What Works for Me, Part 7: Into My Life

Over the past few weeks I’ve tried to lay out, in simple terms, the core components and ideas of my spirituality. While it probably seems overly-simplistic to a lot of folks, I’m currently finding that the best things are actually quite simple (though they are seldom “easy”), and their simplicity helps combat my deep tendency to overly-complicate things.

So, to wrap up everything, I’d like to just describe, more or less, how I live it out during a typical day. (Though it can be debated if there’s any such thing as a “typical day”, I’m a creature of habit, so I try very hard to “hard-bake” these activities into my life. I believe that they put me in the best position to make it from day to day, to give me the best chance to have meaningful connections with other people, to contribute to the world in meaningful ways, and to be just a little bit better today than I was yesterday).

Again, not much of this routine is complicated or complex; they are just simple activities and behaviors repeated over time, with a certain degree of intentionality and focus.

MORNING

My morning starts pretty much the same each day: I get up around 4:30AM, I make myself a cup of coffee with my AeroPress, drink about 8 ounces of water, and then go sit down at my desk. I do a very brief reading (takes usually less than 45 seconds), and then I immediately go into a 20 minute session of centering prayer.

If you’re not familiar with centering prayer I would definitely encourage you to investigate it. I struggled with prayer my entire life until I discovered this method, and it has helped me experience God more deeply. Without going into the specifics of the technique, the GOAL of centering prayer is for me to surrender my life and my will over to the power of God as best and as completely as I can.

(And, in case you’re wondering, I have virtually never had a problem with spending 20 minutes in silent prayer before 5AM. I can’t explain it, but somehow I remain alert and focused, even at this early hour.)

After that I do a quick session of journaling (based loosely on the 5-Minute Journal, but a little more streamlined). Basically I write (by hand-I try to stay off of screens entirely during the morning hours) the date, a quote or song lyric that I may have woke up with, 2-3 gratitudes, my intention for the day (usually something like “humility”, or “peace,” or “openness”), and then the absolute priorities for my life, which are currently (1) recovery, (2) family, and (3) vocation.

After that I will review my calendar for the day, do a brief creative writing exercise, and maybe so a small amount of spiritual reading, but then I go out to the kitchen and see if there’s anything I can clean up or put away before anyone else gets up. It’s an easy way that I can get out of my own head, and begin to serve others at an early part of my day.

EVENING

To be honest, I have always struggled to maintain a SET and established “reset” time in the afternoon and evening. I’m making progress, but I still have a ways to go in getting the habit and routine cemented into my life. Nevertheless, I have come to believe that these “PM Resets” are absolutely critical for me in my life every day, so I am striving to implement an afternoon session of Centering Prayer—or at least a period of intentional silence—around 4 or 4:30 every day, and then also an end of day reflection/evaluation (sometimes called an “Examen” in other faith traditions).

Towards the end of my day (but ideally before I get in bed), I just constructively review my day. I take a few deep breaths, and with a posture of gratitude and acceptance, I run through everything I did throughout the day, including the people I met, the places I went and the things I did, but ALSO my emotional reactions and even my intentions. I make little notes in my journal as I go of anything that stands out, both bad and—critically for me—good.

I also ask myself a few basic questions:

  • Was I kind and loving to everyone?
  • Was I mindful of others, and of how I could serve them?
  • Was I self-centered?
  • Was I focused on myself?
  • Do I owe an apology to anyone? (If I do, I try to write that down and address the situation as soon as I can the next day, if not sooner.)

Where I have struggled, I ask God to help me do better. Where I have managed to be reasonably loving and others-centered, I express gratitude.

It’s important for me to not do this in such a way that triggers any shame. Instead, what I am looking for is an HONEST evaluation—good and bad—of my existence during my day, and then a tangible action (asking God to help me do better, or making an apology, or celebrating, etc.)

After this, I am usually able to go to bed with a clear conscience and a sense that I have “sealed this day”, and can rest and prepare for the next one.

THROUGHOUT THE DAY

Between my set times of prayer and reflection, I seek to monitor myself as I move through my day. When I am wrong, I simply admit it (QUICKLY), apologize if necessary, and move on.

