The voice in my head sometimes just… slips out. And that is the best part of me, I think. People seem to find it valuable, which I can’t say about my life as a whole.
I was thinking of buying something non-food today, and noticed myself thinking: “Nah, let’s first wait and see if I survive this week.” And that’s when I realized I should probably write a bit again.
Actually it is not statistically likely that I’ll die soon, it is just a bit less unlikely than usual. It is not like I’m diagnosed with a terminal illness or have decided to row across the North Sea. It’s just an upper jaw infection that has shaken off one antibiotic and is now barely contained by two others, while I wait for a jaw surgery on Friday. Also, when I had the same surgery on the right side, I had an adverse heart rhythm reaction. I survived that, but that was five years or so ago. So yeah, it should be interesting. A reminder of the mortality of body and soul. Spirit not so much. And I should probably say what I think about that, just in case.
To be honest, I think there is a fairly large risk that my soul will perish in Hell, for certain values of “soul” and “hell”. Now, this may not sound like a glowing recommendation of my doctrine, but think about this: How much of a connection is there really between self-esteem and actual performance? If you have been in the workforce for almost 40 years, as I have, you should have learned that this is a pretty shaky link. In particular, we have what is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, namely that truly ignorant people don’t even know enough to know that they are ignorant, and truly unskilled people cannot estimate the skills of others, or how much skill they lack themselves. As the joke goes: “Do you play the piano?” “I don’t know, I have never tried.”
This seems to also be the default position of the religious person. I read in passing some years ago that the average American was far more certain of his own salvation than that of Mother Theresa. (And this was before the atheist campaign to portray Mother Theresa as a terrible person who misused large amounts of money and caused untold suffering to promote her own glory.)
And I started out no differently: As a child, I have no memory of my parents teaching me about religion, let alone hear them pray or see them read the Bible. I tried to read in my grandmother’s Bible, but she got very upset and made sure that never happened again. But at one point during my childhood, I found an old Bible on a dusty shelf in a room we mostly used for storage. It was in archaic language and even the typesetting was unfamiliar, and some pages were missing. But I devoured it. I read about the prophets of God and decided to become one. (A prophet, not a God. That came later.) The appeal, in my vague memory, seems to have been the work benefits more than the final reward: Being able to call down fire from Heaven or summon bears to tear apart those who insulted me. (Elijah and Elisha respectively. I loved that part of the book.)
When I met the Christian Church of Brunstad and their message of becoming perfect according to the conscience, it seemed a great match for me. I wasn’t perfect yet, but it wasn’t that far off, I thought. I certainly had a solid lead on most other humans, surely?
And so I studied the Bible again. This time, after drinking of the spirit that was in the Church, I was able to also understand the New Testament, finally. Well, with the exception of the Apocalypse. I am really not sure why that one was included and the apocryphal Book of Wisdom was not, I would have swapped those. I was quite enamored of the Book of Wisdom and of wisdom as a whole. And so I prayed sincerely to God, as Solomon is said to have done, that God might give me the Spirit of Wisdom from Heaven. This also came to pass, or so it seems to me. In the decades since, when someone asked me or talked with me with sincerity – whether it was about the Bible, or some deep matter that is not directly covered by the Bible, or about their personal life, or even about work – the benevolent Divine Presence would reveal to me what was needed, then and there. I would be amazed at the depth of wisdom and insight, because it would often be new to me as well, or at least clearer than I had seen it before. There seemed to be no end to this, like a well that refills itself no matter how much you draw from it.
But the truth is that this was not my personal, acquired wisdom. I now believe that what I had received, and what I had truly desired, was what the Norwegian Bible calls “visdoms tale” (wisdom’s speech), as in 1. Corinthians 12: “For to one is given through the Spirit the word of wisdom; and to another the word of knowledge, according to the same Spirit.” And if you turn over to the next chapter, there is a harsh lesson on these things:
“If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” That doesn’t mean it didn’t work or wasn’t true, but it was a gift of grace that just passed through without any merit to me, because it was not my love, only God’s.
That is how I see it now. And Christ himself is quoted as saying: “Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” That doesn’t mean the prophecies were false or the demons were not driven out, necessarily. But it did no good for those who did it, evidently.
So yeah. My optimism is somewhat muted. That does not mean that I don’t believe in what I said. I just don’t believe in myself. I really ended up doing very little for others, despite playing Real Life in tutorial mode. In the end, I do not know whether I did more harm or more good. I suppose if there is a reckoning for me in the hereafter, I will know for sure. I am honestly not sure what way those scales would tip. But the real problem is my sins of omission, the endless list of good things I could have done but didn’t.
This isn’t depression. I have no desire to kill or harm myself. I don’t want to curl up in bed all day. I don’t suddenly start crying. I don’t lack energy. (I mean, sure I am lazy, but I usually walk for half an hour or two on a nice day, and am usually busy reading, writing or playing rather than staring at moving pictures for hours on end.) It is just that the snow has melted, the white fluffy cover that made everything look so clean and smooth. And beneath is the dead grass of last year, the rotting leaves, the sticks and stones and the trash that was left by the wayside and covered by the concealing snow of grace.
And in this lies my hope, in the warm sun that melts away the fluffy illusions I love. If I were to choose to believe what is comfortable, if I were to continue thinking that I’m at least better than the publican and the sinner and the pagans and the gays and the sluts – as if I had walked even around the block in their shoes – then I believe I would be truly lost. But there is still the tiny voice inside that cries: “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” and “Remember me when you come in your kingdom!”
But my soul in the sense of my personality, my habits, my accumulated choices, all those things that were called by my name, all I cherished and took pride in… I think that will all shrivel and be undone. You may call that Hell, I guess. It is not a Biblical word after all, just a loose translation of many things: Sheol and Hades, the grave and the fading memories of life. Gehenna, the continual dumpster fire where corpses of criminals and unclean things are burned. Like the pages of a worthless book that shrivel and burn, one after another, until there is only ashes left. Looking back on my life, this seems to have already begun. Page after page shriveling and turning to ashes. And that may be a good thing. Whether this week or in the middle of the century, my body shall return to the dust; but I believe that my spirit shall return to God, who gave it.
“And even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.”
-Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah.