Something New (ish)

(Sent this out via Facebook yesterday because I was having some technology issues.)

Hey all

First of all, I wanted to say thanks to all of you for being so generous with your time and attention, and choosing to read my thoughts and scribblings over the years!

I wanted to let you know that I’m going to be trying some new content out over these next weeks and months; I would love for you to be a part of this new season with me!

To begin with, I’m going to be experimenting more with some audio teaching. It may evolve into a podcast, but for now, feel free to give this a listen. It’s a short reflection piece on Jeremiah 29

In addition—just because you’re awesome—I’ve recorded a cover of a song that has been a real blessing to me for the last year or so. Check it out over on my YouTube channel (or just click here). 

Lastly, I wanted to let you know that I have a record coming out in just a week or so. It’s a collection of eight new songs, and I can’t wait to share them with you! Keep tabs on the release date (like everything else in our world right now, things like shipping times are a little up in the air) through my Facebook Page and/or Instagram

There will be some more exciting changes coming soon, so stay tuned, but for now please just know that I’m grateful for all of you who have taken the time to read and comment through the years. 

Take care!

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 Came With Abram

The Bible is filled with story after story of men and women following the Voice of God—either literally or metaphorically—into places of ambiguity, trust and surrender.

Mostly it begins with Abram who is told to leave his family and his father’s household and to go a land God will “show him” (Genesis 12).

And, almost unbelievably, Abram decides to go for it and trust the Voice.

But you know what else came with Abram?

HIMSELF.

I don’t know what all Abram left behind in his father’s house, but I can guarantee that what he did NOT leave behind was his own brokenness.

If Abram was self-righteous and greedy in Ur, he was self-righteous and greedy all the way to Canaan.

If he was given to anger and isolation in Ur, he took that with him to Canaan.

It’s tempting to think that we can change something “out there”—even in the name of FOLLOWING GOD—and so fix the problems that have plagued us (and therefore, plagued the ones around us), but that’s not really the way life works.

And “the way you do anything is the way you do everything.”

Because, you see, the problem is not “out there”, with our circumstances, our job, our family, our grouchy co-workers, fellow students or friends.

No, the problem is “in here,” in OUR hearts and souls.

Which come with us no matter where we go.

The bad news is that there is no place too far that we can go to get away from ourselves.

The good news is that no matter where we go, we always have an OPPORTUNITY to work on the problem.

There is deep, deep spiritual wisdom in the idea that whenever I’m disturbed, the problem is with ME, not with anyone else, or what’s going on around me. I have to examine MY heart, MY soul and mind, in order to regain my peace so that I may be of service to God and to others.

Because Rumi.

Haven’t written anything here for a while….

No excuses (so don’t look for any) … 

My sleep is slowly returning to normal, which also means that I’m beginning to wake up, on my own, quite early. 

I love the early morning dark. 

(I find that morning “I just woke up” darkness is so much different than night-time “I’m up WAY too late” darkness.)

Anyway, read this as the sun was coming up: 

The whole early is a form for truth.
When someone does not feel grateful
to that, the forms appear to be as he feels.
They mirror his anger, his greed, and his fear.
Make peace with the universe. Take joy in it.

It will turn to gold. Resurrection
will be now. Every moment,
a new beauty. -“Green Ears”

Loved that. I’m trying to make peace with the universe. I know that’s where the resurrection is, where the beauty is.

 

Why I Read the Mystics

This is from a priest, spiritual director and teacher from the 17th-18th century named Jean-Pierre de Caussade. He wrote a little book called Abandonment to Divine Providence that is wrecking my life (in that oh-so-great way) right now.

It is faith which interprets God for us. Without its light we should not even know that God was speaking, but would hear only the confused, meaningless babble of creatures. As Moses saw the flame of fire in the bush and heard the voice of God coming from it, so faith will enable us to understand his hidden signs, so that amidst all the apparent clutter and disorder we shall see all the loveliness and perfection of divine wisdom. Faith transforms the earth into paradise. By it our hearts are raised with the joy of our nearness to heaven. Every moment reveals God to us. Faith is our light in this life. By it we know the truth without seeing it, we are put in touch with what we cannot feel, recognize what we cannot see, and view the world stripped of its superficialities. Faith unlocks God’s treasury. It is the key to all the vastness of his wisdom. The hollowness of all created things is disclosed by faith, and it is by faith that God makes his presence plain everywhere. Faith tears aside the veil so that we can see the everlasting truth.

Dang.

What I Learn in the Monastery 1: Psalms Are For Praying

Many of you know that I take an annual 4 day silence and solitude retreat at The Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside of Atlanta, GA. Over the next few weeks, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned in the years that I’ve been going. 

