Science Mike, The Liturgists, and the Silence that is Saving My Life

Otto Greiner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Otto Greiner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A good friend of mine sent me a link to something he’s been working on with the folks from the band Gungor. There’s a spoken word piece on the power of prayer, and in particular a practice called “Centering Prayer”. This is an ancient form of prayer practiced by many of the church fathers and desert monks. The spoken word piece talks about prayer from the point-of-view of science, and discusses some of the proven benefits of silence and meditation on our health.

This was so encouraging to encounter, because I had discovered centering prayer about a year ago, and it is a discipline that has taken root in a deep and powerful way in my life, and while I’m not a scientist, this approach to prayer has had profound and significant effects for me.

Mike can explain all of the silence behind praying; for me it has been all about me learning to recognize and quiet the pathology that is inside me. The prayer has helped me begin to recognize the lies that I so easily believe:

+ That I am the center of my world.
+ That I have more to say to God than He could ever possibly say to me.
+ That my words can somehow control or manipulate God.
+ That God—and grace—can be understood and controlled.

All of these ideas—in some circles they are known as “the false self”—and more start to crack and crumble in the face of 20 minutes of absolute silence and a quiet mind and heart. They evaporate in the presence of a God who dwell in “deep darkness” (1 Kings 8:12; 2 Chronicles 6:2; Psalm 97:2, ).

After a while, you can even begin to see that God is working in you to heal you, to grow and transform you in something resembling Jesus Christ.

(This is a good thing.)

If you wanted to get started with the practice of centering prayer, I’d suggest a few things:

  1. Check out The Liturgists: either live or recorded and rest in the peace of what they are doing.
  2. Read Richard Foster’s book Prayer, which has chapters on The Prayer of the Heart, Meditative Prayer, and Contemplative Prayer, which are somewhat related.
  3. Read Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating
  4. Have a conversation with someone who has experience with it. You can sometimes find these folks in monasteries, or in certain local faith communities (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, etc.).

Two brief words in closing:

  1. Gungor/The Liturgists have taken this meditative approach to worship and prayer on the road, and I’ve seen some great responses to it. If they come someplace near you, you should definitely go, but at the same time, keep in mind that experiencing mystery, silence, and contemplation one time in a theatre or arena is not the same as incorporating it into your daily life. If you had to choose between a daily encounter and a one-time tour stop, choose the daily encounter.
  2. There is a certain nervousness in the west (North America) about disciplines like centering prayer and contemplation, and I suppose I can understand this. My response is first, this is not a new (nor a “new age”) practice, but one that has long standing connections to our faith tradition. Just because it is alien to us in our North American mindset does not mean that it is wrong, or something to be feared. Second, this is merely a way for us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Jesus’ work on the cross was complete and takes care of the brokenness that is inside me. That being said, Jesus (and Paul as well) was also passionate about change and growth and maturity. Prayer is probably the key mechanism for that growth and maturity.

I’ll stay silent, and wait on God.

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Wonder (again)

Without mentioning any names, I have an acquaintance who plays drums in a pretty well-known and successful rock band. Around 2003/2004, as they were ascending the charts and their popularity was really taking off, they played a concert at the Hard Rock in Chicago, and he gave me a couple passes to the show, which was pretty much sold out. Afterwards, he met me and a buddy down in the lobby to just say, “Hi” and touch base (I hadn’t seen him in a couple years).

As I walked up to him, he just gushed with gratitude and thanks that I’d come, “Wow, it’s so awesome that you came out!”

As I congratulated him on the band’s success he continued to seem almost overwhelmed by everything that was going on, and continued to thank me for coming out to see the show.

Meanwhile, I kept thinking, “This guy is totally ‘living it,’ and just played a sold out show and he is grateful that I came… for free?!??!”

His wonder and gratitude of what was going on in his life was so childlike and innocent. It blew me away, and it continues to haunt me to today. When I think about how ungrateful I am for my “normal” life, I am convicted. When I refuse to see the wonder and beauty of my life… the moments in lifetimes—weddings, funerals, baptisms—I get to share, when I get to see people grow and become more like Christ, when I get to see people find their vocation and then embrace it… all of these things are miracles in and of themselves, yet I choose to overlook them for something else “out there”. 

It’s a rejection of grace, in a way.

One of my favorite—and most convicting—quotes about wonder is from Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”

Which comes first? The success or the wonder? I’m beginning to think that success follows wonder, rather than the other way around.

