Pride and Control (Spiritual Forging Pt. 1)

The last several months have been a little overwhelming.  My plan (there is irony in that word, and you’ll better understand it after you read) is to break back into this blog with a few posts giving a sort of spiritual reflection on where I have been. 

Mine is a hammer and anvil spiritual journey.  I am neither the hammer nor the anvil, but the poor piece of metal in their midst, being slowly forged into something that is more than what it began. 

I grew up in the house of a preacher (my dad, until recently a long-serving minister at various Christian Churches from Kansas to Kentucky, did not like to be called a pastor, “If they make me an elder, I’ll let them call me a pastor”).  I could write a tome off the spiritual influences of that time, but I fear I’d lose any readers rather early. 

Instead, I want to focus on the blows of the hammer that have and continue to shape my soul.  The One wielding the hammer is a master craftsman, and I would only presume to call the final product of His labor grand on the basis of His craftsmanship, the evidence of this in the lives of others, the relative equality of material in those instances with what is present in my own life, and hope.  Nevertheless, being under the hammer is anything but comfortable.      

              In this post I want to look at one major hammer blow, among the earliest, which was more ironic than devastating, but which nevertheless greatly shaped the course of my life.  One might say it began with a vacation gone awry in Louisiana at the age of three, but where my perceptions of it really began was with a visit to an uncle in Colorado Springs who happened to be an electrician.  I was in middle school at the time, starting to think about abstract future concepts like what do I really want to be.  No, I didn’t want to be an electrician, though I have done some apprenticing in that field and there is nothing wrong with it. 

My electrician uncle was plying his trade on one of the buildings at the US Air Force Academy.  He invited us along to visit, and I was blown away.  Most of the schools I’d visited up to then had been small Bible colleges.  I had visited West Point a couple years before, but that was old and earthy.  The Air Force Academy was grand, soaring, and of course, prestigious.  More clearly than ever before, I knew exactly where I wanted to go to college, and the entire course of my future laid before my eyes.    

I applied myself, which was not difficult as I was a good student (and humble to boot).  I did well in all the various metrics that determined success for a college-bound student in the 90’s.  I even attended a “Summer Science Seminar” there after my junior year, though I was not particularly interested in the sciences, largely because I was told that it was “more difficult to get into than the Academy itself and all but guarantees acceptance later.” 

But the Academy was not just any school.  It had high academic standards, sure, but it also came with a battery of rather abnormal standards.  There were the references from congressmen, which was a little intimidating, but the application process involved military liaisons who had all the necessary connections.  There were the physical fitness requirements, daunting in their own way, but that was mostly teenage jitters.  I was a soccer player on the varsity team, with a daily workout regimen that I cannot imagine resuming now (though I miss being in that sort of shape) so the laps, sit-ups, and pull-ups the military required were not too demanding. 

Then there were the medical requirements which were a little intense.  The Air Force does not allow wisdom teeth, too troublesome.  Doesn’t matter if you have all four already and they’re fine.  Those babies got to go.  Two of mine were in, but one that had yet to come in was going to be problematic, so having the air force pre-emptively order them removed was probably a net good, though getting the other two pulled ranks as one of the most physically painful experiences I have ever endured.

My feet got x-rayed to make sure I was not flat-footed (I’m not, I have photographic evidence that there is an arch, albeit it very small). 

Finally, they scrutinized my medical history and unfortunately for me, they did not like what they saw.    

This is the vacation in the deep south gone crazy portion of my story, and in a way, this part is my parents’ faith story more than mine; I was unconscious for most of it.  Anyway, when I was three while camping in some state park in Louisiana, I fell from a play structure and fractured my skull.  Had nature run its course, even with speedy medical intervention, I would likely be severely disabled and not in shape to write this post much less have experienced most of what has made me who I am today.  But God had different plans, and nature did not run its course.  According to my mom, what happened left all the nurses and doctors with their jaws on the floor.

It’s a good story, if a little long.  I will keep it brief.  After long convoluted ambulance rides and preliminary CAT scans, the doctors were ready to drill holes in my skull to relieve pressure and preparing the OR for just such an occasion, telling my mom that the outlook did not look good.  That is the moment that something changed, I sat up off the bed on the CAT scan machine, vomited all over the expensive equipment and started crying and calling for my mom.  This is where jaws hit the floor.  When the doctors kicked back into motion, my mom was able to get the attention of one who told her that I had just performed a series of voluntary actions which should have been impossible considering the pressure in the skull.  More tests were necessary.  No one ever said miracle, but surgery was suddenly off the table.  They kept me overnight for observation, and then let me go. 

Which is why when filling out the application to the academy, I wrote skull fracture – age 3, in the medical history section, the same as I had on myriad other forms and did not think twice about it.  My mom and dad said miracle.  I told a few friends that it was a miracle.  But I was not about to put miracle on my official military medical form. 

Nevertheless, skull fracture is apparently a flagged term for the Department of Defense Medical Examination Review Board (DODMERB), and they were concerned.  You see, skull fractures often have all manner of attendant and very long-lasting symptoms, ranging from fatigue and dizzy spells on the light side, to involuntary seizures or severe mental issueson the heavier side, and this is just for the people who are not instantly left in a semi-catatonic state.  I did not have any such side effects.  The discrepancy was galling. 

No problem, right, contact the hospital in Mississippi where I was treated and everything should be squared away – fracture, confirmed…  implicit miracle, confirmed…

…except the hospital where I was treated burned down in the early 90’s, along with its records.  And the perils of historical research suddenly became very apparent.    

Apart from the testimony of my parents, which would appear reliable enough, we are left with little more than circumstantial evidence, albeit ample, to show that I did indeed have an accident in 1984 and that for all appearances, even to medical professionals of that time, it had been severe head trauma.  But I received very little treatment for such trauma.  In fact, the only real treatment I received was a 1980’s bike helmet and the doctor’s admonition to be extra careful for the next 6 months (which was sort of a trial of patience for my mother, careful was one of those words that should have been fore in my vocabulary even as a three year old but which I’m pretty sure I did not understand until sometime in my 20’s). 

Lacking evidence of either treatment or symptoms, there are two possibilities that arise, either that no trauma occurred, which could be nefarious if we were seeking to cheat the military, but allowing the benefit of the doubt for my parents based on their character, might simply indicate that some head accident had indeed taken place, but one far less severe than I had been led to believe (minor concussion vs skull fracture or the like); or, allowing for the trauma to have indeed occurred, some sort of miraculous healing took place. 

Again, my parents were not given to mutually conflating occurrences to such a degree. They were neither ignorant of what head trauma was like, nor deceitful. Had I simply had a concussion, it would be highly out of character for them have exaggerated it into a fracture.

But medical miracle is not an explanation you can give a bunch of bureaucrats on a military board. 

The result was that I was subjected to a battery of electronic and neurological examinations, CAT scans, touch your finger to your nose, that sort of thing, which finally culminated in a visit with a neurologist who summed up our time together as a waste saying, “I don’t know what you are trying to pull, Mr. Platt, but you have never fractured your skull.”

For me, this confirmed the miracle.  In 1984 I broke my head, and God fixed it as if it had never happened.  Fabulous story, right?  But one man’s miracle is evidence of insanity to another. 

After that consultation, I continued with my plans to go to the academy.  With confidence, I wrote refusal letters to a host of other universities to which I had applied, some quite illustrious, and most offering me solid financing options, and I waited.  The trappings of my senior year came and went, homecoming, prom, graduation, and still I waited, though with each passing month I must admit I was becoming quite nervous.  Some people were already moving to their prospective universities.  I still had no confirmation.

My academy liaison, an Air Force Major, assured me repeatedly that it would be fine, that everything was moving forward, but there was a disquiet growing within me. 

Everything came to a head about a week after graduation, in mid-June, when I received two letters in the mail on the same day, one from the Academy telling me to report for basic training in two weeks, and the other from DODMERB saying “we regret to inform you that due to discrepancies in your file, we cannot accept your application for military service.” 

The insecurity that had been building for months joined with the irony of the situation and something inside snapped.  It had been months since I was supposed to be able to tell everyone where I was going, what I was doing, and now this?  How could they be so inefficient?  What was going on?  I’d done everything they asked, and it was not my fault that the hospital burned down.  I laughed, probably a bit maniacally, and tore both the letters up.  Either the military was incompetent or somebody was playing a very malicious game, and it didn’t matter to me which.  I was done.  My former confidence had been replaced with a very strange sense of comingled frustration and liberation.  When my liaison called the next day and asked me why I had not contacted the Academy to accept, I told him I was finished with the Academy. 

But that feeling of liberation lasted all of a day until I realized that I had nothing ahead; I had not applied solely to the Academy, but as the months had dragged on, I had gone further and further out on their limb.  I had turned down scholarships to many very well-known schools, had been voted most intelligent and among the most likely to succeed, and now I was stuck in my parents’ basement with no plans, no future, no prospects, nothing. 

Ok, maybe not nothing.  There was one little college, a school smaller than my high school that I had only applied to in order to satisfy my parents’ request that I consider a “Bible college,” but which had also been close enough in proximity to get me a day off of school for a visit.  I called their admissions department and they were still willing to grant me a scholarship the third week of June.  Kentucky Christian College.  I drove the two hours the next day and signed the paperwork, and started in August, plans forming about transferring or otherwise mitigating this setback.    