(NOTE: Without fail I encounter people and situationswho are frustrating to me. When I can, I need to remember that I cannot control others’ behavior and reactions. I CAN ONLY CONTROL MYSELF, so it’s up to me to monitor ME, not them. On one hand, this is incredibly difficult to do, because I have to release my desire to control others’ behavior. On the other hand, this is incredibly liberating, because it means that I always have SOMETHING that I can do to “deal with” any situation.)

So on the whole, this is what works for me. It’s simple, it’s easy, and anyone can do it. Not everyone does, but that’s okay. It’s saving ME, and I hear rumors from family and friends that it ACTUALLY may be working—that I really am, somehow, becoming slightly less self-centered, slightly less angry, slightly less fearful, and more compassionate, more gentle, more kind.

And I will take that.

For Today, Just This

We like to believe that salvation and forgiveness happens in Jerusalem, at the cross (and then in the empty tomb).

However, the ancients—the fathers and mothers of my faith tradition—knew a secret that I tend to forget (and that the modern church neglects to remind me):

My salvation begins with the arrival of God in human form. When the Creator chooses to enter fully into the broken, limited, imperfect form of His creation, something powerful has happened:

Namely, that nothing in my life—no brokenness, or imperfection, or bad choice—can keep God from me.

(And this happens BEFORE I speak any words of regret, or contrition!)

When God chooses to take on human form, He declares: I can deal with human life; I do not need to condemn it, or reject it. I accept it, so that it can be changed into something more powerful and beautiful than anyone can imagine.

I wish I could say it better than John Chrysostom, but I cannot. These words haunt me, encourage me, challenge me, and remind me that I am ALREADY saved

You could do a lot worse today (or over the next few days) than to just sit with these words and their meaning:

Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken. For this day paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused and spread on every side—a heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and we now hold speech with angels.

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He has come on earth, while being fully in heaven; and while complete in heaven, he is without diminution on earth. Though he was God, he became man, not denying himself to be God. Though being the unchanging Word, he became flesh that he might dwell amongst us.

To Him, then who out of confusion has wrought a clear path; to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and forever. Amen.

St. John Chrysostom (349-407), “The Joys of Christmas” (emphasis added)

Merry Christmas everyone.

What Works for Me, Part 6: Serving Others

The third basic component of my spirituality is by far the most difficult for me. I’m simply not wired for service, and my character defects—my pride, selfishness, and self-centeredness, just to begin with—really make me basically resistant to serving others. 

But that’s not an excuse. 

For me, spirituality is not about what I “AM”, but also about what I’m CAPABLE OF BECOMING.

I spent years resting on the person I believed that I was, and was essentially convinced that I was as good as I was going to get. 

But the damage that I had inflicted, on myself and on people whom I cared the most about, eventually convinced me that I needed to do whatever it took to CHANGE. 

So whether or not service is an “easy” thing for me to do is beside the point. I have been told—not just by spiritual mentors and leaders, but a whole history of enlightened people—that service is an essential part of getting out of myself and leveling my pride. 

One of the hurdles I have had to overcome is the idea that “service” ONLY denotes some kind of special time or place that is set aside—a trip to help at a soup kitchen, or a trip to provide humanitarian aide in another country. Service is CERTAINLY that, but service is ALSO much more simple and easy to embrace on an ongoing, daily level. 

Service can happen by being willing to sit down with people—especially friends and family—and being willing to LISTEN more than I TALK. To be genuinely interested in THEIR lives, and to ask questions about them. 

Service can happen when I ask the people I work with, “Hey what I can I do to help,” going beyond any of my own specific projects and agendas. 

Service can happen when I do the dishes without being asked. 

Service can happen when I don’t roll my eyes at being interrupted and asked to come lend a hand. 

Service can happen when I honestly tell the story of my spiritual journey, when I am willing to tell share what I’ve experienced and seen without an expectation of my ego getting stroked or any PARTICULAR type of reaction. 

For me, service is also an odd combination of intentional decisions and spontaneous reactions. 

I know people who, in fact, seem to be naturally wired for service. They are the first ones to raise their hands when ANYTHING needs to be done, regardless if it’s a glamorous task or something that is going to get your hands REALLY dirty. What’s more, is they seem to even find joy in it. They are able to serve without really thinking about it, spontaneously. 

MOST of the time, that’s just not me, although there are glimpses. Every once in a while, I catch myself (after the fact) having willingly volunteered to do something that has nothing to do with my ego, or my “giftedness”, or the spotlight. 