Actually Kids Really LIKE Vegetables

I remember the first time my wife set some steamed broccoli on my plate.

Our daughter was about a year old, and she was starting to eat regular food.

But broccoli? 

I looked at Shana with my eyebrows raised.

“Our children are going to go up eating healthy, and Emily needs to see us eating vegetables.”

But broccoli?

Like many other kids who grew up in the—oh let’s face it who grew up anytime in the last 50 yearsbroccoli was the food that we all made fun of.

No one ever actually ate it, did they? 

Well, regardless of my history, I took a bite.

It wasn’t bad.

And so began our long running association with fruits and vegetables.

At one point, things got so bad that we got Emily a “Costco-sized” can of Del Monte Green Beans for her birthday and she acted like we’d just gotten her a car simply because she was so used to eating fresh or frozen green beans that the added preservatives in the can was like eating cake to her. 

Really.

But you know what? Kids really like vegetables.

We think they only like fish sticks and pizza, but when kids get a taste of real food, they tend to want more.

It’s like that with true spirituality.

Last June I went on a mission trip with some folks from my church. We ranged in age from 15 to 45, with most of us (okay: them) in their 20s. We built houses all day, and hung out with some kids in villages around Panajachel, Guatemala. At night we would sit up on the roof of our hotel and just unpack the day.

There was an older gentleman who wasn’t really a part of our church, but he’d traveled with our team to see what Porch de Salomon was up to. This guy—he has since become a spiritual mentor/director to me—would sit with us, and while most of us were just trying to recover from the day or crack bad jokes, he would start to ask us very simple questions:

“So how did you grow spiritually today?”

“Where did you see God today?”

These were not crazy, earth-shattering questions, and yet somehow they were the questions we needed to answer. 

And as we began to answer, the most amazing thing began to happen:

tears were shed…

poignant stories—of vulnerability and roundedness—began to be shared…

fears were exposed…

hopes were laid out…

All from these simple questions, and an older individual who refused to let us stay on the surface, and who was unafraid to lead us to tender places.

Even when what we thought wanted was just a chance to knock back a beer or two and laugh.

What we really needed was to go into our souls.

It revolutionized my understanding of what people are seeking.

I thought people—in particular younger people—were in search of superficial, tepid spirituality. I thought they wanted to work and drink and laugh and then shop and then go home.

But I was wrong.

What I learned is that people are hunger, even desperate for something real and deep and life-changing.

They want to cry. They want to tell their stories. And share their fears. They—we—want to be known.

I see so much in church “discipleship” that is designed to get people serving, and giving, and participating, but I’m not sure I see efforts to cultivate spiritual directors, or mentoring. I’m not sure I hear people relentlessly asking the basic spiritual questions we are all hungry for.

“How have I grown spiritually today?”

“Have I been honest with myself and others?”

“Have I hurt someone today? Do I need to ask forgiveness from someone?”

These are the thoughts that people want to think about.

Sometimes it seems like the church is convinced that people want “Happy Meals” or some kind of GMO perfection, but what we want is something earthy, connected, and trusted.

Like vegetables.

My First Lesson in Creative Sermon Prep

I am an unapologetic geek when it comes to certain things. For instance, when I got called for jury duty, I spent half the day marveling at the privilege of participating in “trial by peers”, and thinking about how unique this experience was to the rest of the world.

I know, it’s that bad.

Well, I got picked, and we heard our (short,civil) trial and began our deliberation.

(As an introvert, this is where it got awkward for me: putting me in a room full of people I don’t really know and then asking me to work and speak with them for hours on end… ugh.)

There was an older gentleman there, and during a break he started talking about how he’d worked in newspapers (remember those), and how he was a news junky. Then he asked us a question:

“Do you guys know how to find out what’s really going on in the United States?”

Let’s face it, we knew that we were not supposed to say “Yes.” So we all shook our heads.

He said, “You find out what’s going on in the United States by reading the news from Europe. Want to know how to find out what’s going on in Europe?”

“Sure.”

“You read the Russian news.”

He then lead us all around the world: Russia, Asia, etc. (I can’t remember the entire sequence, but you get the point.)

The point he was trying to make was that only when you got a little objectivity could you really see what was going on in a country. The best way to find out about a “thing” is not necessarily to read about the thing from people who know it best, but to read about it from people who aren’t really as connected to it. 

