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.

What Works for Me, Part Three

After open-mindedness and self-honesty, the third spiritual principle that I lean on is WILLINGNESS. Taken together these three principles form a powerful paradigm for me to use to approach my life, and to provide some great boundaries as well.

WILLINGNESS

Willingness, for me, is simply a matter of desire.

How badly do I WANT to change?

(By the way, this is where the inter-relatedness of these principles really becomes evident.)

For most of us, change only comes as a result of pain—either pain that we experience ourselves or pain that we inflict on others. When we experience that pain or witness the results of that pain in others, we OFTEN (but, unfortunately, not ALWAYS) become willing to do anything in order to change.

We have a wake up call.

Being willing means saying, “I will do ANYTHING in order to stop the pain.” When I have been able to say that, it has been like opening the gate for the other two principles:

When I’m willing to stop the pain, I’ll look at myself with as honest an evaluation as I can. I want to see clearly who I am, in order to see how I need to change.

When I’m willing to do anything to stop the pain, I’ll open my mind up to say, “What I have been doing is obviously not working; what else is there to try?” (Remembering that the definition of insanity is simply doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.)

But to be honest, even when I suspect that I’m causing undue pain in myself and others, I’m really not THAT willing.

Being willing to do ANYTHING means that I’m willing to SACRIFICE, to LAY DOWN, potentially a LOT of things.

And that’s a big price to pay for a lot of us.

Am I willing to sacrifice my pride? My job? My prestige? My POWER?

How about my CONTROL?

Luckily, the principle of willingness has one additional layer to it:

When I am not WILLING, I can be WILLING to be WILLING.

It’s the desire before the desire. The hope before the hope.

And somehow, I think the universe—God—can work with that.

So practicing willingness means laying it all on the line. It means trying my best (because NO ONE is perfect), and not holding back.

It ALSO means that I am willing to listen to others (i.e., to be utterly OPEN-MINDED) EVEN WHEN I THINK I’M RIGHT OR I HAVE NOTHING LEFT TO LEARN.

Practicing also means that I take an unvarnished, even-handed look at my character and my behavior in order to know myself as objectively as possible (being SELF-HONEST).

(It also means being open (minded) to the possibility that I HAVE NOT been objectively honest enough about my character, and I need to look harder or deeper.)

See how this all works together yet?


I like simple things, mostly because I have an intense tendency to over-complicate EVERYTHING, particularly when it comes to spirituality and life.

So coming back to the idea that there are just these THREE THINGS that I can start with is such a gift to me. When I feel like I’m getting sideways and out of sorts, I can start here:

Am I open-minded?
Am I being honest with myself?
Am I willing?

(Or, even more likely…)

Am I WILLING to be open-minded?
Am I WILLING to be honest?
Am I WILLING to be willing?

Somehow, and I cannot explain it, God and grace works with “willing to be willing…” In fact, I don’t think God “meets us halfway when we are willing to be willing; I actually think He comes ALL THE WAY TO US as soon as we are willing to be…

And life can begin to change; I can begin to heal. I can begin to SOMEHOW become the human being that I am meant to be IN the world and FOR the world.

What Works for Me, Part Two

This is the second part of a little blog series I’m writing called “What Works for Me,” in which I’m sharing the ins and outs of my spirituality. I hope you find it useful.

Last time I talked about “Open-Mindedness,” one of the spiritual principles that I try to live by. The second principle (but again: these are not linear, but are inter-woven and inter-dependent) is self-honesty.

SELF-HONESTY

Being honest with myself means that, before I complain about other people and their behavior, I take a look at ME.

And I mean a REAL look.

It’s so easy for me to let, well, ME off the hook. I make excuses for the same behavior in my own life that I normally scream about in others’ lives.

(In fact, the longer I live in this life, the more convinced I am that when something REALLY infuriates me, it’s usually an indication that, somewhere, somehow, I am guilty of doing the EXACT SAME THING.)

