Be Perfect II

Pointing to some children, Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Which implies we can’t be perfect unless we can be like children.

Since we all have been children, we’re able to take real or imaginary journeys back to the places of our childhood, and to the people and dreams of that part of our lives. And once we get there, we can let those places, people and dreams refresh our minds and help us cast off jaded parts of ourselves, and go to the territory on the boundary of the kingdom of heaven where the spirit most often seems to reside.

When I first got married and started a family I became someone other than who I am. I became somebody I’ll call “Responsible Man”. My ex-wife and probably my grown children might argue, “You weren’t all that responsible.” But, though I did quit jobs and spend what I otherwise might’ve saved on the time and opportunity to write, we always had a home and food. We never had to shop in thrift stores, except for furniture.

Master Jeong had us students sit in meditative posture. “Think about who you are,” he said. “Not what you do. Think about who you are at your essence.”

We are not who we generally feel we are. What we feel we are is what we’ve become. Who we really are is closer to who we were as children.

Therapists sometimes guide people to seek their inner child. New Age gurus take men out into the woods and have them yowl and wield big sticks.

I tell myself to banish “Responsible Man.” I can do that now that I own a home in California and my big kids are grown and educated and have real jobs, and my little Zoë has a professional mama and income from me that she’ll get no matter if I land in some asylum. But “Responsible Man” won’t let go of me. He has become a parasite. Maybe he’s my evil twin. Or maybe he knows that without him I’ll go wild and wreak havoc upon the world. “Okay then,” I tell him, “at least go to sleep when I’m writing.”

All of us artists would be wise to learn how to put whoever we have become asleep long enough every day to let us be who we essentially are, because that person is closer to perfect than the one we’ve become. And the closer to perfect, the less programmed and jaded, the more like those children Jesus pointed to when he proposed that to enter his kingdom we needed to become like them, the better at hearing the spirit.

From Writing and the Spirit

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Love Everybody?

I try to write a Church for Writers post at least every month, and this month I meant to offer some thoughts about the religion of evolution. But then a man entered a nightclub in Florida and killed and wounded almost a hundred people. And the next day, a radio personality commented: “We need to start acting kindly to each other. If everybody did just that, the world would be a safe and happy place. And though we can’t make other people be kind, we can behave kindly ourselves. That much is easy.”

Her comments were quite appropriate, I thought, and right in accord with Christ’s command for us to love our neighbors. And though I was touched by her passion and innocence, I need to note that being kind to everyone is not so easy.

Before I go on, I should point out that in my vocabulary, to love our neighbors and to be kind to people are practically synonymous. Psychologist and author M. Scott Peck defines love as a willingness to sacrifice, which could translate to being kind even if it hurts.

Kindness may be easy when people treat us well and don’t get into our way. But when they attack or demean us or frustrate our plans or desires, being kind to them is hard. It’s something we need to work at. Something most of us need to learn. And kindness to the degree it becomes sacrificial love is, for many if not most of us, mighty hard.

Following my first divorce, I began to detect that I was not good at loving people. So, being an avid reader, I began reading up on the topic of love.

I could recommend quite a few books, but I’ll start with Soren Kierkegaard’s Works of Love . Kierkegaard maintains that when Christ instructs us to love our neighbor, he is issuing a command, not making a suggestion. And Christ clarifies the command with the parable of the good Samaritan. In this context, to love our neighbor means to love without distinction. Everybody. Even those who believe or act in ways we find odious. Even those who may have done us grievous wrongs.

Being truly kind, not just friendly, is hardly easy. But it’s possible, if we put our hearts and minds to it.

Please try to love without distinction, and consider reading a book on love, and pray something like this: “Lord, teach and help me to lover better.”

The rewards of love are many and miraculous.

Please subscribe to this blog and read about them, maybe next month.

A Unique and Most Valuable Degree

About a dozen years ago, several of us founded a small online college. As I’m not patient enough to write the whole story here, I’ll only give the plot points.

Perelandra College got licensed by the state of CA to offer degrees and subsequently approved by a national accreditor. After a few years, for financial reasons, we gave up the accreditation, without which the license wasn’t worth all the work and money it required, so we also gave that up. Which left us as simply a provider of knowledge and encouragement.