IMG_6179

1.  Psalms are for praying. 

The backbone of a monastic “worship service” is singing (or more accurately, chanting) the Psalms. With five gatherings of worship/prayer a day, they get through the entire catalog of 150 every two weeks. 

Mostly, I grew up in the faith assuming that “psalms” = “songs”. That’s true some of the time, but not all of the time. Many times, the Psalms are actually recorded prayers, and what’s great is that they pretty much reflect the entirety of human experience and emotions (including many emotions that I would personally be terrified to express during prayer).

Initially, it was actually a bit challenging, at least partly because I simply wasn’t used to praying other peoples’ prayers (even if they’re written by King David). I always said my own words. But the more I got used to the gentle rhythm and melodies of the Psalms, I could feel them sinking down into my soul, and what’s more I began to find that I could actually identify with a lot of the sentiments that I saw expressed: I may not have physical enemies like the Psalmists express, but I certainly have internal enemies that are certainly out to get me, and so I could use the feelings towards the physical enemies and point them towards the tapes and baggage of my own life.

In addition, I started to feel an actual security and confidence in these ancient, tested words and prayers. A professor in seminary used to say repeatedly, “The thing is to ask yourself, ‘Can I become the type of person that can pray this prayer with integrity and honesty?’” That phrase resonated with me, and now the Psalms have become a bedrock part of my prayer life.

What We Forget About Grace

I was reading The Book of Joy this morning, and this statement struck me:

“Charity is prescribed by almost every religious tradition. It is one of the five pillars of Islam, called zakat. In Judaism, it is called tsedakah, which literally means “justice.” In Hinduism and Buddhism, it is called dana. And in Christianity, it is charity.”

Speaking from the Christian point of view, obviously this is correct. But it struck me that there’s another level that exists, mostly related to the word from which “charity” is derived.

“Charity” comes from the Greek word charis, which means “grace” (which in turn is mostly translated as “unmerited favor”)

To be charitable to someone is to extend grace to them.

As I’m constantly trying to remind people, grace is not something that simply gets us into heaven: It is the constant and consistent attitude that God adopts towards us. 

It goes way past forgiveness, and with the concept of “charity,” it brings us into the equation, where we are able to (well really we are called to) imitate God by extending charity—grace—to those around us.

+e

 

 

My 2017: The Practices

As much as I love to read and consume knowledge, art and experience, it’s probably this much shorter list that had the most impact on my life in 2017.

I believe the heart of the gospel—the “Good News” of Jesus Christ—is an invitation to grow, to heal, to transcend our brokenness and become, very literally, just like Jesus. 

Accordingly, I’m always looking for ways to push deeper into practices and habits that allow me to more tangibly and effectively experience God’s Spirit in my life.

So here are some of those habits and practices—some new and some continued for years now—that shaped my 2017:

Five-Minute Journal

I saw this described in a Tim Ferris YouTube video. It seemed like an effective way to cement a few very powerful habits into my daily life: journaling, being grateful, and trying to re-direct the negative talk and tapes that can derail my life.

There is an official “Five-Minute Journal” product that you can buy, but since I’m so picky about my tools, I just decided to modify the concept, and just use my normal journal (a Leuchtturm1917 Dotted notebook).

Here’s how it works, pretty much every morning:

  1. I write 3 things I’m grateful for (personally, I write these as complete sentences; it forces me to engage more).
  2. I write 3 things that would make today “awesome.”
  3. I write 2-3 affirmations about myself (one of mine is always, “I am LOVED.”)

In addition, I always write a quote from whatever my morning reading was, something that inspired me or challenged me.

There is also an evening/end of day component, but that’s been more difficult for me to develop and maintain:

  1. Three things that happen that made the day awesome/wonderful.
  2. Two or three ways that I could have done a little bit better.

The whole practice typically takes (a) no more than one page in my journal, and (b) no more than 5-7 minutes.

The Daily Office

I want to be a person of prayer. For me, I believe it’s actually the foundational spiritual practice that can change me.

And it’s a struggle. My mind wanders. A few years ago, I discovered centering prayer, which has radically transformed my understanding of prayer and of God. About six months ago, I felt the desire/leading to add a little more to this practice, and I thought about my annual trips to the Trappist monastery in Conyers, Georgia. Part of the monastic life there is to sing/chant the Psalms in their gatherings. I found it to be moving and intriguing, and also I felt a conviction that the 150 Psalms represent such a depth of human emotion and spiritual experience that I wanted to make them more “mine,” and take them more deeply into my own life.

I have had a Book of Common Prayer since about 2002, and over time I have been able to make more and more effective use of it (not being a part of a liturgical community, it was quite a mystery to me for a while).

So I began to follow the “Daily Office” which provides a formal structure for prayer (4 times a day), including a reading of the Psalms.

I added to this to my morning practice of silence and centering prayer, and I loved the way that I began to experience the Psalms on a more powerful level.

You can find an online Daily Office here (look under “Daily Devotions”).

Breathing/Smiling

I can’t remember where I heard it first, but the phrase, “salvation is a life” has always resonated with me. Like it or not, my life in God is lived in the here and now, with all of its mundanity and challenges.

The truth is, I don’t handle conflict or high-stress conversations all that well. But as I learned more about life this year (which, again, is also learning about salvation and “eternal life now”), I encountered some practices that have helped me be more compassionate, attentive and even loving in the moment.

We are physiological beings, and when we encounter high stress situations, certain things can happen that make it difficult for us to respond with the love and compassion that God calls us to.

Specifically, when my “fight or flight” reaction is activated (which, unfortunately, doesn’t take much for me), my brain becomes quickly deprived of the oxygen that is necessary for me to respond with maturity and love. What I am starting to learn is that deep breathing (at least 2-3 deep and slow inhales and exhales) can help keep my brain centered and calm.

In a similar, I am also learning that if I can keep a relaxed smile on my face, I am able to process information better, even in the heat of an intense meeting. Smiling actually releases stress, and helps me to open my mind and heart up to God’s Spirit again, so that I can allow Jesus to “live his life through me.” Most of the time it is a simple act of discipline to monitor the stress of my face, and to deliberately relax.

These two practices continue to have some of the most practical impacts on my day-to-day leadership that I have encountered.

Yoga

This is relatively new to me, but I have recently enjoyed the benefits of focusing my mind and stretching my body. Yoga emphasizes “practice and not perfection”, and thus really connects with my disciplines.

My 2017: The Music

Call it a function of getting older, or a function of just being in a new role that isn’t so musically focused, but either way I don’t listen to quite as much music as I used to. What’s more, there is simply so much music out there that it’s quite overwhelming to find and connect with quality work.

So this list is shorter, but either way, here it is (by the way, also because I’m older, I tend to still process music in “record” formats, so I always end up focusing on full-length records over singles).

Plastic Soul (Mondo Cozmo). I wrote about “Shine,” a track off of this record. If you like 1990s Brit Pop, with a slightly psychedelic/groove influence (think Primal Scream and The Verve), you’re gonna dig this record.

Who Built the Moon? (Noel Gallagher). I was driving back from Virginia when I remembered that Noel Gallagher had released a new record, and dialed it up. My first reaction was that Noel had finally put Oasis to bed. The first 6 tracks of this are just stellar, particularly if you like feel-good, jammy, R&B influenced British stuff (think The Jam and Stone Roses). This stuff makes me dance around my office or house. (And that’s saying something.)

Bjéar (Bjéar). I can’t even remember how I stumbled across this record, but I do know that it happened in winter, which is absolutely the perfect setting for these songs. I became an instant evangelist, and to my ears it sounds like a slightly more earthy version of Sigur Ros: great soundscapes, evocative, and a definite universe to dwell in. (P.S. he sings in English.)

Carry Fire (Robert Plant). Robert Plant just seems to be the embodiment of how to be a “Golden God” and yet age somewhat gracefully as an artist. I find these records full of subtlety and dynamics. I still want to hear Daniel Lanois produce a record for him.

A Deeper Understanding (War on Drugs). This band (really one guy, but who’s counting) renewed my faith in the future of electric guitar in indie rock. The record is full of great guitar tones, but from a decidedly different place from blues/rock. I hear echoes of Springsteen, Dire Straits, and other artists that were huge in the 80s, but filtered through a 21st century sensibility.

After All(,) This (Eric Case). Unbelievably, I released a record this year. I say unbelievably only because this was one of the busiest years of my vocational life, and yet around January I sensed a call to commit to bringing some creative work into the world. You can find the tracks on my BandCamp site  (pay what you’d like), but in 2018 I’ll be moving all my stuff—including Maida Vale tracks—to iTunes (and Spotify).

I suppose it’s notable for what and who is not on this list. I had high hopes for Arcade Fire and The National, but both of those records left me empty, dry, and pretty uninterested. It’s like they were too self-conscious.

LCD Soundsystem’s release was better, but I still have baggage from their “Hey-we’re-leaving-and-all-done-and-here’s-an-emotional-farewell-concert-documentary-but-wait-let’s-get-back-together-instead” move.

U2. All I can say is that I expected the record to be awful, but it wasn’t.

Check out a short Spotify list of songs from these records here.