I’ve just done it. 

Instead, I have to focus my mind and set my intention to serve. I have to do things like set reminders—write notes, or put an alert into my phone—that encourage me to serve. 

(The good news is that all of these intentional acts, if done often and consistently enough, have the potential to create a HABIT of service inside me. I like that, and I am hopeful for that time.) 

So these are the three building blocks of my spirituality, and I daresay that even though they are quite basic and simple, they are devastatingly effective. 

When done right, I believe they have the power to change EVERYTHING. 

Trusting God, cleaning (my own) house, and serving others has done more to create a healthy environment for spiritual growth than any other program, or small group, or sermon, or worship experience that I have encountered. 

(Not that those things didn’t HELP; they just weren’t enough for me, in and of themselves. I’m just stubborn that way.) 

Just a note: Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and I’m planning on taking a couple days “off” from writing to be with my family (and to travel to see my parents and sister in Virginia), so it will be a few days before I begin the final section of this series. When I start up again, I’m going to try and bring all of this together and talk about how I live all of this out on a day-to-day, tactical basis. 

Until then, I hope everyone has a peaceful and blessed week. 

What Works for Me, Part 5: Cleaning House

There are a couple of truths of my life that come into conflict fairly consistency. They are (a) The state of my IMMEDIATE environment (e.g., the room I’m in, or the desk I’m at which I’m sitting in) has a fairly strong impact on my state of mind, and (b) Day-to-day, I’m not the neatest person. 

Because of (b), I don’t always return things to their proper places, telling myself, “Oh I’ll do that later,” and as the days go by, my desk and office/creative space can get pretty cluttered. 

So occasionally, I have to “Press Pause” and do a more significant “house cleaning,” during which I go through accumulated papers and materials and sort them into things that are useful and things that are not. If they are useful, I find a place for them and get them there; if they are not USEFUL, I either throw them out, or (if there’s a chance that maybe they WILL be useful at a future time) at the very least place somewhere away from my immediate work space. 

When I finish, I tend to breathe a little better, and find my work space a little more manageable and peaceful. 

Cleaning House in our own lives isn’t much different than this. Cleaning my house starts with BEING WILLING to have an HONEST look at my own life and noticing the things—“things” here being mostly attitudes, ideas, and concepts—that operate inside me. After that, it’s a simple matter of declaring some things helpful and others not helpful (just so you know: usually there are more things that are not helpful), and “putting them away” as best I can. 

(NOTE: This is where things can get a little dicey. Because I am only human, I can only ‘put things away’ to a certain extent. After that point, I need help from someONE or someTHING that is outside myself, and more powerful than I am. Because let’s face it: If  I was capable of putting those things away, I probably would have already done it.) 

The first time I did this it was nearly overwhelming. I really didn’t want to be THAT honest with myself, and name the things—the really unnecessary, BROKEN things—that dominated my life. 

But this is ALSO where trusting God (not to mention the spiritual principles of OPEN-MINDEDNESS and WILLINGNESS) came into play. 

Could I trust that I was still lovable—deserving of compassion and human dignity—NO MATTER WHAT cluttered up my house? 

For me, when I was able to be very clear about that trust, I was able to clean my house to a degree that brought about a pretty profound realization and a change of heart and mind. I was capable of seeing so much of my life that was just not helpful—attitudes of shame, self-loathing, and also pride and selfishness—that were holding me back and preventing me from being the compassionate, present, joyful person that I was invited to be. 

In other words, cleaning house—just like cleaning my office—was incredibly LIBERATING and LIFE-GIVING. 

After that initial instance, I continue to clean house on an ongoing, rhythmic basis. First, I try to do it daily, reviewing my day (or, in some cases, just the last few hours) and naming/clearing away those things that have come up. 

Second, I try to do a more in-depth review every few months, or annually. Let’s face it: things just come up in our lives. I know I, at least, am far from perfect, so it’s good to just keep things clean for me. 

One final, but critical idea: THIS IS CLEANING MY HOUSE, NOT YOURS. 

The fact of the matter is this: The state of YOUR office is not really affecting MY creative space. I’m tempted to think otherwise. I really want to give you tips on your office, or why your desk organization is not as effective as mine. 

But that’s not helpful, and not the way it works. 

