how we should be living our lives, listening to our inner voice. God is there. It matters not so much whether you think that God is Christ, Buddha, Karma, Allah, Yahweh, or Nature to understand what I am saying. We should be in control of ourselves from internal sources, not leaving that control to things or people external.