Friday, July 15, 2011

Rock Bottom

Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life. - J.K. Rowling

I just ran into this quote today on FB and it just jumped off the page and into my face. Although I can’t confirm that it actually comes from J.K. Rowling, it immediately resonated with me, causing me to pause and do some deep musing. Impulsively, I wanted to comment immediately to the person who posted it on FB because it evoked such emotion in me but I hesitated because I didn’t know if I disagreed or agreed with it. Granted the quote is more of statement on Rowling’s own experience and perspective, than anything else, but I was fascinated in just how much meaning this quote had packed away in it for me, but….. at the same time I feared that those who don’t think a “bottom” experience or something similar will ever happen to them just might skim over the great insight of this extremely short but poignant quote. In terms of my own recent experience, this quote is quite relevant and loaded as well, because it talks about hitting bottom and rebuilding from that bottom. I do thank God that my “rock bottom” isn’t as deep as many have experienced, but I am not too far off, having hit the biggest bottom of my entire life: a divorce thereby losing a wife, a household, social standing in the Christian Community, and a vocation (hopefully temporarily). I am very grateful to God that he cared enough to make sure I got the point of what he was trying to teach me, which was about foundations.

The quote begs the question, what is your foundation built upon? Both Bangkok and Phnom Penh are built on swamps. Bangkok is sinking slowly but Phnom Penh seems to have been given a reprieve, probably because it is smaller and they cannot build as many huge sky scrapers. My family used to stay at the Christian Guesthouse in BKK near the Sirkhumvit line in the mid-nineties and during each visit we would notice the markings on the foundation signifying how much the guesthouse sank that year as construction on nearby skyscrapers jarred the earth, causing surrounding buildings to sink. Many of the buildings in BKK have solid foundations but they are sinking and heading toward some sort of bottom. And for many of us, all sorts of circumstances, both within and outside of our control, are constantly jarring our foundations so our foundations are always in some form of being twisting, turned, maligned, and bent out of shape as they sink under the stress of life. Can our foundation survive all the onslaughts?

It has been my observation that most of us who profess the name Jesus think that the day we ‘accepted’ Christ was the day that we instantly had a new foundation poured for our lives. I was once a surveyor and saw firsthand that no foundation for any structure was built in a day. The design and execution took consideration, effort and time. Even before houses were approved to built on a plot of land, the ground had to be tested for percolation, and proper soil structure. But with human lives, our foundations are already well established when we commit ourselves to following Jesus. Not many of us have the option to plan out our foundations from scratch like engineers. Our social soil has already been prepared. And God being God does not remove our existing foundation all at once like pulling the bottom card from a house of cards—causing it all to come down in one big crash. So what we tend to do is enter a slow process of trying to replace the bad parts of a foundation with good parts. I have met people who have bought old log cabins that were built upon four rotten wood pilings holding up the structure on each of the four corners of the cabin. They had to carefully replace each rotting wood piling at a time with concrete pilings so the house did not collapse. Then, they naturally go on to replace the old dry-rotted floor joists and planks, etc, until the house is stable and safe. Metaphorically speaking, when we become Christians, we tend to do the same thing with our world view. What we often forget is that any time during the renovation of our foundation (worldview, spiritual life, etc), fire, wind, rain, tornados, earthquakes and swampy soil can assault that foundation. There is no guarantee anyone will be spared. “In this world you will have tribulation, and the rain falls on the just and the unjust.”

It is perhaps too difficult to ask those of you who have had your foundations crash on “rock bottom” to see this as not always such a bad thing. If and when it happens, there will be little left intact of your old foundation, the one that was patched together to the best of your ability with pieces of scripture, cultural values, and the wisdom of the world. Jesus, speaking to Jews in a Jewish culture, says in the Gospels that the wise man builds his house on solid rock—the rock of Jesus himself and his words. But today as we endeavor to do that, our own thinking, and the teaching and the sermons we hear are so filtered by cultural values that we have little idea what is actually scriptural verses what is cultural. Few of us have been equipped to examine our own values so that we can tell the difference between biblical values and cultural values. We just assume we know when we really don’t. So we set out to obey Jesus, thinking we are building a foundation on solid rock when in fact we are building on the sifting sand of cultural values. But being on rock bottom gives us a unique perspective and position. We can clearly see what has worked and what hasn’t and we can choose the right materials (values, beliefs, perspectives) to rebuild.

Some of us will be afforded the opportunity to sift through the rubble and wreckage and be able to separate those rare pieces of steel and granite (our relationship with Christ, Biblical values, and what transformation that has occurred because of it) that survived the crash, from the flotsam and jetsam that did not. From the crash we can see what survives and why, and we can use that to rebuild from the bedrock of “rock bottom.” For many of us, our foundations are in various stages of neglect, disrepair, or renovation. As time goes on, and life drives us along, we somehow think our foundation needs no ongoing examination or critique, and we think that if we change the oil or add a quart when needed, things will take care of themselves. In my case, the walls and floors of my house started to creek and sag, and show signs of becoming warped because the foundation had serious stress cracks. Instead of examining the foundation and addressing the unseen causes, I tried to throw a new coat of paint on the walls, and put new linoleum, tiles or rug on the floors and address the symptoms. I wasted a lot time on superfluous home repair while the foundation was in the process of sinking and crumbling. When it finally came down, it crashed close enough to “rock bottom” to allow me to begin to build upon the same very same bedrock of “the” rock bottom.

Although I have never read Harry Potter, I love the quote because when I muse upon it, I end up in a place where I realize that hitting the bottom as hard as I did was a gift. I still feel the intense emotional pain of rejection, loneliness, living in isolation, tragic loss, and standing naked in the darkness of uncertainty, but as I stand in the midst of the wreckage called my life, I now know that with God’s help I have a chance to actually begin to rebuild from scratch, something all most none of us are afforded at the time of conversion. In a way, although the pain is still fresh and the road is difficult, I don’t have to limp along anymore in this life relating to people and making life decisions based on a patch work of values and beliefs that are an indecipherable blend of cultural and biblical values. You may spot me limping along for sure, but only because the wounds from my crash are still tender.