KCC had its ups and downs, but overall proved to be a good school for my outsized ego, but that is not the point of this story.  None of those ups or downs could compare to the bizarre twist of getting both of those letters on the same day.  A breaking took place that day, a separation of myself from my hopes, dreams, and ambitions.  I had been a sailor on his carrack, led by those dreams in a course of my choosing, a course that looked straightforward in the narrow confines of the bay of my childhood.  The process of gaining admittance to the Air Force Academy was steering through the mouth of that bay into the high seas, and what I found outside was a world that made no sense, where I had little to no control, a vague and unclear world where to act in impulse was the only real way forward, but also perilously careless.  The conflicting letters had served as a sort of lightning blast revealing stormy uncertainty beyond the horizon.  I no longer had confidence in my own navigation. 

But that meant I was adrift; was that better?  Going to KCC had been a direction, a hasty course change while still at sea, but one that held no charts, no plans, nothing with which to discern a clear path forward.  I threw plans together with what was available there, but these were often beholden to the fragments of plans from before, and I was slow to realize how little that applied.  Thus did my goals and dreams crumble one by one, even as they were slowly replaced by reasonably interesting realities, and I found myself suddenly in the midst of one of the most profoundly spiritual moments in my life, an engagement with eternity in a dorm room in Xiamen, China on a study abroad program in 2002. 

St. Ephraim the Syrian wrote theological poetry in the 4th century, and many of his poems presage later developments.  One of the concepts he explores is what he called Spiritual Time.  This is essentially the scale of time inhabited by God, as opposed to time as we know it, and in his writings, Ephraim asserts that we can be invited into God’s time at His behest.  While in that dorm room I could not explain what I was experiencing, when I later read Ephraim, I did so with a growing sense of familiarity.  What he described had been my experience.  I had been with God.

I hesitate to put anything here that might be described as a method, because while I believe God seeks to invite any and all of us to join Him where He is, the preparation to get there is as varied for each individual as each individual is from another.  Therefore what I experienced is not likely to be the same for another. 

But my experience likely bears similarity to what others might know, and in my case it took being really and truly broken.  Laying on the bed in Xiamen, the last of my great plans crumbling on the rocks of powerlessness, all that was left to me was to give it all up, but not in some nihilistic fashion.  We used to sing the hymn, I surrender All, on a regular basis at church, but this may have been the first time that I actually did it.  I can remember praying, “God, I can’t do any more.  I don’t know what to do.  It’s up to you now, hold me please.”  And He did.

I was laying there, on my bed, and all the sudden something tangibly amazing was taking place and I was in the middle of it.  I remember feeling this awe settling on me and my inner control-freak screamed out “The responsible thing is to Do Something!!”  So, I grabbed my Bible off the bedside stand and not knowing where to start I turned to Psalms.  I am generally opposed to anyone who would open a Bible randomly for Christian guidance, but on occasions it works, and that day the first verse that caught my eye was Psalm 4:4. “Lie still on your bed and meditate.”  Who was I to argue?

I was a typical college student at the time, so it was a miracle in itself that I did not fall asleep, and I did not really understand what it meant to meditate.  But what else was I going to do?  I just laid there, not remotely tired, and for the next 6 hours I simply was.  It had taken the better part of four years from that hammer blow of the two letters to being broken enough to surrender, but when I finally came to the place where there was nothing else, where I could be satisfied with simply being, He was there.  I said 6 hours, because that’s what the clocks told me later, but at that moment, it could have been 6 years or 6 minutes, spiritual time for a spiritual God to treat the wounded bit of arrogance that was my soul and gently mold it just a little more into something receptive to Him. 

I have said that I was adrift after my mixed message from the military, but what I discovered on that bed in Xiamen was that in my directionlessness, I had never been adrift.  Just because I was unaware of where I was going did not mean I was going nowhere.  The world and my culture had convinced me that I needed to be in control of my life, to plan for my future, but in light of our general lack of control, the myriad factors of existence that we cannot even begin to work out, my plans had become a maze of agony.  I mistakenly thought I had it all worked out.  But it was never my responsibility to work it all out.  In all honesty, I wouldn’t even know if I had worked it all out.  On that bed in Xiamen, I finally understood my own limitations and coming to terms with those limits gave me freedom.      

That was not the first hammer blow in my life.  Neither has it been the hardest.  But there are few instances in what I have experienced in which I could point with such clarity to God’s presence.  

God has a plan.  He alone is in control.  My ability to influence the world around me is woefully inadequate to the task unless I am working in his light.  This does not mean I abdicate the responsibility He has bestowed on me, but it is impossible for me to bear what I am incapable of bearing, and any appearance that I have is serendipitously dependent on Him.  Rarely has inadequacy been quite so liberating or inspired the confidence I felt then. 

Pride and arrogance are my constant companions, which I think is true of most people, but what I learned there has been an effective counterweight to pride’s inevitability.  Pride itself is not a sin, but it is only acceptable when focused in Him, because only in Him can pride and humility exist together.  Without humility, pride is a canker that leads to destruction, but when pride is sanctified in humility and the two walk hand in hand, together they invite us to reflect and benefit from His glory and maybe begin to contribute to its production.        

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