Five Books That (Re) Shaped My Spirituality

I don’t know if you’re looking for something to read (I know I always am), but I thought I’d share some reads that have been pretty foundational in my life.

These five books really were responsible for some “left turns” in my life. They marked pretty large “sea changes” in my spirituality and belief. If you’re looking for something to challenge (and maybe even change) you, maybe pick them up and give them a read. Let me know what you think.

  1. Signature of Jesus. This book really changed the whole game for me. I’ve written about this before, but I just can’t begin to describe how much this book impacted me when I first read it. It called me deeper, beyond merely nodding “yes” (or shaking my head “no”) on a Sunday to a life of pursuing the rabbi from Nazareth. (Note: I’m still stumbling along.)
  2. Adam’s Return. I actually just read this a couple years back, but this was one of my initial exposures to Richard Rohr. More significantly, however, this was a powerful description of mature, Biblical masculinity. Though I read a lot of the popular evangelical attempts at this (Wild at Heart being the most popular), there was something in them that didn’t ring true to me. I could understand the barbarian/warrior metaphors but I also felt like they had a tendency to be destructive in my life. Rohr takes masculinity to the place where it most needs to go: to the cross and into the baptismal waters with Christ, and shows how our masculinity needs to be transformed—particularly in the vein of ego surrender and death to self—so that we can grow (old?) gracefully.
  3. The Illumined Heart. This little book was my introduction to the Eastern Orthodoxy. It was also a pretty significant step forward in my quest for a practical spirituality, an approach to faith that can be lived out in every day life.
  4. Surprised by Hope. Though I’d read a couple NT Wright books before, this was really the first one that catalyzed my understanding of his theology and started to re-shape my own. To be brief, Wright refutes the “practical gnosticism” in the church today that states that our ultimate destination is some kind of disembodied heaven. Wright reminds us that the Biblical view is that of resurrection. Our bodies matter; this world matters. When you understand that the point is not for us to be burned up, or that God’s just not going to throw the earth onto a trash heap, you realize that what you do now—whether it’s justice or art, discipleship, or service—has implications into eternity.
  5. The Divine Conspiracy. This book is a bit deep, and not always the easiest read, but this book planted inside me the revolutionary truth that Jesus wants to live his life through me. Spirituality is not “out there”, and Christianity is not something that is only lived through “special people” or “holy lives.” Rather, my life, right now, is where God wishes to take up residence.

So there they are. If you’re looking to open yourself up to some new ideas and/or new approaches to God and spirituality, I challenge you to dig into one (or more) of these.

Let me know how that works out for you…

“Give Me That Old Time Religion…” 

“Religion”, in and of itself is not a bad thing. Remember: the word itself can mean “re-connecting” (re-ligature), and don’t we all need some sense of that?

Reconnection with our heart, soul, mind, bodies?

Reconnection with a power that is greater than ourselves? Reconnection with each other?

I don’t know about you, but I know I sure do.

I stumbled across this video this week, and it’s a powerful reminder of what “religion”, in the form of ritual can do.

A teacher at a school for boys in New Zealand passed away tragically and unexpectedly. As a hearse bore his body to the school for tribute, hundreds of current and former students gathered and performed a traditional haka—a traditional Maori dance—to honor his influence on their lives. To be blunt, I found this video profoundly moving. I sat with tears in my eyes, wondering at the power of this gathering.

Watch it. Watch it all. 

Here’s what I noticed.

  • It is simultaneously aggressive and tender. The haka is associated with war and warriors (the New Zealand “All Blacks” rugby team use it to challenge their opponents). It is meant to intimidate an enemy or opponent, and many of the young men are making aggressive, angry faces. Yet, at the same time, some are obviously sad and weeping. Religion and ritual seems to have a way of “baptizing” our pain and even our aggression. It names something—our teacher has died—but it doesn’t leave us in our pain. It channels it.
  • It is simultaneously ancient and now. The tradition of the haka is pretty old, but it has been sustained in Maori and New Zealand culture. It strikes me that this video is not 20, 30 or 50 years old. By all accounts, these young men should be staring at cell phones and cutting up. But they have given themselves to this “old time” practice and the results are sobering and arresting. Silence. Attention. Gravity and gravitas.
  • It is simultaneously individual and communal. The moves are coordinated and synchronized, but you can see variation in expression. Each young man is processing the pain in his own way while at the same time he’s a part of a larger collective.
  • It is simultaneously tribal and multi-cultural. The haka is decidedly Maori, but the students transcend ethnicity. Though there are some controversies with how the haka has been used, the ritual is not limited to just Maori people. When it’s good, religion and ritual can transcend our tribal, ethnic and cultural captivity and help us express joy and pain in a collective way, as human beings.

