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, 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 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?


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.

When It Hits the Fan…

Yesterday my day went off the rails, right around 2PM.

We all know how these things go: a text arrives, and as you read it you feel the adrenaline kick in, and all of a sudden your heart rate is accelerated, and your breathing is erratic and shallow.

No one can really predict when this is going to happen, and no one is really immune from them.

Things happen.

Now, this was not a life-or-death situation. It was something that I have to navigate, but regardless, it triggered me badly.

What’s more, I also was planning to go to the hospital to visit a person from our community who’d asked me to come and pray with them. Hospital visits are neither my strength, nor my forté, and that visit alone would normally be a stressor for me; now with this trigger, I could tell my stress and anxiety was red-lined.

The proverbial crap had hit the fan.

So what did I do?

First, I named it. I was honest—first with myself, and then with a few other people. I created a bit of a boundary: “I can’t really talk about this other thing, because I’m really triggered right now and I need some space.”

Next, I took just a minute or two to breathe and pray. For me (like for most of us), fear and anxiety have a physical manifestation, and I know that one of the ways that I can create space to receive the peace that is available to me is to calm myself down. I learned a technique called “Box Breathing” that is very effective for these times: I breathe in deeply for four beats, hold the breath for four beats, exhale slowly for four beats, and then wait for four beats, and then do it again. Even doing this for 3-4 repetitions can significantly reduce the physical reaction to anxiety. After that I spent a few minutes in centering prayer, where I try to open myself up to the will of God. I don’t ask God for anything; I just try to put myself in a place where I am open to His will, and am silent and available to Him and whatever He has for me.

Then I called some wise people. There are a very small number of people in my life whom I trust implicitly for counsel and advice. So I picked up the phone and shared what was going on. They let me talk and vent, and then also gave wisdom, advice, and encouragement. In these times, I try to go beyond just venting MY emotions and also LISTEN to whatever it is they might be trying to tell me.

So I was more calm at this point, but I still had to drive to the hospital, and I knew that was still going to be a challenge for me. Plus, I wanted to be in as good of a head space as I could be when I got there: after all, THESE folks were experiencing a crisis and trauma as well, and I humbly wanted to help them as best I could.

I was still pretty sideways when I got out of my truck at the hospital, but as I walked up to the entrance, I said a short, simple prayer. I said, “Father, this morning I told you that YOU were in charge, and I would do what you told me to do. Well, I’m trusting that this situation is what you have for me right now, and so I’m here, and I’m going to trust that YOU are here too. I believe that you will give me whatever I need in order to offer something to this family.”

And THAT gave me the strength and courage to walk through the hospital door, take the elevator to the 6th floor, and to walk into a room full of people who were both scared and relieved, anxious and hopeful.

You see, every morning I try, as best I can, to put myself into God’s hands, to commit to doing HIS will. To letting Him be in charge.

After a time of centering prayer, and praying some of the Psalms, I use these words. The original version appears in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I slightly modified them for my life.

“Father, I offer myself, today, to you, to build with and do with as you see fit. Relieve from the bondage of self, that I may better serve you and serve others. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to your love, your power, and your way of life. I am ready now, Father, that you would have all of me, both good and bad. Remove any defect of character that would stand in the way of serving you or serving others. GRANT ME STRENGTH AND COURAGE to do your will. Amen.”

The truth is, I didn’t really get myself through that afternoon. Sure, I took some basic steps, but those actions merely created the space for God—at times through other people—to remind me of who I am (both good and bad). THEN, when it mattered most, I was able to remind myself that MY JOB is to do whatever it is that God has for me in a given moment.

(Which involves ACCEPTANCE that, in a given moment, whatever is happening JUST MIGHT be God’s will for me.)

Do the work He has for me, as best I can, and trust that He’s there, doing whatever it is that ONLY HE CAN DO.

As we say, “That’s the gig. THAT’S the job.”

Especially when the stuff hits the fan.


I’ve been doing an awful lot of deep work lately. 

After receiving the gift of a very painful wakeup call that I could neither cover up, deny, or ignore, I chose to start facing the truth of who I REALLY am, both in all of the positive ways as well as the negative ways. 

During this whole process I have been taking a hard look at the truths that have governed my life—again, both for good and ill—up until now. These are the truths that have driven me forward, often unawares. They truths have spurred me towards greatness, and also into very dark places. 

My counselor recently had me do a writing exercise that addressed a deep wound that I have carried virtually my whole life. As I wrote, two of these deep truths spilled out of me. Without going into too much depth, I share them here:



The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says that during recovery, “Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces (of our lives) are suddenly cast aside,” and new ones set in, and begin to guide behavior. 