We innocently believed that enough people just wanted to learn the writer’s craft to keep us afloat and perhaps help us bank enough to once again get licensed and accredited. But a cottage industry had arisen, offering to teach would-be writers the necessary craft and marketing skills, and all of this online. By now we’re competing with a legion of providers from blatant hucksters to the tolerably legit, among them Stanford University and James Patterson, most if not all of them far more capable of marketing than we are.

The obvious next step is to write off the school as a flop and move on. But since one of my tragic flaws is persistence, I’m not willing to give up. Another solution is to find an angle. I chose to follow the example of W.C. Field on his deathbed when somebody caught him reading a Bible and asked if he’d been converted, and he replied, “I’m looking for a loophole.”

Our first step in founding a college was to apply for status as a tax-exempt corporation. One of our partners knew an attorney with expertise in processing such applications for churches. So, we became a tax-exempt religious corporation. Which I recently learned can also exempt us from the cumbersome and expensive task of licensure, as long as “the instruction is limited to the principles of that religious organization.”

The ruling principle of Perelandra College holds that if artists diligently seek the source of inspiration with an active, humble, and open heart and mind, they will find what they need to make their work not only entertaining but true and of genuinely valuable. We view the source of inspiration in Christian terms, as the Holy Spirit.

When I first began teaching college creative writing, many of my classes were for beginners. Early on, I realized that most of the students might never, after finishing the class, write another story. So, I wondered, except for the sake of the few who were serious about learning the craft, what good was the class anyway? And soon I recognized that my goal was to teach creative problem solving — the use of both reason and intuition, both sides of the brain if you will, in the attempt to find the best answers to artistic problems. And I began to see that this skill is helpful, if not critical, in contending with the perplexing daily lives of most anybody. Which is why I believe the degree program, a Master of Arts in Writing and the Spirit — which I will soon propose to our board of governors — could also be called the Master of Arts in How to Live.

I imagine our board will approve and soon the primary goal of every class will be to find and apply inspiration, the highest form of creativity.

We currently offer certificate programs. But degrees are more valuable than certificates, and rightly so. Certificates are limited to skills. Degrees are meant to also offer a context in which the skills are applied, a holistic and rounded education.

James Patterson can’t (yet) offer a degree. Stanford University can, for about ten times the money we ask. And neither of them, or any of the others providers I know, has the nerve to claim they can help people get inspired, like we claim.

For a preview of what the Perelandra College degree program will offer, read Writing and the Spirit, free as an ebook until June 1.

Purple Rain

For no particular reason I can recall, I never quite connected with Prince, except that every time I happened to hear ”Purple Rain”, I thought, Whoa, that’s some mighty fine blues.

And now Prince died. I read a few articles and watched a couple U-tube performances the articles linked to, and learned to appreciate the fellow so deeply that a couple days ago, I downloaded “Purple Rain” and since then have listened to it obsessively. If I’ve ever been as moved by a song, the memory has flown.

I used to be mystified by the purple rain image, and a little put off by it, as some of us tend to be when we find ourselves clueless. But this past week, it only took a few times listening until I knew, as sure as I know anything, that purple rain is the holy spirit.

Skeptical? Listen for yourself.

Should you not believe in the holy spirit, call it the muse or whatever else you may consider the source for inspiration, or the part of our nature that guides us to and through what some call intuition, and into every sort of transcendence. No doubt many would contend it begins with or results in brain chemistry. No matter, the effect is so powerful, so transforming . . . see below.

I’m in Tucson for reasons probably irrelevant to this discussion. I’m alone, no Zoe to occupy my energy, fewer distractions than when I’m home. This evening, I listened to “Purple Rain” on the way to dinner at Rocco’s Chicago Pizza, a most delightful establishment (on Broadway, in case you should visit that part of the world). Only seconds after I took a patio seat, I heard a man at the next table telling a joke: the Pope dies. St. Peter takes him to someplace reminiscent of a Chicago El train stop. The Pope says, “I didn’t expect heaven to be quite like this.” As St. Peter begins to respond, a server interrupted my attention. If you know the end of that joke, please send it to me. I might’ve asked the man to repeat it, but he had already segued into a story about swimming in the ocean and running into a Portuguese man of war, which, as he pointed out, is purple. “Fitting,” he said, “since purple is the color of danger.”