Sometimes, I fear that in our quest to be relevant and conversational our North American churches have discarded way to much of our traditions and rituals, and in doing so, we may have cast aside our most powerful tools for “re-connecting” people with their souls and with each other. Many Christian “faith tribes” have whittled down the number of rituals and traditions to two (Baptism and Communion), when there are so many to still choose from. Corporate worship helps, but even that is occasionally being cast aside as “performance art” rather than collective ritual.

Practiced rightly, Christian “ritual” like communion can do all of the things listed above: it can gather us up in a collective but individual experience, simultaneously acknowledge pain, joy and hope, and transcend our ethic and cultural differences. It is certainly ancient and current (and even future, as it proclaims Jesus’ return).

And communion isn’t the only place this happens.

So a thought for you is this: how much ritual is in your life? In particular, how much religion and ritual do you participate in, and do you look at it as a way to give your life (especially your joy and pain) meaning?

Many of us discard ritual and religion, and treat them as disdainful things; things that we did “in that boring Church.” Many of us instead have embraced a conversational, casual faith that is pregnant with emotional engagement and spiritual mountaintops.

My response is, how is that working for you? 

If the main point of spirituality is change and transformation (and I believe it is), is your casual, conversational faith changing you into the likeness of Jesus Christ?

Are your mountaintop experiences accompanying you though the valley of the shadow?

Sometimes I think for a realistic, day-to-day faith and spirituality, we need the old stuff.

The vintage gear.

Not so that we can retreat back into 1950 or 1850 or 1500 or 150CE, but so we can move through today with faith and transcendence.

Moses died.

Deuteronomy—and particularly the end of that book—is one of my favorite sections of the Bible. I find it fascinating.

Moses is THE man of God. THE prophet. Even the end of Deuteronomy says that there’s never been a prophet in Israel since him. No one since has seen God’s face.

(Now, Jesus changes all of this, but that’s another story.)

But what’s so fascinating about Deuteronomy is that Moses knows he’s going to die, and this is his “curtain call.” He is LITERALLY standing on the edge of the land of Canaan, the “Promised Land,” and Israel is about to enter.

But not him.

Because of a lack of judgment, a bad decision, etc., Moses will not be entering in with the people. God has told him that he will die on the border.

I try to put myself in Moses’ shoes: I’d be so angry and hurt. Faithful for how long: 40 years? 50?

Confronting Pharaoh, THE leader of THE super power…

Leading people out of slavery with no plan or map except YHWH will go with us…

Adminstering justice to an entire people…

Navigating years in the wilderness…

But God says, “no.”

To my mind, this simply isn’t fair.

My world doesn’t work this way.

I wonder if Moses railed against God. I wonder if he second guessed him. I wonder if he went to Lifeway and bought books about discerning God’s will because, “This just doesn’t make any sense.”

I wonder if decided (a la the prosperity gospel) that he just didn’t have enough faith. Did he send some money to Osteen to show that he really did believe?

I guess not.

In what’s one of the most amazing passages in the Bible, God guides Moses up the mountain and he gets a vision of “the whole land” that Israel will possess.

(Israel doesn’t even get this vision of the whole land; human perspective doesn’t allow for that.)

But then Moses—in defiance of our “bigger and better ministry”; the prosperity gospel; the idea that we always see the trend line go up and to the right—lays down and dies.

He is “gathered to his ancestors”. (What a beautiful phrase.)

Moses’ acceptance and submission of his reality is an amazing challenge to me. I think of how much I am attached too, the results that I think I “must” have.

The story of Moses reminds me that I may not see the end of many (any?) of the stories I write. And that’s okay.

PS Deuteronomy 34 tells us that the LORD—YHWH himself—buries Moses. What a statement of intimacy and friendship!

I guess in the end, Moses doesn’t get to see the “mission” completed, but the relationship he has with his God stays intact and thriving to the very end.

Words, Pt. 3: “Confess”

In a way, “confess” isn’t all that difficult to understand. At its heart, it simply means to agree with. 

Put into a spiritual (Christian) setting, it most often has to do with our brokenness, our limitations, our “sin.”

If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just an will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

On the surface, this all seems fairly straightforward.

However, if you delve just a little bit deeper into the human psyche and our spirituality, a deeper and fuller implication of “confess” begins to emerge.