I think it’s a little like that with sermon prep.

I know there’s lots of websites out there that help with sermon prep, but I think a little more objectivity is required.

So to think about teaching the Bible, I go to “Europe”: which (for me) means

I collect and distill ideas and stories into Evernote, and then tag them and store them until they are needed.

Since I feel like the gospel touches all of life, it’s not always a huge chore to connect our inability to walk in a straight line to discipleship, or Nine Inch Nail’s record The Downward Spiral to the story of Samson.

Or, I suppose, to connect jury duty to sermon prep.

The Gift of Isolation

What’s the nature of our life together?

For years, I was under the impression that “community” meant a sort of seamless “inter-meshing” of lives; a true uniting of individuals.

I’ve now come to understand that this belief has caused a tremendous amount of stress and strain in my life.

I was speaking with my counselor this summer (don’t have a counselor? Get one. Trust me.), and I was talking about my dad.

Here’s what you need to know about my dad: he had a big personality. He was a salesman (a really good one), and it showed through in most of the dynamic of our lives. He dominated—albeit benevolently—our family for decades.

Then he had a stroke.

A big one.

He really shouldn’t have survived but he did (and we are grateful). Furthermore, he’s made a remarkable recovery: he gets around, and talks and interacts and everything.

But much of the “largeness” of that personality was taken from him in 2004, AND FROM OUR FAMILY AS WELL.

We were sort of left reeling. There was a void at the center and point of our family, and also in my life as a man. All of a sudden, the man that was supposed to help me navigate fatherhood (not to mention my 40s and 50s) was gone. In its place there was now a wall, a barrier, that was just spray-painted with the word, “Stroke.”

I could no longer get to the man that I’d grown up with. I was left outside. I felt that, deeply.

I felt very alone.

I was relating all that to my counselor (again: don’t have yet? get one. trust me.), and he reflected back that to me: “So what you’re saying is that since your dad’s stroke you feel isolated from him?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “That’s it.”

Then he hit me with the big guns.

“Well, all he’s done is pointed out a central truth of our existence: the truth is, we are all isolated from each other. We can’t know perfect union or relationship in this lifetime. To be human is to be isolated—to some degree or another—from each other.”

.To be human is to be isolated—to one degree or another—from each other.”

That hit me like a ton of bricks.

And then it set me free.

It’s easy to labor under the illusion that we can expect perfection:

  • perfect families
  • perfect jobs
  • perfect community
  • perfect relationships

In actuality, we live in an “in between” world:

  • in between Genesis and Revelation
  • in between brokenness and beauty
  • in between fracture and healing
  • in between isolation and reconciliation

This is the human condition. Freedom comes when we begin to accept it, and release those around from the burden of being perfect.

(Including ourselves.)

It may sound like a sad or depressing to think of ourselves as ultimately isolated from each other, but it really shouldn’t. I think it’s really simply choosing to accept and to live in the reality that God has given us.

The truth of the matter is that we will know this someday.

Just not quite yet.

The exciting part is that it can start now; we can begin to move closer to each other.

But only if we know where we are starting from.

Now we see a reflection in a mirror; then we will see face-to-face. Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. (1 Corinthians 13v12 CEB)

Egalitarians Can Be Bible Thumpers Too

Once my wife and I were talking to a church about possibly going on staff with them. In our conversations with them we asked about their view of women in leadership.

Our contact responded, “Well, let me tell you guys, I am married to a really strong woman, and we run our marriage as completely equal; I would never deny my wife an opportunity to lead or teach. However our pastor—and therefore our church—doesn’t hold that view. Unfortunately, we don’t allow women elders or leaders here.”

We responded, “Hmmmm, well, that’s a bit of a challenge for us.”

He responded, “Yeah, our pastor just feels like it’s a matter of Biblical conviction for him.”

To which my (awesome) wife said, “And it’s not a matter of Biblical conviction for you?”

… Needless to say (maybe), we weren’t able to go on staff at that church.

It’s a matter of Biblical conviction for us.

It seems as if there’s a perception that those of us who hold to an egalitarian view of men and women in leadership come to that conviction through our understanding of culture, that it’s based a little more on the “fuzzy” area of what God is doing in the world.