I’m called to clean MY HOUSE, not YOURS. I’m called to look at MY life, not yours, EVEN WHEN THE STATE OF YOUR LIFE EFFECTS ME (because it’s made YOU bitter, or angry, or manipulative, etc.). 

I cannot clean your house. I’m called to clean mine. After that I can, TRUST that God has you on your own journey, be OPEN-MINDED enough to believe that it’s more helpful for me to focus on myself rather than you, and—if all else fails—be WILLING to follow the advice those around me (because this whole thing is assuming that I’m in SOME kind of spiritual community) to be quiet and focus on myself first. 

The good news is this: Without even focusing on anyone else’s space or house, looking at ME and my own space has been one of the most paradigm-shifting and chain-breaking activities I’ve ever gone through. 

Next Up: Serving Others 

What Works for Me, Part. 4.2

Well, actually, BEFORE we move to “Cleaning House,” I wanted to circle back to something regarding trusting God that turned out to be pretty critical in my own journey.

This is challenging for me to communicate, on a couple different levels, but when I was learning to trust God, I first had to deal with a very unpleasant reality. Specifically, I realized that, although I trusted that God existed, I really did not/COULD not trust that He had ANY interest whatsoever in saving or helping me.

For me, this had profound effects in my life.

Without TRYING to fool myself, or trying to lie to anyone or misrepresent anything, I was living in two contradictory realities: I could TRUST that God existed, and that He was even absolutely loving… TO EVERYONE ELSE.

To me, my understanding of God (at one point, anyway) was that He was distant, impersonal, and uninterested in me… UNLESS I was doing something “awesome” for him.

Otherwise, I believed that essentially I was unlovable.

What I’m trying to say here is that, for me, before I could really learn to TRUST God, and to PRACTICE that reality on an ongoing basis, I had to be really honest, and be willing to NAME—on a very bedrock, sometimes even ugly level—what I REALLY believed and thought about God and myself.

It was only after I could be honest, and name the struggle, that I could start to “rehabilitate”, or correct, those ideas.

When I realized what I REALLY believed about God and myself, it was startling and distressing, but more importantly, it helped me make sense of unhealthy patterns and struggles in my life. “Oh, well, no wonder I have always struggled with shame!”

So, the simple thought is just to BE AWARE of your conception of God.

Trusting in God, to me, implies that (a) God exists, and (b) He is good and wants me—NOT just “everyone else—to be free of those things that would threaten to swallow me whole.

To get clarity on those two essentials, I really had to “clear the deck” of everything I THOUGHT I believed, and start from scratch. I didn’t have any problem believing that God existed, simply because I think I am somehow pre-disposed to be comfortable with mystery and the unexplainable. For me, that wasn’t that difficult to get past.

For the second idea, I decided to start with, well, PEOPLE.

I had just enough people in my life, that I could start to look around, and ask myself, “If I could not (yet) believe that God wants me to be free and ‘thriving,’ could I at least believe that (insert name of various friends here) wants me to be free?”

And if I could believe that my friends and family wanted me to be free, I could START to believe that God actually did. I had just let my brokenness cloud my understanding of Him.

And if I could start to believe that He wanted me to be free, then I could start to learn to TRUST Him, even when (not IF) life was difficult, and God (as I was coming to understand Him) was asking me to do rather difficult and stretching things.

Next Up (for real this time): CLEANING HOUSE.

What Works for Me: Interlude No. 1

Lest we forget something, please remember that none of these principles, activities, concepts, etc. are designed to “get God to love us.”

That love—the unwavering, long-suffering, foundational, wild (“sloppy wet kiss” kind of wild) is ASSUMED.

I desire transformation in order to (a) experience SOME level of peace, contentment, and a comfort level “in my own skin”, and also (b) to STOP inflicting myself—and the damage that goes with me—on the people around me (most of whom I love very much).

So, that being said, enjoy this quote from Brennan Manning, who sought out, wrote about, and wrestled with the lavish love of God for many years of his life:

“Until the love of God that knows no boundary, limit, or breaking point is internalized through personal decision; until the furious longing of God seizes the imagination; until the heart is conjoined to the mind through sheer grace, nothing happens. The idolatry of ideas has left me puffed up, narrow-minded, and intolerant of any idea that does not coincide with mine.

