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. 

Writing and Spirituality

“If you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot. And don’t think so much. Just enter the heat of words and sounds and colored sensations and keep your pen moving across the page.”

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones

Given that the way you do anything is the way you do everything, that quote struck me this morning. Just substitute the word “writer” with anything else that you’d like to be, and tweak a few of the other words, and the advice holds true.

Including “Christian”. 

One of the challenges that Jesus repeatedly threw out to his listeners was to keep their eyes and ears open (“If you have eyes to see and ears to hear…”). Just like the quote above, Jesus seems to be saying that spiritual growth is a matter of deeply seeing and hearing, and then DOING things. 

“If you want to become a Christ-follower/spiritually mature person, you need to do three things. Read a lot/observe other spiritually mature people. Listen to the world around you and be present to it, and DO spiritually mature things—service, acts of love and compassion, etc. 

And don’t think so much. 

Just enter the heat of the world and sounds and colored sensations, and keep walking/following/doing the best you can.”

Grace

Lately, I’ve been saying repeatedly, “Grace isn’t about getting us into heaven; it’s everything.” 

I think most of us “Jesus people” are guilty at one point or another of reducing grace into some kind of holy club (that most people wouldn’t want to visit). We reduce it and turn it into “who is going to heaven” (again, a group that most people wouldn’t want to go with).

In doing that, we turn it into something exclusive. Something that is about figuring out who is in and who is out.

Do they have the secret handshake?

Have they passed the Jesus quiz? (psssst for Jesus, the answer is always “all of the above”).

Do they have the right credentials?

But grace is simply (and infinitely more explosively) “define favor”. It is everything: our gifts, our talents, our resources, our friends, our family.

“Grace” says that everything we have is a gift.

It’s not about a club. It’s about a gift, a resource for dealing with life.

One of my favorite quotes on grace (and faith and Christianity) comes from theologian Bob Tuttle. He says,

I’m into Jesus Christ for one reason and one reason alone: faith and trust in Jesus is the only way I know how to access the power of the Holy Spirit that enables me to overcome the things that would attempt to swallow me whole.

In this sense, “grace” is synonymous with the Holy Spirit.

This is a “real-world” spirituality. It’s not about a club (unless it’s a club of the broken-hearted); it’s about growth and transformation.

Sign me up for that.

 

+e

 

The “Other” Words

In my church, we talk a lot about words of life. They are meant to be words that encourage people and call them into a deeper, more joyful way of living. However, there’s another paradigm that sometimes enters into the words we listen to. There are other words out there that are much more difficult to hear, sometimes so much so that they don’t feel much like “words of life” at all. In fact, they feel a bit like.

Death.

At least, they hurt pretty bad.

Once I was with my family and I was wondering about how I hadn’t been more successful in my somewhat anti-climactic musical career, and my beloved sister just looked at me and said, “Well it’s probably because you were just too lazy and too unhealthy to be successful.”

Ouch.

But the thing is, even with words that direct, and that challenging (and trust me: I don’t really like to hear words like that), I wasn’t crushed. I didn’t yell, or lash back.

In fact, I realized that I was sitting in front of deep truth, and I had to choose whether to hear and embrace it, or turn away.

To that end, I chose to hear it, and some remarkable things happened:

  • That truth actually released me from some regret and some preoccupation with my past failures as an artist. I realized that I really was responsible—in a way—for my lack of success.
  • It led me to continue to confront those two themes—laziness and “un-health”—in my life, which has led to some cool healing.

Now, I take it as a given for Christians that we understand that sometimes death needs to happen before new life can take place.

Good Friday happens before Easter.

To that end, sometimes words of life don’t feel like words of life at all. They can feel like words of death: hard and challenging even sad. But when they are spoken by people we trust, and spoken in a manner that is designed for us to grow, these hard words can kill something inside of us that needs to die in order for growth, new life, and healing to take place.