However, to come to that confusion would be to ignore:

  • Genesis 1:27, where God says that man and woman are both made in His image.
  • The prophet Joel (and the book of Acts), where God says He will pour His Spirit out on men and women.
  • Romans 16:1, which mentions Priscilla as a deacon of the church (the only person out of the 27 people mentioned that is given that title).
  • Romans 16:7, where Paul tells us that Junia—a woman—is an apostle. 
  • 2 John, which is addressed specifically to a woman.
  • Multiple accounts in the Gospels, where Jesus entrusted his message (of life in John 4; of Resurrection) to women. 

 

Now, before I go on, let me mention something: I realize that a whole host of passages can be lined up that claim that women are somehow secondary to men and under their authority. I get that.

I don’t necessary agree with those interpretations, but I can’t deny that those passages are in the Bible.

In fact, I’ll even defend your right to interpret those passages that way (though I don’t necessarily agree with you).

But neither can you deny the passages that I base my egalitarian view on.

My only point here is that we egalitarians aren’t making this stuff up. We are sincerely trying to obey the revelation of God and Jesus through the Bible under the power of the Holy Spirit.

It’s a matter of Biblical conviction for us.

 

 

The “Other” Words

In my church, we talk a lot about words of life. They are meant to be words that encourage people and call them into a deeper, more joyful way of living. However, there’s another paradigm that sometimes enters into the words we listen to. There are other words out there that are much more difficult to hear, sometimes so much so that they don’t feel much like “words of life” at all. In fact, they feel a bit like.

Death.

At least, they hurt pretty bad.

Once I was with my family and I was wondering about how I hadn’t been more successful in my somewhat anti-climactic musical career, and my beloved sister just looked at me and said, “Well it’s probably because you were just too lazy and too unhealthy to be successful.”

Ouch.

But the thing is, even with words that direct, and that challenging (and trust me: I don’t really like to hear words like that), I wasn’t crushed. I didn’t yell, or lash back.

In fact, I realized that I was sitting in front of deep truth, and I had to choose whether to hear and embrace it, or turn away.

To that end, I chose to hear it, and some remarkable things happened:

  • That truth actually released me from some regret and some preoccupation with my past failures as an artist. I realized that I really was responsible—in a way—for my lack of success.
  • It led me to continue to confront those two themes—laziness and “un-health”—in my life, which has led to some cool healing.

Now, I take it as a given for Christians that we understand that sometimes death needs to happen before new life can take place.

Good Friday happens before Easter.

To that end, sometimes words of life don’t feel like words of life at all. They can feel like words of death: hard and challenging even sad. But when they are spoken by people we trust, and spoken in a manner that is designed for us to grow, these hard words can kill something inside of us that needs to die in order for growth, new life, and healing to take place.

However, I also know that words can be uttered with the intent to destroy, not resurrect; to reduce, not instruct; to hurt and not love. So before you decide to “hear” hard words, I’d offer a few suggestions:

  • Consider the source: do you trust them? Do you trust that they love you? Are they people of the light?
  • Consider the environment: were they angry when they said it (my sister was not)? Were you in a fight?
  • Consider the implications: what would happen if you took their words into your heart? In my case, I sensed that Beth’s words would set me free, and so I could allow them in.

I’ve heard other harsh words in my life, but what about you? Have you heard hard truths that ultimately invited you to grow in profound ways?

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Seth Godin and a Gospel Life

Seth Godin is understandably one of the most popular and compelling writers and thinkers today. He’s been pretty influential in my circles, and I’ve definitely internalized some of his thoughts. I’ve seen him speak a couple times, and read 2 or 3 of his books.

All in all, it’s good stuff.

However, I’ve had on- and off-again tensions with some of the concepts, especially as they are confronted by, well, the gospel.

(Let me just say that I am “owning” that this is probably just my own baggage; I’m merely throwing these thoughts out there because they’ve been on my mind lately.)

Most recently, I’ve had to come to terms with how the desire to be “extraordinary” and a “linchpin” (some of Seth’s key concepts) intersect in my soul to do some not-very-good things…

You see, for someone who struggles with pride and arrogance, hearing the call to make your world all about doing “something amazing”, or “living your strengths”, etc., etc., can be a little like trying to control a modest outdoor fire in your backyard by pouring kerosene on it.

Even understanding that the point of “being extraordinary” is to serve people, or an organization or mission, feels remote.

For a narcissist (struggling or otherwise), the world ALWAYS revolves around them. They are ALWAYS seeking to be extraordinary, to be noticed, to be the smartest/cutest/strongest/most talented person in the room. It’s a normal (though pathological) state of mind.