“The wild, unrestricted love of God is not simply an inspiring idea. When it imposes itself on mind and heart with the stark reality of ontological truth, it determines why and what time you get up in the morning, how you pass your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, and who you hang with; it affects what breaks your heart, what amazes you, and what makes your heart happy.”

Brennan Manning, The Furious Longing of God

For me, THAT was worth the interruption and reminder.

What Works for Me, Pt. 4: Trusting God

I started this series off by looking at three spiritual principles that form a foundation for my life.

Now, I’d like to talk a bit about how those play themselves out on a daily basis.

I would sum up my tactical/daily approach to living with three ideas:

  1. Trust God
  2. Clean House
  3. Serve Others

For me, these three concepts are a powerful combination of action and reflection, intention and surrender, practical and ambiguous (in a good way).

Here are some thoughts on I work with them (or, more typically, how THEY work with ME).

TRUST GOD

For me, I had a hard realization at some point that, although I trusted God to “get me to heaven,” I really didn’t trust him in a day-to-day, moment-to-moment sense. For everything related to how I ACTUALLY lived my life, I preferred to remain in the driver’s seat, thank you very much.

But I ALSO knew, at some level, that I was/am WOEFULLY ill-equipped to run my own life. If I am incapable of being God in the cosmic sense, I am incapable of being God in the minute, intimate sense as well.

I had a TRUST issue.

Again, none of these concepts and principles are self-contained, they are all intrinsically inter-related. That being said, I often think of “Trusting God” as very closely aligned with being “Open Minded”. What I mean by that is that MOST of the time my trust issues are put on display when something happens in my life that is unplanned, or difficult, or simply not my preferred outcome.

It’s at that point that I throw some form of an adult temper-tantrum, and either lash out, seek revenge, or retreat and isolate.

Because I didn’t get what I wanted.

I didn’t get the gig I wanted; I didn’t receive the adulation for a “brilliant blog post.” I didn’t get the recognition I “deserve.” My friends/children are not behaving the way I WANT them too.

The list goes on and on and on.

And so, at some level, I determined that God/life has made a mistake, and it’s up to me to correct this mistake.

Except that most of the time mistakes resent and resist being corrected (especially if they are living, breathing, human beings).

But what if there’s a different way to react?

A way that speaks TRUST in God, in release, in peace, in a beautiful EXHALE of breath?

So what I have found recently is that, if I can be OPEN-MINDED just enough to entertain the possibility that what is happening to me is EXACTLY WHAT IS MEANT TO BE HAPPENING TO ME at any given moment, something gets released inside of me.

Because my personal belief is that there is NO PLACE, NO TIME, and NO SITUATION in which God is not present (else He/She would not be God).

So, if what is happening to me is what is MEANT to be happening, then it must mean that God is present in it… Which means I have an opportunity to TRUST God in that moment.

Again, for those of us who—at least on SOME level—are capable of claiming that we “trust” God for the “big stuff”, I think the challenge comes when the proverbial crap hits the fan.

THAT’S when trust becomes an issue.

(NOTE: This doesn’t necessarily mean that we just “whistle past the graveyard,” and refuse to take action when we see injustice or brokenness in the world; I believe we are called to DO and to PRAY all we can [in detached love], but at some point there must be SOME degree of ACCEPTANCE of reality as it is, because REALITY is the place to which we are called.)

So waking up in the morning, I make my first act of trust by declaring that I will—as best I can—TRUST God to give me the work to do that HE wants me to do. Hopefully, I have some sense of what that is, and can plan accordingly, but I shouldn’t freak out (or even be surprised) if/when my plans get blown up.

Just trust that He is taking me EXACTLY WHERE I NEED TO GO for that day.

One more thing: for me, this kind of trust, ideally, requires an ongoing connection throughout the day, as opposed to a one-time prayer/”quiet time”/connection in the morning. (It’s one of the reasons that I would encourage anyone who listens to be careful of the idea that ONLY having a “quiet time” in the morning is somehow sufficient to having or enlarging a “spiritual life”. I have often found that if I have a quiet time at 5AM, by 10:30AM I half-insane again with stress, selfishness, pride, self-centeredness and self-pity. Quite frankly, I need something more and ongoing. A relationship, you might say.)

Anyway: it’s not easy, but it’s simple.

Next up: CLEANING HOUSE.