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Posts Tagged ‘forgiveness’

The Wrath of God

Someone I know posted the following quote on Facebook today along with the comment “I couldn’t agree more”

“If God doesn’t punish America, he’s going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Evangelist Billy Graham.

For those who are not familiar with my history, I have a background in religion and philosophy (I trained to be a pastor) and, even though I am no longer a Christian, I know enough about it to write knowledgeably about this.

I have a few thoughts about the above quote about and why I couldn’t agree less with it. The most obvious problem with the quote is its foundation on a belief in an invisible and all-powerful being who controls the universe and has a beef to pick with humanity when they don’t follow his capricious whims. Let’s go ahead and assume that this assumption is correct and that there really is a God who controls the universe. If God does exist, why would anyone in their right mind ever want to treat him with anything other than disdain? If he really is in control then he is the cause of all suffering and pain and sorrow that surround us every day. A lot of people who believe in him try to get around this fact and use a lot of sophisticated arguments about why people suffer and why there is so much sickness and poverty and pain in the world but none of these arguments hold up when pressed. If God exists and he is in any way involved in the course of human existence, he is ultimately responsible for whatever happens and humanity, his creation, should  hold him accountable for all of the pain and misery that surround us. Humanity should not have to cower in fear, waiting for God to get angry and smite something in his wrath. If the above statement were true, then God really is like a drunken parent who forces their child to live in constant fear and uncertainty about what might set off a severe punishment. If God is real, he should already be apologizing to Sodom and Gomorrah.

Secondly, this attitude assumes that certain people know what God thinks about something and that they can speak for him. People who hold themselves up as qualified to speak for the almighty have, time and again, proven themselves to be dangerous and delusional. Believing that God is angry and that he should destroy every living creature in a country is dangerous thinking. It puts the person making the claim on an equal footing with God and declares them worthy of passing judgement on the rest of humanity for whatever perceived grievance that person has against whatever group deemed worthy of punishment. When a person makes a statement like this, they are claiming to be as smart and as justified as God himself in passing judgement on something. From a Christian perspective, this is a huge mistake. Jesus himself said, “Do not judge or you, too, will be judged” (Matthew 7:1) and went on to make it very obvious that those who follow him were to not stand in judgement of others (by the way, judging others was what the religious leaders of his day did and Jesus was calling them out on their bad behavior). It seems unwise to me that someone who claims to follow Jesus would choose to act in such an un-Christlike way.

Third, this attitude entirely dismisses the Christian belief in grace and forgiveness. The entire message of Christianity is that Jesus, who was fully God and fully human, came to earth and was crucified, died and resurrected on the third day as an atoning sacrifice for humanity. God’s grace and forgiveness is central to the faith of someone who claims to be a Christian and statements like the one above fly in the face of that central tenet. Attitudes like the one above are prevalent among most people I know who call themselves Christians and it was my desire to not be associated with that kind of attitude that contributed to me to examining my beliefs in God and Christianity in the first place. Eventually, I realized that God is not real and that those who claimed to follow him were, in reality, following superstitions and myths designed to control the behavior of people through fear and hope in some sort of afterlife or paradise.

There are many people out there who sincerely believe that God is angry and that he wants to punish those he is angry with. They look at events that happen around them and read their belief of a coming judgement into those events. It’s sloppy thinking and even worse theology. I would encourage them to rethink their understanding of God. If he is real, would you really want to affiliate yourself with someone like that?

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How often have you been doing something and totally lost track of time? This usually happens to me when I’m doing something I really enjoy or when I’m working on a difficult problem. I totally space out and am unaware of the passage of time and do not perceive the world around me in the normal way. Why does this happen to us? It’s because we are caught up in the moment and ignoring all other demands for our attention. This is one of the states that Zen encourages us to exist in no matter what we’re doing. We often talk of losing ourselves in the moment and that is exactly what happens: we lose our sense of self in these moments of hyper-engagement. I remember one beautiful mid-afternoon day when I got a call from my wife while I was at work. She asked me if I was going to be coming home soon. I told her I didn’t think so as it wasn’t time for me to leave for another few hours. That’s when she told me it was after 6:00 P.M. I looked around and everyone else’s desk was empty. I was alone in my office and didn’t even realize how late it had become. I saved my work and left for the day.

