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…

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.)

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: 

Just Something…

There was a a news piece today: roughly 140 children were murdered by the Taliban in Pakistan.

One hundred-forty lives robbed. In the name of religion.

I honestly don’t know what to do with this information: I can’t pretend empathy or remote understanding.

But I want to just say something briefly:

Largely because of violence of ISIS/ISIL, I’ve been doing some reading on Islam lately (I even bought a copy of the Qur’an). I’ve also been doing some reflecting on my own religous tradition (Christianity), and I think I just want to put this out there:

God does not want your (or our) fanaticism.

Whatever revelation you claim—Judaism, Islam, or Christian—the God of Abraham does not want your violence, or your extremism.

I think there is just plenty of evidence that what God offers us—when we really LISTEN and are willing to be humble before Him and His people—is TRANSFORMATION, not fanaticism.

Love, not hate.

Understanding, not close-mindedness.

Love, by nature, EXPANDS, not contracts.

We should be bigger people, not smaller.

Whether your fundamentalism comes in Jewish, Muslim, or Christian forms, it only causes destruction. And I just don’t think God is a god of destruction. He comes to give life and shalom. 

From my own tradition, this—I believe, is why Jesus came—to call us into this wide-open kingdom of grace.

(But then again, they killed him, didn’t they?)

This Just In: I’m Not Perfect

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s already been an interesting Thanksgiving/Advent season. I’ve experienced two losses in my world: one in my extended family and one in my community here in Tallahassee. Maybe I’ll write more on that later, but suffice it to say for now that my journey towards Christmas 2014 is, for now, marked with a certain sobriety and even somber-ness.

My family spent the holiday weekend in Memphis; on Saturday night we decided to go to church together (since, because of my vocation, we rarely get to sit in a whole gathering as a family).

So we jumped in our car and drove to a United Methodist Church in Memphis that had a Saturday evening gathering. Because it was (a) the south, and (b) rivalry weekend (the gathering was pretty much overlapping the end of the Florida/Florida State game and the beginning of Auburn/Alabama) there really weren’t many people there.

The worship team did their job (sort of, but more on that later), and the preacher got up to speak.

Frankly, I heard some pretty profound things, but it really didn’t have much to do with him.

At one point, the preacher read from one of my all-time most influential authors, Brennan Manning. Here’s what he read:

“I believe that among the countless number of people standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands (see Revelation 7:9), I shall see the prostitute from the Kit-Kat Ranch in Carson City, Nevada, who tearfully told me that she could find no other employment to support her two-year-old son. I shall see the woman who had an abortion and is haunted by guilt and remorse but did the best she could faced with grueling alternatives; the businessman besieged with debt who sold his integrity in a series of desperate transactions; the insecure clergyman addicted to being liked, who never challenged his people from the pulpit and longed for unconditional love; the sexually abused teen molested by his father and now selling his body on the street, who, as he falls asleep each night after his last ‘trick’, whispers the name of the unknown God he learned about in Sunday school.

‘But how?’ we ask.

Then the voice says, ‘They have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’

There they are. There *we* are – the multitude who so wanted to be faithful, who at times got defeated, soiled by life, and bested by trials, wearing the bloodied garments of life’s tribulations, but through it all clung to faith.

My friends, if this is not good news to you, you have never understood the gospel of grace.” (Ragamuffin Gospel)

In that quote, something got triggered inside of me, particularly in the “insecure clergyman addicted to being liked” part.

Because, in so many ways, that’s me.

I am addicted to being liked, and to being perfect (at least in my own mind), and that addiction—and the fear behind it—has been holding me back. 

It’s been holding me back from things that God wants to do in me and, I believe, through me. 

In that moment, I sensed God saying to me, “You’ll never be perfect, Eric, and I don’t expect you to. In fact, I have never expected you to be perfect; that’s something from inside you, not me. Set yourself free from this expectation, and just move forward with the realization that you will be simply who you will be. Imperfect and broken, but trying; it will be okay.” 

Now, lightning didn’t strike or anything, but this was pretty profound, and it happened in an instant. It was certainly food for thought, and I am still working out the implications.

But that’s a good thing to hear, and also a good thing for all of us to remember: God is not surprised by our imperfections or our brokenness. We can/will never be perfect parents,

or children,

or pastors,

or spouses,

or friends,

or Christians.

I guess that just means we are left with being human: which is the beginning of something pretty special.


Lessons I Learn (… over and over again)

August to November was a difficult season, but somehow some of the clouds are parting and some light is creeping through…

I was sitting with some friends of mine recently—older men who have gone round and round with life and lived to tell about it—and unpacking the things I’ve seen and heard and done.

Most of it revolves around buying into the same lies I’ve bought into countless times before, namely that I can somehow control the brokenness inside me. Some of us—I’m not the only one—lose sight of the fact that our false self is manipulative and sneaky, and largely seeks to just throw us off our path.

It hits me again and again; it’s a strange thing when you can’t trust your own thoughts (because “your own thoughts” are really the thoughts of your false self).

One of the amazing gifts of centering prayer and meditation is that gradually you can learn to identify these tricks of your false self as such, and steer clear of them, but sometimes…

… Sometimes you still drift.

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul uses the phrase “the old self” (6:6). I used to understand this phrase theologically, as a reference to “just” our sin. Now, however, I realize that Paul is actually wading into to pretty deep psychological waters: the “old self” = the “false self”. It’s the part of ourselves that seeks to find its solace in security and control; in acceptance and affection; in power. Technically (and theologically) it has no power over us except the power that we give it. 

When we buy into what the false self is selling, we tend to reap the consequences.

The only cure for it is to deliberately (and painfully) return to rejecting this false self through meditation and prayer, and to choose to live in reality instead of the illusion of the false self.

(By the way, this is called repentance: it’s really not as scary of a word as you might think.)

And guess what: reality is actually kind of refreshing and peaceful.