However, I also know that words can be uttered with the intent to destroy, not resurrect; to reduce, not instruct; to hurt and not love. So before you decide to “hear” hard words, I’d offer a few suggestions:

  • Consider the source: do you trust them? Do you trust that they love you? Are they people of the light?
  • Consider the environment: were they angry when they said it (my sister was not)? Were you in a fight?
  • Consider the implications: what would happen if you took their words into your heart? In my case, I sensed that Beth’s words would set me free, and so I could allow them in.

I’ve heard other harsh words in my life, but what about you? Have you heard hard truths that ultimately invited you to grow in profound ways?

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The Key to Everything: Humility

journalsYesterday, I took part in a panel discussion at church about “resetting” for the New Year. We talked about some of the rituals and systems we use to try and get ourselves for the New Year.

It was fun to talk about my journals and such, and some of my approach to this season of the year, but I was left wondering if anyone “got it”.

At one point I said from the stage, “If you don’t expect anything more out of 2014 than what you did in 2014, I’d challenge you to examine what you expect out of your faith.” 

Do people really believe in transformation?

Do you?

Do you believe you can change?

Do you believe you’re called to?

I think it actually boils down to some very basic beliefs, so let me ask you:

  • In John 4, Jesus says that he offers water that will become a spring of water that bubbles up (inside us) into eternal life…
  • In 1 Corinthians 2, Paul says that we have the mind of Christ…

Were they liars? 

Were they only talking to “super-Christians”? 

As one of my spiritual mentors says, “Either it is, or it isn’t.” 

So, if Jesus and Paul knew something about life; if they really meant what they said, then we are left to wrestle with their statements.

The burden is on us.

Question 1: Do you want to have the mind of Christ? to have a constant stream of living water inside you? 

Question 2: What are you prepared to surrender in order to gain it? 

This is the point where many of us get snagged, if for no reason than this: we have our lives, our systems of existence, and we don’t like to think that they maybe aren’t working. 

So where do we start?

We start with humility. We start with the admission that we actually don’t know what’s best for us. We declare as best we can, “I believe that there’s something more for me, but my life isn’t set up to obtain it. God help me.”

He wants to.

Someone asked a desert hermit once, “What is the way to make progress?” The hermit answered, “Humility. The more we bend ourselves to humility, the more we are lifted up to make progress.”

Humility declares, “I don’t know the way.”

Humility opens the door to learning. To growth. 

Humility says, “There must be more, and I am open to it.”

Humility says, “I cannot save myself.”

(By the way, humility is not merely self-deprecating or a way for us to belittle ourselves; it is a way to open ourselves up to growth and change. Feeling sorry for ourselves can actually merely be another way to be arrogant and self-centered. True humility is accompanied by a desire and willingness to change, to move, to reconsider.)

So, as 2013 begins, where are you with humility? Have you figured it all out, or are you still willing to acknowledge that you need to make more “progress”?

If you’re still learning, still growing, still changing, what are you doing to continue to learn and grow this year?

Failure is Always an Option

Diptic

If you are a parent, you know you just can’t be perfect all the time. In fact, I have long stretches when the failures—the spectacular, extraordinary failures—far outnumber the successes.

Days when there’s no patience in me.

When I raise my voice.

When I can’t control my non-verbal communication.

Fail, fail, FAIL.

Declaring, “Failure is not an option,” may make for a great (read: mediocre) slogan, but I just can’t agree. Failure—at least short-term failure—is a constant option for me, and here’s the deal:

This is a good thing.

Failure is always an option because, when I can admit that I have failed, I can begin to accept responsibility for all the things that I’m not, and that is the beginning of growth, reconciliation, and relationship. I know people who have never failed, which really means that they’ve never admitted failure. Their lives—along with the lives of those cosest to them—may be a hot mess, but responsibility and fault is always “out there” with “them”, never ever within themselves.

And so they stay stuck. 

You can’t grow until you have something you need to grow past. 

You can’t succeed until you see that you’re failing.

You can’t heal until you can see that you are the one who is broken…

Refuse to “fail”, and eventually you’ll get what you wish for.

But you’ll also get

… A refusal to grow

… A refusal to heal

… A refusal to be reconciled

… And that’s no deal at all.

I’ll choose the possibility of failure every time.