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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

 

 

My 2017: The Books

So here the books that intrigued and impacted me this year. Though I completed my standard 50-ish books, I found myself actually doing a lot of re-reading, reengaging with ideas and processing them from a new, hopefully deeper, perspective.

Full Disclosure: The titles are linked to Amazon, if you click through from this page, supposedly I get a small percentage of the sales. You can see the entire list here

 

Books

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Jonathan Haidt). This is probably one of the most important books I’ve read in a long, long time. An examination of how we develop our morality, which in turn is an examination of why we are currently so divided in this country. For anyone who is interested in trying to bring some healing back to our culture, you should read this.

Enneagram: A Christian Perspective (Richard Rohr and Andreas Ebert). I re-read this at my annual Monastery retreat, and finally had it “click” a little. I’d encourage anyone who is interested in growth and self-discovery to read it. I wrote about this book—and the enneagram in general—a couple times this year. One of the things I really enjoy about this book is that it looks at the enneagram types through the filter of particular brokenness, and therefore is a challenge to grow and heal, not merely to “live your strengths”.

Silence (Shusaku Endo). This was released as a movie this year, directed by Scorcese and starring Adam Driver and Andrew Garfield. It’s tough book to read, emotionally, similar to The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Endo brings you into a universe (in this case 17th century Japan) and does not let you leave. The book brings up profound questions regarding faith, suffering, and the presence of God.

Leaders Made Here: Building a Leadership Culture and Chess, Not Checkers: Elevate Your Leadership Game (both by Mark Miller). I really enjoyed these rather focused books on leadership. They are concise, pragmatic, and story-driven. Good resource for teams.

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Cal Newport). This was a re-read. If you’re not familiar with Cal Newport, you can watch his TedTalk for an introduction. It’s a great reminder of what we do not need in order to be productive (specifically, distractions in the form of the internet, email, and social media).

Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences (Nancy Duarte), Made to Stick: What Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Chip and Dan Heath), and Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard (Chip and Dan Heath). I put all three of these together, because if you speak or teach for a living, and/or if you are in the business of promoting life change, these should be canon for you. All three give critical, practical advice on how to communicate so that people actually hear your ideas (in my case, the Gospel) and actually have the opportunity to change because of it. I use these like reference books, returning to them constantly to evaluate how I’m doing with preparing sermons or ministry ideas.

The Way of the SEAL: Think Like an Elite Warrior to Lead and Succeed (Mark Divine). Believe it or not, the elite armed forces are some of the best resources for performance, habit cultivation and life change, mostly because of the high stakes, high stress environment within which they exist. This book is almost like a Seven Habits for Highly Effective People filtered through a Navy SEAL mentality. Its focus on meditation, remaining calm during high-stress situations, and effective real-world planning really spoke to me.

Illumined Heart: Capture the Vibrant Faith of the Ancient Christians (Mathews-Green). Another re-read. Shana and I have given this tiny little book away to more people than any other book that either of us have read. On one hand, it is a great introduction to Eastern Orthodoxy; on the other hand, it is a poignant introduction to significant spiritual growth and life change. If you’re stuck spiritually, I encourage you to give it a read.

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (Dreyfus and Kelly). I read this book over my summer vacation, and it had an unexpected impact on me. Dreyfus and Kelly go through some classics of western literature and ask how to find deep meaning in the world. What is significant is that they are approaching the subject from an a-theistic, though not hostile, viewpoint. When I consider their findings, and add my faith to them, I find the results pretty enriching.

The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (Dallas Willard). Another re-read; I return to this book as the wellspring of my spirituality. Absolutely critical to understanding faith and spirituality as a vehicle for growth and change, rather than as an exclusive club.

The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (Ryan Holiday). This book is an introduction to stoic philosophy (and if you think that you understand stoicism, you probably don’t), and it’s structured in almost a devotional format that you could read in a few minutes at the beginning of your day. If you struggle with stress and are in leadership, this may be a great resource for you.

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a  Changing World  (Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams). I impulsively borrowed this from my spiritual guide, and was instantly challenged. I struggle with joy, and also with deep peace, compassion and contentment, and reading the real world dialogue between these two spiritual masters is amazingly provocative.

 

 

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.