Whoa, I thought. The holy spirit is dangerous all right. It can break “the frozen sea inside us”*; force us to witness us who we really are; and/or compel us to gaze into an abyss where we learn that “if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” **

If we survive, we are rich beyond measure. If we don’t, who knows?

Thank you, Prince. You have given me a bountiful week.

* Franz Kafka
** Friedrich Nietzsche

Rapture and the Indomitable Spirit

So many people I care about have died this year, which is not yet four months old, I have wondered if the rapture may have arrived.

For those lacking knowledge (or opinions) of the rapture, here’s a Bible passage:

1 Corinthians 15:51-52: “Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”

Okay, I saw the twinkling of an eye part, but I’m as sure as can be that our perception of time is simply an illusion. And even if time is flat out real, in God’s perspective, how long would the twinkling of an eye take?

Pleased don’t misunderstand . I am no fan of the Tim LeHaye-Jerry Jenkins bestselling Left Behind series.

Pam, Zoê’s mom attended a high school connected with a church LeHaye had pastored. And long before those books came out, LeHaye issued videos based upon the premise that soon God would take the best folks out of the world and leave the rest of us rascals and ingrates to duke it out with Satan and his minions.

Pam is the source of Zoê’s diligent-student gene. She missed one day of school K-12, which was day two of these early Left Behind videos, because on day one she learned that pastors didn’t necessarily get the green light, and her dad was a Methodist minister. The next morning, she faked an illness and skipped school.

Fast forward. Pam and I taught at a college of which Tim LeHaye was one of the founders. He came and gave a speech at the invocation of a new president. His topic was basically there is us and there is them. And we’re the good guys.

Afterward, between the ceremony and the reception, we adjourned to our office to ditch our cap and gown outfits. The instant the door closed behind us, we turned to each other and said in unison, “That guy is scary.”

I only read a few pages of the LeHaye-Jenkins books. No comment. And until this year, I didn’t give the rapture much thought. But now …

The recent deaths that have most troubled me, even the ones readers of this post aren’t likely to know, I will list because doing so will help keep them in my memory.

First was Carol Galante, a wonderful friend in the mystery community, mother of authors Lisa Brackman and Dana Fredsti. Then Alan Rickman, Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films, of which I am quite a fan. Then came David Bowie, and very soon Glen Frey of the Eagles, with whom I hung out one long afternoon when we were young. Incidentally, Rickman, Bowie, Frey, and I were all born within about a year of each other. Next I got news of the death of Amy Radovic, a young, vital and vivacious colleague from our time at San Diego State University. And a day or so later, writer Jim Harrison died. Then came of Merle Haggard. And last week, Prince.

Every one of these people was exceptional. They all, I believe, had big hearts. Not a jerk amongst them. Which has led to my weird thoughts about the rapture. Weird thoughts have long been one of my specialties. This one may be weirder than most. I ran it by Pam. She thinks I’m loony. We are no longer married.

Yesterday, my Zoe wanted to watch The Karate Kid, so I watched with her, as I’m a big fan of Mister Miyagi. And while watching, I hearkened back to my years practicing Tae Kwon Do and recalled that the main point of the art was to develop an indomitable spirit.

I earned a black belt, which indicates that my spirit at least ought to be reasonably indomitable, and reminding myself of that lifted me out of some fairly severe melancholy. So today, I called my friend Mark, another black belt, and suggested we get together once a week for a Tae Kwon Do workout, even though it’s been some years since I have practiced the art.

I mean, to live in this world, especially if we’ve been left behind, a fellow can certainly use an indomitable spirit.

Become Perfect

Somebody asked a master painter how to paint a perfect painting. He answered, “To paint a perfect painting, first become perfect, then paint.”

So, I translated, to write a perfect story, become perfect then write.

I labored over this advice, judging how far from perfect I was, and wondering how far from perfect one could be and still create a masterpiece. And I considered that what I know about certain writers of masterpieces makes me believe they were not much more perfect in a human or spiritual sense than I am.