For those of us who make some sort of practice of “confession”, it’s easy to keep things at a “just-me-and-Jesus” level. This form of spirituality means that confession remains largely in the realm of a personal, private, individualistic spirituality: we mess up, we confess to God, and then we go on with our lives, reminded that we are forgiven and loved.

The only problem with this approach is that it leaves our pride largely intact. 

More than ever, I think that pride is the thing that hamstrings us more than anything else. It’s the brokenness that keeps us from  admitting that we are not, in fact, “all that,” and that we actually need some help. 

When “confession” is relegated to the private sphere, the “stronghold” of pride is unchecked.

This form confession doesn’t really demand anything of us.

So what’s the alternative?

Simply put, consider inviting someone else into your confession, into your brokenness. 

Make your confession a three-way affair: you, God, and another human being: someone who is able to see you at your (almost?) worst, with warts and all.

In this way, “confession” becomes a powerful weapon in the war against our pride.

The various 12 Step traditions (AA, etc.) have long since understood how important it is for human beings to deal with their pride, and maybe it’s time for the church to recover some of what it has lost over time: namely the discipline of confession.

I’m not calling for the installation of confession booths in evangelical churches, but I think it would be worth it to see our pride dismantled and shattered as we bare our souls to each other.

(Note: Confession like this does not need to be shame-based. The point is never to shame someone into worshiping. Rather, the point of confession is to embrace humility, which is ultimately just being “right-sized” in the world: human beings are seldom the worst of the worst, but they are also not without brokenness. Confession is simply a way that we remind ourselves that we are ultimately human, and therefore imperfect. Or maybe even better: that we are imperfect, and therefore ultimately human.)

The Best Concert I Ever Saw and the Forgotten Years

In 1990 I saw the Australian band Midnight Oil at the Bronco Bowl in Dallas, Texas. They were touring in support of their release Blue Sky Mining, which was probably their most popular record in the US. This was the peak of true “alternative music”, when many radio stations were still free and DJs were spinning all manner of exciting new bands, and I was introduced to Midnight Oil—and tall, bald-headed lead singer Peter Garrett’s crazy dancing—through their 1987 record Diesel and Dust (I made a brief Spotify playlist). However, since I was just out of high school, and shaking off the last remnants of 1980s hair metal, I really didn’t get the band. I spent a lot time mocking Garrett’s limited vocal range and his entirely awkward dance moves. However, 3 years can make a lot of difference in a musician’s life, and by 1990 I was ready for Blue Sky Mining. 

So when they went on tour later that year, me and my good friend (and lead singer in my band) Kevin got tickets to the Bronco Bowl, a vintage venue in Oak Cliff, just outside of Dallas. The Bronco Bowl was a great place to see a show: intimate enough to be close to the band but large enough to pack some legit numbers in. We sat back and waited for the show to start.

I still remember the lights coming down as the band played the first notes of “Stars of Warburton”, the second song of the album. Garrett walked to the center mic and sang the verse and chorus with an intensity that I had seldom experienced. The crowd (me included) erupted when the band left the first chorus behind and, as they headed towards the 2nd verse, Garrett started doing his dance. His movement set us free, and we began to move and jump and dance right with him. It was a singular event: we were not observing the band; we were somehow with them, doing our part to create an experience. They provided the soundtrack, but we were all united and together in the same time and space.

It was incredible; this was rock and roll. Garrett and Midnight Oil showed me what can happen when a singer and band hold nothing back and give themselves over—without restraint—to an idea, a song, a movement, an event.

Ninety minutes or so, the band finished with a rendition of Elvis Costello’s song, “What’s So Funny (About Peace, Love and Understanding)?” We drove the 30 miles back to Fort Worth inspired and spent.

The fourth song on Blue Sky Mining is called, “The Forgotten Years,” a song about the rhythm between years of war and years of peace. It’s anthemic and powerful, a reminder that we should never forget what peace costs. I still love singing this song around my house—sometimes I even dance like Garrett does (thought you’ll never see it)—but recently it has really struck me when I consider that my country has been at war now for almost 15 years (since we started bombing Afghanistan in October, 2001). It seems as if war has now become the normal state of affairs for the United States, and I wonder, “What is this doing to our mentality as a society?” We have declared the “end of hostilities” a few times now, but still we seem to be mired in low-level war.

Do we remember what peace feels like?

I wonder how easy it is to celebrate, as Garrett calls them, “the years between”, when the years between no longer seem to come. 