I could tell a lot of other stories about times that I have lost myself and make more analogies about how this is some sort of mystical Zen-like state where everything is bliss but that’s not where I’m going with this.

The idea of a self that you can lose is one that Buddhism challenges. When you face this challenge, you often hear about the five aggregates or attachments or a bunch of Sanskrit words that I’m able to recognize now but not necessarily define well enough to write about. That’s a bit closer to where I’m going with this, but, still not quite there.

For me, my self is often the voice that is inside my head as manifested by my thoughts. I spend a lot of time in contact with that self and most of the time it’s a pretty good thing we have going. My self has a great ability to analyze things and understand abstract concepts in a fairly comfortable way. My self keeps me company when I’m alone or in the car or reading a book or sitting in meditation. It’s a companion that is always there, in the back of my mind and it is more familiar than the most comfortable pair of clothes ever could be. There’s only one problem I really have with my self: it is a hyper-critical and judgemental creature who will point out mistakes, perceived mistakes, chances for mistakes or mistakes that I didn’t make but could have if things had gone differently. My self is so caught up on attaining perfection in everything that it can drive me a little crazy at times. OK, maybe not just a little crazy, but a lot crazy.

When I was struggling with some of my worst depression, my self was probably at its strongest critical level ever. I really did hate myself. A lot of it had to do with the illness of depression and I’m aware of that now so I have been able to forgive myself of my past feelings. However, there was also a component to my self-loathing that was directed at my weight and physical appearance. The pain that goes along with being as obese as I was can be quite overwhelming at times. The other day as I was getting ready for work I remembered just how bad one of those times was.

I don’t remember how long ago this was but one time when I was home by myself, I was feeling really down. The critical voice in my head was as loud as I think I’d ever experienced it. I’m not sure how, but I found myself in the kitchen; probably with the intention to eat something, but that’s not what I did. I’d had enough of the critical voice and I didn’t want to have to put up with it any more. I was convinced I was a failure, I had no hope, I hated everything about myself. So, I opened up a drawer and grabbed a bottle of pills. At that point, my self took over and started to figure out the number of milligrams per pill times the number of pills and factor in my weight and calculate if this would be enough. The fact that I’m here today with a different outlook on life and a healthier lifestyle kind of gives away the end of the story so I’ll spare you the drama and the details about my inner turmoil and thoughts. In the end, the bottle went back in the drawer and I never did that again. I didn’t even really think about this event too much until the other morning when I spilled some pills and saw them all sitting in my hand as I picked them up. That’s when I went back to this very dark time and thought about just how sick I really was. I was so tired of the critical voice in my head that I have so often called my “self” that I was willing to die to get away from it. That’s a pretty messed up sense of self.

As I have practiced Zen, I have come to learn about the Buddhist perspective of the self. It’s quite different from what we in the west usually consider to be the self. When we speak about losing ourself in the west, we really do mean getting wrapped up in our ego. Buddhism has the opposite view: we lose our connection to that which we normally identify as our “self”. In the past, I wanted to lose my self so I thought the only way I could do that was through death. Now, I know that the thing I considered to be my “self” is not my ultimate reality. Instead, I am something altogether different. I don’t know enough yet to really put it into words the way I would like to but I have come to realize that I can lose my self and be even freer than I have ever been before. I don’t need to die to become detached from my self. Rather, through meditation and working on developing right view and right understanding, I can learn how to really allow my self to be something that is me but not-me at the same time. I can lose my self in a non-violent way that will allow the true me to emerge. I can practice self-destruction but I never have to worry about mistaking that for death ever again.

This has been the hardest post I have written on this blog so far. As I read it over again, I’m questioning whether I was able to effectively communicate my thoughts. The fact is, I have learned that I am not my thoughts. I am not my obesity. I am not my failures, be they actual or perceptual. I am so much more than those things could ever be. The path to discover what this really means is open before me and I’m anxious to begin the journey but scared at the same time. For now, I’ll just put one foot in front of the other and go where the path leads. It’s nice to know that I have a path to follow and that it will lead me to a better place than where I have been. I’ll leave my self behind and somewhere on the path, meet my true self. I’m sure it will be like greeting a long-lost friend.

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If you notice my current weight on the left side of the blog, you’ll see that the number of pounds lost has gone down. This isn’t something I’m happy about but I’ve just come off a pretty busy week and I’ve also not been exercising as I should. I noticed that my body was really starting to hurt from the amount I was pushing it and it wasn’t a good hurt either. Last week when I went to walk up the stairs in my house, my left knee buckled underneath me and wouldn’t allow me to go up the steps while putting my weight on it. Needless to say, this wasn’t something I was ready for. I also had some problems with the bottoms of my feet having blisters and tearing skin that made exercising hurt more than I’d like it to. I decided to give my body some time to recover and to make sure that I am stretching even more so I am thoroughly warmed up before I exercise (I thought I was but I guess not). I don’t want to allow my old habit energy to get in control of me again so I made it a point to go out and get some more items from the store that would be helpful for me as I exercise. I got some smaller clothes to exercise in and I got an armband and headphones for my iPod so that I can listen to music while I work out. It was my intention to use these new things this morning and get back into my exercise routine. Unfortunately, I came down with a nasty cold this weekend and I have absolutely no energy and I feel miserable. Instead of exercising today, I slept. That’s what my body needed the most so I’m trying to make sure that I can recover as quickly as possible in order to get back into the swing of things.

In addition to not exercising, my eating has been a bit relaxed this past week. I actually ended up going through a drive through the other day and getting myself food that wasn’t good for me at all. I think I’m slowly learning that this isn’t a good idea as it is way too much junk for my body to handle at once and it makes me feel ill now when I eat it. I also took my kids out to see a movie yesterday and ended up eating a lot of junk both for lunch and then at the theater. I figured since I’d already eaten crap for lunch why hold back on candy while watching a stupid kids movie. Isn’t it interesting how that logic works? “I’ve failed already so why try to get back into doing things the right way?” Our past failures and our past successes has nothing to do with our present moment. When my brain throws fractured logic at me about my past failures, I need to keep that in mind. It may help not to have a mental state weakened by a cold, but that’s another post altogether. 

So, between taking in more calories than my body is used to and not burning as many in exercise as I need to, my weight has gone up a bit. We all have ups and downs in our life and my goal now is to not fixate on the fact that I’ve gained a pound or two and to pick up right where I am and keep moving forward. That’s one of the great things about mindfulness: it keeps me thoroughly grounded in the present moment. I read somewhere the other day that living in the future is anxiety and living in the past is depression. Considering that depression and anxiety were two of the biggest issues I had to face it makes a lot of sense to me that living mindfully in the present moment acts as an antidote to these negative states. My caloric balance may shift to the “too much” or to the “too little” side of the scale but I can always bring it back to the right place by focusing on where I am and what I need in order to get where I want to be. That’s a pretty easy thing to do, the challenge comes in doing it without self judgement. Once again, mindfulness to the rescue. Even though I felt like crap last night, I still meditated. Even though I feel like crap now, I’m being mindful. I messed up, big deal. I’ve succeeded, big deal. I’ll succeed in the future, big deal. I’ll fail in the future, big deal. When I stop judging these things and giving them more worth than they deserve, it becomes so much easier to not judge myself and find the balance that I need.

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[I started this entry yesterday but didn’t have time to finish it. I’ve polished it up and here it is.]

My good news from today made me know that it was OK to give myself a treat tonight. I enjoyed an old Cincinnati favorite of Skyline Chili. For those who don’t know, Cincinnati has more chili parlors per capita than anywhere else in the world. We love our chili in Cincinnati. The king of chili there is Skyline Chili. It’s one of the few things I really miss about Cincinnati. It’s traditionally served over spaghetti with beans, onions and cheese. I used to eat this stuff multiple times per week. It’s completely and totally not healthy and I love it. I have a few cans of the stuff in the back of my pantry and I break it out like a good bottle of wine for “special occasions”. As I savored and slurped and chewed and loved every bite of my carbohydrate and red meat feast I thought back to some of the many things I have done in the past in regard to food. Everything on this list in one way or another has contributed to my obesity. It’s not necessarily something that I’m proud of but here’s a list of some of my past “sins” that I have now forgiven myself for.

  1. Made up a song about how much I love carbs (“♫I like carbohydrates, I like carbohydrates, they make me big and strong. I like carbohydrates, I like carbohydrates, I eat them all day long♫”).
  2. Spent hundreds of dollars and a lot of time in culinary school in order to become a better cook.
  3. Ate dinner in the car on my way home before eating “second dinner” with my family.
  4. Ate till I made myself sick.
  5. Woke up in the morning with new recipe ideas because I’d spent the night dreaming about food and eating.
  6. Lost hours upon hours of my life to the Food Network even though I already knew pretty much everything they were talking about on the various shows I’d watch.
  7. Read everything I could get my hands on about food, cooking, recipes, methods and tools to use in the kitchen.
  8. Ate things I really didn’t want or enjoy just to say that I’ve had them.
  9. Eaten X number of hot wings in a short enough period of time to win the T-shirt that comes with the feat.
  10. Gone out of my way to eat at restaurants just because I saw them profiled on a food TV show.
  11. Intentionally eaten things I know are bad for me simply because they were bad for me.
  12. Used ice cream like it was a drug. I’d turn to it when I was sad or upset or troubled. If you ever saw me with a new pint of Ben & Jerry’s the next time you saw the pint it would be empty.
  13. Consumed over 5000 calories in one meal.
  14. Consumed over 5000 calories in dessert after having a meal.
  15. Choose to buy only items that had received a positive rating in Cook’s Illustrated.
  16. Made fun of others for not eating as much as me or not liking the same things as me (with apologies to my wife and all my vegetarian friends).
  17. “Cleaned up” after hosting a dinner party (I don’t mean throw away the trash, I’m talking making sure there aren’t any leftovers).
  18. Teaching my kids that it’s OK to reach into a pot of cooked pasta and stuff your mouth full of sauce-free spaghetti (I still feel bad about this).
  19. Eating a “family size” box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese all by myself (for lunch and another one for dinner).
  20. Drinking an entire two litre of Mt. Dew in one sitting.

There’s twenty things. That should do for now. I could actually keep going but I won’t. As I look at this list I actually feel happy that I no longer do the things listed here. Now, I get full on a salad and some water. I choose foods based on how healthy they are and how sound they are for sustainability and environmental benefit. I spend time thinking about ways to make my food even more healthy or use my skills in the kitchen to come up with good tasting vegetarian or low-fat foods. I’m at peace and no longer need to turn to food to get me out of a low period. I’m happy with myself and feel a joy when I eat because it has given me a chance to connect with the entire world. I may still drink 1-2 liters in a sitting, but now it’s water. The things I’m happy about far outnumber the things that I’m not.

Here’s a bonus one that I just remembered

21. Eating an entire box of Penguin Caffinated Mints in such a short amount of time I made my heart feel funny

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I’m writing this from inside a McDonalds. I just ate a Big Mac, fries and a root beer. This is my standard order here and I hadn’t had it in a month. I gave in to the kid’s begging and decided to allow myself one meal to ignore the changes I’ve been making. Now, my stomach hurts and I’ve consumed more than half of my daily caloric intake. It wasn’t as good as I remember. I’m not happy with myself and I feel bad. At this point, I have 2 options: I can hate myself for my actions or I can embrace my suffering and move beyond it. I’m trying the latter but it’s harder to do in practice than it is in theory. Wish me luck: it’s time I get to work on self forgiveness.

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