Self-honesty means owning my own thoughts and behaviors on a very deep and sincere level WITHOUT SHAMING myself (because, to the degree that PRIDE is about distinguishing myself from everyone else—”I am the best” OR “I am the worst”—SHAME is just another expression of pride).

Self-honesty means that I am always willing to ask myself, “okay but what did I do?” BEFORE I dwell on what someone else did to me.

Because, the truth is (if I’m being honest), my motives are practically ALWAYS mixed.

(NOTE: that question above does not address issues of abuse or victimization. There are many times in my childhood where I have not done ANYTHING to “deserve” the treatment that I received. But as an adult, I have had to be at least willing to entertain the thought that I have a part in a lot of the difficulties in my life.)

Already you can probably see the relationship between being open-minded and being honest with yourself. CLOSE-mindedness can very easily conclude, “It’s THEIR fault,” while being open-minded introduces the idea that maybe, JUST maybe I had some role in whatever is going on in my life.”

(Which, by the way, means that I have AGENCY—response ABILITY—to do something about it.)

Practicing self-honesty, to me, means that I normally reflect on my behavior in a day, and ask myself about my thought life and behavior. Was I selfish? Was I fearful? Did I over-react to a situation? Was I ambitious and prideful?

There’s nothing damning or too damaging in these answers. They are meant to remind me that NO ONE (including/especially me) is perfect.

Additionally, practicing self-honesty ALSO means that, because I am prone to making mistakes, I am likely to hurt other people. AND if I have hurt other people, that means I can also be open (and willing) to going to them and apologizing, and trying my best to make the situation right in some way.

But that’s getting into WILLINGNESS (which is next).

What Works For Me, Pt. 1

To me, there is no “spiritual life.”

There is only MY life, and it’s up to ME as to how “spiritual” it is or is not.

This means that washing dishes can be as God-infused as a worship gathering.

(Though what is missing in dishwashing is often the gathered people of God.)

Someone wrote once that we live in a “God-bathed world.” I like that. I believe that there is no place or no time that God cannot inhabit, and so I seek to make my life as thoroughly spiritual as I can.

(Pssssst: before you think that somehow I’m a “super-Christian”, please know that I seldom get this all “right.” In fact, it’s not about “getting it right” or being perfect—sorry over-achievers—it’s about PRACTICING a spirituality that actually can work to change you.)

So, for the next few weeks, here’s how I do it. It’s about spiritual principles, a simple program, and some basic actions.

I wonder about the significance of the fact that I did not learn these in seminary, or from a famous pastor or Christian celebrity, but rather hanging out with people whose lives—like mine—were tremendously broken, dominated by obsessions, compulsions, and behavior over which they seemingly had no power. Somehow in our desperation, we reached out for ANYTHING that had the power to save us, and somehow we found something that works.

I was thinking this morning about the beginning of Jesus’ “beatitudes” in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 5, when he proclaims that “blessed are the poor in spirit”—or, as I’ve also heard it said, “blessed are the spiritual losers.”

It seems to me that if you think you have it all together in any sense of the word, maybe you just can’t get desperate enough to try something that seems so simple.

It’s only when our illusions are completely and utterly shattered that we get the clarity and humility to say, “Maybe I should try something different.” For better or for worse, it seems that it takes some kind of significant failure of whatever systems of maintenance and happiness we use to get us to be open to a new way of living in the world.

(And for some of us, even that’s not enough; we seem too stubborn and dug in—to our theology, to our emotions, to our tribalism—to be open to the idea that life might, JUST MIGHT, have more for us than what we are experiencing. In the meantime, we go on hurting ourselves and the ones we care about the most, cultivating more pain and more isolation in our lives.)

But… IF you find yourself at the end of SOME KIND of rope, and want something MORE, here’s what worked for me.

Let’s start with PRINCIPLES. I base my life, as do millions of others, on three spiritual principles: open-mindedness, self-honesty, and willingness.

They are very simple principles, but I hope a couple of things will stand out. First, I have found them to be extremely powerful, almost limitless in their potential. I can “go back to the well” again and again, and find something new. Also, to me they are inter-related, and in fact it actually undermines their impact if I sever them from one another.

OPEN-MINDEDNESS

For me, open-mindedness is closely related to concepts like humility and wonder. To be open-minded is to be willing to say, “I don’t know,” and (furthermore), “It’s OKAY that I don’t know.”

Open-mindedness means that I am willing to let SOMEONE or SOMETHING else—whether it’s God or a trusted friend, or simply a FACT that I haven’t considered before—impact my life and shape my behavior and my thinking.

To be open-minded is for me to ALWAYS consider the possibility that I am being blinded by my ego, or my background and brokenness. These things tend to warp my view of reality, and to convince me that I am more important than I actually am.

(HUMILITY, by the way, does not mean treating myself bad, or with shame. Humility means that I am willing to be “one of the herd,” neither more or less important than anyone else.)

Open-mindedness is also about being willing to believe that there is more to life than what we can see; that there are realities (and even beings) that may be “more real than real” and “more true than true.”

Practicing open-mindedness means that I have counselors (professional as well as informal) that have access to my life and can speak into it. (NOTE: It ALSO means that I LISTEN to said counselors, and am willing to change.)

Practicing open-mindedness means also that I am placing myself before facts and spiritual truths, and being willing to admit when I need to adjust my perspective.

Practicing open-mindedness means that I adopt an internal perspective that says, maybe, just maybe I don’t know exactly what’s going on, or even exactly who I am. Maybe, just maybe I can LISTEN at least as much as I speak (preferably more).

Maybe I can be open to input from others.

There’s a power and a freedom in open-mindedness. It means I do NOT have to have all the answers and, because it’s actually IMPOSSIBLE for me to have all the answers in the first place, I can be free to be imperfect, and to be human just like everyone else is.

Next Up: Self-honesty.

Love Hurts (AND…)

Whether you like Nazareth’s Scottish hard-rock/chest hair/great mustaches version, or the kinder, gentler Emmylou/Graham Parson’s version, “Love Hurts” is a truly amazing song. 

But it only tells half the story. 

Love hurts, love scars
Love wounds and marks any heart
Not tough, or strong enough
To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain
Love is like a cloud, it holds a lot of rain
Love hurts

I’m young, I know
But even so
I know a thing or two
I’ve learned from you
I really learned a lot, really learned a lot
Love is like a flame, it burns you when it’s hot
Love hurts

Some fools think
Of happiness, blissfulness, togetherness
Some fools fool themselves I guess
They’re not fooling me
I know it isn’t true, I know it isn’t true
Love is just a lie, made to make you blue
Love hurts

“Love Hurts,” Boudleaux Bryant

Just like Neil Young says, “only love can break your heart,” yes: love hurts. It does, in fact, wound and scar. 

And it does take a lot of pain. 

But here’s the thing that the lyric leaves off (and even I hate to admit it): 

In this life, pain is the main mechanism for our growth. 

So, as painful as love can be, and as bad as it can hurt, it’s also the way in which our lives can get a little bit larger, and more whole, and even more resilient. 

And over time, if you “do pain right”, or “suffer productively”, we can see our lives get a little more capacity for joy, and wonder, and—get this—even more love. 

I think most all of us love something, or somebody, which means we’ve probably all been hurt. When I hurt because of love, my reaction is often to silently declare, “Well, I’ll never do that again,” meaning risk myself, extend myself, reveal my soul. 

(By the way: I’m talking here about “love” in the grander, more expansive sense, not merely romantic love. I’m also talking about the deep, rich love and affection that can grow up between people in community, sharing lives together. THIS love can be just as powerful as any romantic love.)

But that—the pulling BACK from love (and pain) is to move towards isolation, and (ironically) the potential for MORE fear. 

Which can start a pretty unpleasant cycle. 

So yeah, love hurts. But that’s not the whole story. I’m learning that to risk, and to love, and to hurt, and to grow is better than to not have loved at all. 

Love also heals us, and grows us, and helps to make us slightly better human beings.