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I hope we remember that war should not be the normal state of affairs. 

I was reading my Bible this morning, and I stumbled across these words in Isaiah 32:

“The fruit of righteousness will be peace,
and the outcome of righteousness,
calm and security forever.
Then my people will live in a peaceful dwelling,
in secure homes, in carefree resting places.” (vv17-18)

These words remind me that as much as it seems as if war is the normal state of affairs, it’s not. God is a God of peace, and actually peace should be the outcome of our spiritual life.

Bait, Switch. 

I am just coming off of a season where I’ve focused personally an awful lot on Jesus’ death and resurrection (technically, we’re still in the church season of Easter, but you get the point).

However, there’s this thing about Jesus: He’s always one step ahead of you, and just when you think that you have him figured out, there’s another aspect to him and his ministry, and you’re back at the start again, filled with wonder and shaking your head in humility and amazement (ideally, anyway).

Brennan Manning once wrote (more or less, anyway), “The signature of Jesus is the cross”, and I wholeheartedly believe this. It opens up heaven, defeats evil, frees all of us, and continually challenges and motivates me. Additionally, the resurrection breaks the power of death and sin, and unleashes a whole new power into the world (and, by definition, my life).

But Jesus says there’s still even more

If you take Jesus’ words seriously (and, well, I do), then you have to acknowledge the fact that repeatedly Jesus tell people that you have to pay attention to his teaching—the things he says and does during his minitry.

Over and over again, he flat out tells people, “Look the reason I have come is to teach and preach.” (Check Mark 1:38), John 8:31, and especially John 6:63 and 12:47-48.)

We have a tendancy to focus so much attention on the cross and empty tomb, and then his miracles that we can sometimes tend to lose sight or downplay his teaching agenda.

And he taught a lot: 

  • In “The Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 5-7, Luke 6) he lays out a vision for life that far transcends any “normal” human life (and I fully believe he expects us to be able to live it).
  • In John’s gospel Jesus says things like, “The water that I give will become in those who drink it a spring of water that bubbles up into eternal life“ (John 4). He also refers to the fact that “Whoever wants to do God’s will can tell whenter my teaching is from God or whether I speak on my own” (7:17).

These are challenging teachings because (a) they often don’t fit into the neat little boxes we draw for ourselves regarding faith and (b) they actually challenge the way most of us look at and live in the world.

I think it’s pretty odd that we ignore Jesus’ own words to focus on his teachings.

Sometimes I think it’s because—as crazy as it seems—we get uncomfortable because his teachings expect too much of us. For those of us who grew up in church, it’s sometimes actually “easy” to focus on Good Friday and Easter, possibly because of the “paid for” and “finished” aspect to them (and I believe that).

But when you look at what Jesus taught, you realize that he actually expects more of you.

It’s like—if we were to actually take him at his word(s)—he actually expects transformation.

And that makes us uncomfortable.

We want to go to heaven, but often we don’t want to actually change beforehand. We are just as content to remain angry, pride-filled, self-focused, and addicted and compulsive.

I think Jesus’ ministry was a continual call to transformation that culminated in the cross and then the resurrection, but it’s not like that call ended with the four gospels.

The call is still going on.

What do you need to change?

I’m All About That Bass (But Not Like THAT)…

There was a season of my life that I was fortunate enough to spend a fair amount of time in recording studios (and get paid—at least a little bit—for it). My typical method of recording songs was to build a track from the ground up: get the drums and bass happening, then add rhythm instruments, guitar solos and “ornamentation”, then end with vocals.

However, once I found myself working with an engineer who was also going to play bass in the session. We worked together to build the tracks, but at some point the tracks were practically complete—even the lead vocals…

… except for the bass.

When I asked him about it, he said, “I like to leave bass to the last; that way I can craft my bass line around what is still missing from the track.”

Personally, I suspected that it was only because he was a bass player, and he wanted more important of a role than what most bass players have (it’s a prejudice I have, I know).

However, I was reading something recently, and the writer was remarking how he liked bassists and bass lines, how the bass moves the song along and unifies it. 

I thought: “My oh my—how profoundly spiritual.”

The simple question is this: What moves your life along? What unifies it? 

Our spirituality should be more than just a vague set of beliefs or events that we go to. Our spiritual practices (and I suggest you get some if you don’t have any) should do the same thing a good bass line does: it should bring unity and understanding to your life, and it should propel it forward. 

So there’s this:

But better yet, there’s this: