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

 

 

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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.

 

 

What Passes for Worship

Some musicians in my community were passing around this interview with John Mark McMillan. It’s an examination of his new record, and the questions he’s been asking about faith, spirituality and honesty (my paraphrase).

The article raised and stimulated a familiar discussion with my friends about “worship”. If I could paraphrase, it would be something like this: Where does honesty and complexity—particularly regarding doubt and struggle—fit in the paradigm of worship? (Particularly now that there is a whole industry and business model around “worship”.)?

Occasionally I have debates with people who similarly decry the sometimes over-simplistic approach to song lyrics in the songs we sing on Sunday. It’s not necessarily greater artistry they are looking for; instead they are frustrated with the lack of intellectual complexity and acknowledgement of doubt.

Where do these things fit in with our typical approach to Sunday ?

Sometimes, in some of my more grumpy, pragmatic moments I want to respond, “They don’t.”

But hear me for just a moment.

To “worship”—rather literally—is to attribute worth. It’s to tell someone (in my case, God) how great they are, how much you appreciate them, how much you love them.

It’s not the place for angst, doubt or intellectual parsing.

(If you’re married, try any of that with your spouse when a tender moment comes up; my hunch is that it won’t go all that well.)

My point is that we are throwing the word “worship” around a little carelessly, and then trying to shoehorn artists and songs into a bucket that doesn’t really need to hold them.

Maybe songs about doubt and deep theology are not only not worship, but they don’t have to be “worship.”

There is always room for doubt and uncertainty in my faith paradigm. Heck, I thrive on it. It drives me to search and know God more deeply. To me, that’s not worship. At least not directly. That’s me growing and learning.

But there’s also a discipline in my life when I shut off the search, and I express my gratitude, which often then grows into appreciation, love and praise for God’s goodness, faithfulness and grace.

That’s “worship”. 

Maybe we just need a new label for these other kinds of songs? 

Are some of JMM’s more complex, searching, self-honest songs worship? Probably not.

But are they acceptable in faith and church? Are they necessary? Even critical? 

Absolutely.

Just don’t get hung up on trying to put them in a labeled bucket.

 

 

rebellion. 

It’s too easy to proclaim Advent and hunger and desire.

The truth of the matter is that when Jesus shows up in my life he tends to challenge agendas and programs.

Most of all mine.

And the truth of the matter (if I’m honest—can I be honest?) is that sometimes this frustrates me.

The call to lay down my rights, take up my cross and follow Jesus means that in so many ways, I will lose (or at least appear to lose).

Some of my programs and agendas are deeply wrought, and they are like comfortable grooves that I ride in, like a vinyl record.

And then just like that Jesus scratches the record and the grooves don’t work any more.

Defiance.

The trees stand like guards of the Everlasting; the flowers like signposts of His goodness—only we have failed to be testimonies to his presence, tokens of His trust. How could we have lived in the shadow of greatness and defied it? (Rabbi  Abraham Joshua Heschel)

As usual, provocative words from the Rabbi.

This morning, I did not pray.

And there probably was just a little bit of defiance.

But the beauty of the spiritual life is that is training, practice in preparation for eternity.

So I can start anytime. I can set aside my defiance and anger, and I can sit an absorb and recognize and give thanks and embrace wonder and surrender and become silent.

When I do that, I can do what all of creation is doing: pointing away from itself to God.

My name is Eric: I’m trying to be a tree.

 

Thy Kingdom, My Kingdom

When people say, “Thy kingdom come” out of one side of their mouth, they need to also say, “My kingdom go!” out of the other side. (Richard Rohr)

How good is this? 

I always think about the gospels, when Jesus shows up in Jerusalem, and ends up judging and disrupting the Temple.

The Temple represents religion that had turned into idolatry, that had been manipulated into a nationalistic talisman, rather than a beacon of hope for the lost and the outside.

So Jesus shows up and shatters the misconceptions.

I’m forever building my own Temples and talismans and symbols that represent my kingdoms, my agendas, my programs for happiness.

What needs to go in my life?

The kingdom of God supersedes and far surpasses all kingdoms of self and society or personal reward. (Rohr again)