Thursday, October 06, 2005

Lessons in Holiness

Back in my running days, I used to read quite a bit about how best to train for a marathon. How often to run, what pace to set, other beneficial exercises available. All that "book knowledge" was useful, but ultimately the reading itself didn't actually make me a faster runner. It was the daily effort to put that knowledge into practice, and actually put the tennis shoes on and get out the door for the run.

I'm finding that the IPT program is a lot like that. The whole program is geared toward promoting holiness in its students. (Pop quiz.... What is holiness again? That's right, it's the "perfection of charity". Extra point to everyone who remembered that.) So we're learning all kinds of neat stuff about holiness, mercy, conversion, abandonment to God's will, acceptance of suffering, etc. Yet merely reading and studying it doesn't do a whole lot to increase my level of holiness, in and of itself. That is, until the opportunities present themselves to use that knowledge to guide it all in practice.

Case in point: One of the effects of going to school full-time and working full-time all at the same time is that opportunities for sleep become fewer. Part of my job responsibilities as a Systems Analyst involve responding to, and troubleshooting any issues that arise during any of our system processes that run overnight. So by now, my wife & I are accustomed to occasionally hear the phone ring at midnight or so (just when we're totally unconscious!). Last night was a typical example. However, unlike most situations, last night's issue wasn't able to be solved over the phone in a few minutes. It required a little bit more digging. As attempts to connect to the central mainframe computer via my home PC failed, it became evident that duty was requiring me to drive into the office... at 12:30 am. Time to put "abandonment to God's will" into practice. Give the wife a good night kiss, put on some tennis shoes, head out the door and off to the office. Give a friendly nod to the security guy, masking the sleep-deprivation headache that's building inside, ascend to the office, and sit down, saying a quick prayer for assistance to the patron saint of computer programmers (whomever that may be).

Troubleshooting is, shall we say, a little more delicate at 1:00am when the mind isn't working so well. Everything seems fuzzy, and nothing makes sense, and there's a whole lot of staring blankly at a computer screen going on. The effort is a great chance to practice the acceptance of suffering in one's life, and unite that experience to Christ on the cross. It doesn't make it go away, but it does help one muscle through it.

Finally, when a couple hours later, the problem still isn't solved, and I realize it can't be solved without the intervention of other people (who are happily asleep at the moment), it's time to call it quits for the night and pick up tomorrow where I left off. But when the guy who runs the mainframe won't let me leave the program unfinished for the night without my manager's approval (it's "company policy", he says...), a new wave of fear creeps across my body. "Call my boss at 2:30 am and ask for his approval to quit working on this for the night???", I shudder at the mere thought, as images of me begging for mercy flip through my head. But once again the refrain "all for Jesus" creeps back into my head, I grab the phone off the hook, and do the dirty deed. Several groggy minutes later, the ordeal is over, I've convinced my boss I've tried everything in my power to fix it, and I'm free to go home.

But the lesson for the night isn't over yet. God has another surprise up his sleeve. My car was parked on the street right next to the office, where I always park it after business hours. There are parking meters, but they explicitly say they aren't enforced between 4:30 pm and 8:00 am. So you can park for free... in theory. What they don't say is that there's a sign farther down the street which says "No parking from 2am-7am Tues-Thurs-Sat". Lucky for me, it's Thursday morning. At 2:45 am. And yes, there's a sparkling green parking ticket waiting for me under the windshield wiper. There's only one thing a guy can say to that: &*%!$#!!!!

And that's where it all becomes crystal clear: I'm still in need of further conversion. I can patiently go into work and give the extra effort in the middle of the night to perform my employee duties, but give me one little parking ticket at the end of the ordeal, and I lose my calm. There was no one there to witness my fury (although my steering wheel got a little more than it bargained for), but God sees everything and saw the black spot that crept across my heart for a few minutes.

But there's still another lesson that this ordeal gave me: the experience of the ready availability of God's mercy. He died on the cross so that angry parking-ticket holders like myself could still obtain forgiveness if I only asked for it. Now that's a comforting thought. You don't really understand conversion until you've experienced first-hand God's loving mercy.

So, my graduate studies are proving to be augmented by real-life lessons in how to progress (or in my case, stumble) on the path to holiness. But that's as it should be. Just as learning the best methods of marathon training didn't increase my speed, but did help direct the actual progress that was obtained by the act of my running, my studies can hopefully help direct any actual progress in holiness that I make these next few years. Or so I pray...


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