For me, I need to balance “linchpin” thinking with the constant realization that I am sick. Recognition and accolades (that often come with being extraordinary) feed my false self, this scared, insecure child that needs to be reminded how special he is.

To counteract linchpin thinking, I need, to stare into the void, to quiet the obsessive and compulsive thoughts of my false self, and to return to the smaller, quieter voice of God that says, “You are enough.”

To learn humility.

To learn to serve.

To learn to focus on others.

To learn that being a linchpin is NOT all there is to life.

(Even though sometimes it’s fun.)

I still love Seth; and I will continue to read his books and wrestle with this stuff, but I just thought I’d put these out there.

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Eugene Peterson on Spiritual Direction

For a season now, I’ve been pursuing a spiritual direction, and trying to be a better “director” of people’s souls myself.

I was recently going through Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integritywhich has shaped me as a pastor as much as any other book I’ve ever read—with a friend, and re-read what he has to say about giving spiritual direction.

(Incidentally, I think that “spiritual direction”—or mentoring, or whatever you’d call personal, spiritual influence—is one of the most desperately needed activities in our culture. I think much of 21st century North American culture has no need for a bigger, better, faster worship gathering. We need a more sober, consistent spiritual direction and discipleship for God’s people).

So here’s what Peterson says:

  1. Cultivate an attitude of awe with and for every person you meet with. Every meeting is a privilege, and an opportunity to see God work.
  2. Cultivate an attitude of ignorance. We can make assumptions about peoples’ motives and feelings. Most of the time they are wrong. We do better to assume nothing and ask questions. (This is something I’m trying desperately to grow in.)
  3. Cultivate a predisposition to prayer. Prayer is the furnace, and oftentimes what people really want from us is to learn to run the furnace for themselves. They don’t want our advice; they want to learn how encounter God for themselves.

Tools for the New Year: Rails

The concept of a train is simple: wheels on rails. The rails constrain the wheels and prevent them from wandering, but they also give the wheels a smooth the path to travel. Unlike a car, a train can’t go

wherever it wants—it has to travel the path that the rails follow—but a train can trust the rails, and as long as they haven’t been destroyed or damaged, the rails will take the train where it needs to go.

A few days ago I wrote about how humility is the key to growth, and one further aspect of humility is admitting our need for “rails” in our lives.

If you’re anything like me, I’d prefer to think of myself as a free-ranging vehicle (a Jeep 4×4, especially): I can go anywhere and do anything I’d like, and I will continue to grow into the person that I need to be and that God wants me to be.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

After 40-something years on this earth, I am able to say with a fair amount of certainty that left to my own devices I will wander to and fro, and “growth” will remain far from the top of my “to do” list.

I don’t make such a good Jeep.

I need rails, things that keep me on track.

Maybe I make a better train.

Now, rails have other words too:

  • systems
  • routines
  • habits
  • disciplines
  • rules

These “rails”, as long as I follow them and choose to stay on them, tend to take me to the places I want to go spiritually. (To extend the metaphor just a bit, it’s important to remember that the point of a train is not to just “ride the rails”; trains go places; the destination is what’s important. When the rails become the point of everything, we’ve lost the point.) At first, they feel odd: constrain you; they cramp your “style”; they stretch you, and may challenge you to do things that aren’t in your “nature” (“Well, I’m not really a Bible reading person, ya know?!?!”). But, after a while, they don’t feel as odd or forced. You find yourself moving with them, anticipating their turns. You’re working with the rails now.

Specifically, here are some of the rails and “constraints” that I use:

  • a regular habit of focused prayer and mediation each morning
  • a discipline of regular Scripture reading and studying
  • a commitment to regularly (1-2 times a month) sit down with 1-2 older spiritual mentors and humbly submit to their leadership and suggestions (again with the humility)
  • a system of managing my time, projects and energy (I use both electronic and paper calendars, and a combination of OmniFocus and Apple’s Reminders)
  • a method of examining the overall direction and theme of my life

As some of these rails have become cemented into my character, I have had to rely on the externals a bit less, but the principles remain the same: I submit to the rails.

Because I have somewhere to go; a person to be; a redemptive movement to play a part in.

And I trust the rails to take me there.

Do you have any rails? What are they? Do you need to reevaluate any of them?

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