I decided the advice made no sense unless we interpret it this way: It’s not essential to our writing that we be perfect, or even close, all the time, only when we’re writing.

When we sit down (or stand up, or pace around) to write, we need to cast off imperfections such as our tendency to rush to judgment, our impatience, our preconceptions, our worries about whether we’re going to succeed.

We need to clear our minds of anything that keeps us thinking or feeling out of accord with the fruits of the Spirit as described by Saint Paul, and try to approach our stories from an attitude of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

Then we can treat our creations with deep respect and compassion. Even if we don’t approach perfection for a nanosecond (most of us probably won’t) the closer we come, the closer our creations may come to realizing their possibilities.

And the process of writing (or gardening, or fiddling) will be a spiritual exercise that draws us closer to what God would have us become.

Find more wisdom in Writing and the Spirit

Emotional Growth = Spiritual Growth

I was a mess. Some months after the end of a seventeen- year marriage, my kids were in San Diego and my job was in Chico, northern CA. I had arranged to take my mother on a cruise on the Mississippi where my great-grandfather used to pilot a sternwheeler, but then she got too ill to make the trip. At eighty-two, she wasn’t about to recover. So I was in San Diego, taking care of her and deciding to give up my job as a tenured prof, which also meant leaving behind a new romance.

At nights, if I managed to fall asleep, I would awake in about two hours with no chance of sleeping again. Pills didn’t work. All day long, my stomach felt as if I had been gobbling large portions of lead, though I had lost about thirty pounds.

A letter came from Charlie Morgan, a grad school friend. Charlie had gone to NYC, written ad copy, saved money and was now studying psychology in Boston. The letter expressed his excitement about a book he’d discovered, The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck. I scanned the letter and returned to the darkness.

Several weeks later, I went to a bookstore for no other purpose than to find something on the topic of relaxation as a sleep aid. While browsing, I happened upon a title that seemed to link psychological health with spiritual growth. I bought it and began reading some pages every day. A few days in, one of the book’s themes cured me.

The theme was: anyone seeking emotional or spiritual health must face the absolute truth, no matter how bitter, brutal, dangerous or threatening to the ego.

That prescription worked like magic. It gave me hope, the antidote to despair. The weight in my stomach floated away. Beginning that very night, I slept. Every day, I spent some minutes reviewing my past and present with a keener, bolder, more objective eye.

One day, having remembered I hadn’t responded to Charlie’s letter, I reread it and found that the book he recommended was the very same book that had turned me around.

Some months later, the author lectured at a church not two miles from my home. My cousin was a member the church and had confessed she’d prayed that God would lure me there. Though in those days I avoided churches, I attended the lecture. Once again, Dr. Peck cured me, this time of a severe church-phobia.

His topic was the stages of emotional/spiritual development. As I recall, he laid out our spiritual growth as follows:

1. We begin as infants with pure narcissism. All we care about is fulfilling our needs.

2. Then experience teaches us that to get what we want, we need to fulfill certain expectations, act in certain ways, so we enter a stage of more or less enlightened narcissism.

3. The third stage involves an awareness of our utter selfishness (our sin nature, in Christian lingo). We recognize (either vaguely or acutely) that even what we think of as love is mostly based upon selfish motives. We begin to suspect that selfish people (like us) are a danger to themselves and others. Now conscience or something may lead us to seek out a creed or an authority, a dogma that will hold our base natures in check.

4. Some of us reach stage four when we begin to develop a portion of faith in our ability to rise above our selfish natures. We may become willing to strike out on our own without external restraint.

5. And some blessed folks enter the fifth stage. Though they have conquered the fear of their selfishness, they still feel a call to reach for a greater awareness and gratitude, to live in beauty, in a light the mundane world can’t provide.

As you may have conjectured, church congregations are largely composed of folks in stage 3 and stage 5.

Dr. Peck maintained that his motive as a psychologist was to help his patients move from whatever stage they find themselves in to the next stage. He didn’t believe he could save people or change them from beasts to angels. But he could help them take the next step upward.

I suspect that a precious few adults live squarely and consistently at one or another of those levels. Still, I’ll suggest that as writers we ought to join Dr. Peck in the effort to help our readers grow a little; if not a whole step, at least a shuffle in the right direction.