These two ideas and attitudes—amongst others—have guided my life for virtually 45 of my 50+ years. And I can see their pathology, the damage they inflict on my soul (and thus, the damage that they indirectly inflict on the people I love and care about). Even as I can ALSO recognize the strange gift that they have brought to me—hours and hours of pursuing and honing my craft and clarifying my vocation—I also wonder, “What ideas and attitudes COULD or SHOULD replace them?” 

Just taking the opposite, maybe they could read like this: 



It will take a while to fully live out these truths. But for now, maybe the place to start is to just be able recognize them, and remain AWARE of them as I move through life. 

All of us have these guiding ideas, emotions, and attitudes, and to the degree that we wish to experience healing in this life, there is a beautiful and spacious invitation to discover for ourselves what they are, and then seek to embrace their opposites. 

That Time When Jesus Wrecked My Ministry (Well, sorta)

English: Wrecking ball in use during demolition of the Rockwell Gardens housing project in Chicago, Illinois, February 2006.

English: Wrecking ball in use during demolition of the Rockwell Gardens housing project in Chicago, Illinois, February 2006.

I’ve written before about where my ministry shoulders are “broad”, meaning the areas that I feel competent and trained and able to execute fairly easily. When I began to teach and preach regularly a few years back, that started developing into an area of confidence and competence as well. I never thought of myself as a preacher, but I knew that words mattered to me, and somehow (for better or for worse) I was able to string together series of them into phrases and thoughts that seemed to matter to people. It seemed like I could do some good; people came up and affirmed me, and told me how much these thoughts and phrases had challenged them, or helped them to see God in a new way, or comforted them.

A part of me loved every minute of it.

My ego soaked it up, and began to believe all of those words that I heard. Each time I walked up onto our little platform, I desired to be poignant and clever; I wanted to shake people up, to invite them to see God and His world in an awe-filled and worshipful way. I continued to do some kind of good, and accepted people’s compliments with the requisite, “aw shucks” attitude that pastors are supposed to have.

But in retrospect I think that I was rotting inside.

When I began my sabbatical back in January, Jesus started dealing with me in some very serious, foundational ways, and one of the truths that I’ve had to deal with is how full of myself I can be.

My pride can be horrific.

For the past 10 months or so, I’ve been journeying inside myself to find all these nooks and crannies where destruction lives, and attempting to bring them out into the light where God can deal with them in a loving but firm way.

As a result, I’ve begun to feel somewhat like a normal human being.

But what’s been interesting—and even a little scary—is how it has impacted my ministry.

Because I have less confidence than ever.

Because I stumble over words more (maybe our congregation doesn’t notice, but believe me, I do.).

Because I feel empty. (Not in the spiritual way; in the “Watch-me-I-can-get-this-done-just-fine” way.)

Because I feel mostly like I don’t have any idea what I’m doing.

All because Jesus showed up. All because he showed up to show me how ill I truly was, how my ego was destroying me, how my inflated and false sense of self was keeping me from knowing healing and some semblance of love.

He showed up—not because he wanted to tear me down as a pastor—but because he wanted to build me up as a human being. He comes to do that, you know: to turn us into full human beings, like we’ve always been intended to be.

He’s still working on me; I’m still speaking and playing music, and I’m growing used to the idea of not being in control of everything.

He’s better at it than I am.

With Teeth

I am a musician.

I am a Christian.

(Even a sort-of “evangelical one.”)

I play “contemporary worship” music.



All that said, I will only quote Bono this one time: “Great music is written by people who are either running toward or away from God.”



This may or may not be widely known, but I’m a Nine Inch Nails fan; I’ve even used them in a sermon.

(If you don’t know who they are, please go read something about them or Trent Reznor before you go mindlessly buy a record; it’s really jarring, even unsettling music.)

Ultimately, I don’t know if Trent Reznor is running to God or running away from Him, or running at all, but here’s what I know…

… Reznor is honest; brutally so.

I suppose the reason I gravitate to Trent Reznor is this honesty. He is simply unafraid to say things that make us cringe and squirm.

In 2005 they released the record With Teeth. Aside from the concert film And All That Could Have Been, this was my first in depth exposure to what they did. I’d read plenty about the infamous Downward Spiral sessions, and had frankly shied away, but something grabbed me about the first single, “The Hand That Feeds.”

The record was recorded just after Reznor decided to get sober, and the record reflects a lot of his experience. Similarly, I listened to this record constantly from 2005-2007, when I was going through some particularly difficult times in my life.

The title track in particular grabbed me. What I hear is a description, not just of heroin, but of anything that can take over your life and go from being an indulgence to a habit to an addiction.

I heard Reznor preaching a stronger word than I’d heard from a preacher about the dangers of addiction—to alcohol, porn, drugs, people. He laid it out square, and the music just brought it home.

Listening to it recently, I was struck again with the power of addiction. I’ve been battling my own demons recently, and now I hear the song from a new place; as I’ve been able to get some perspective on life, I can actually recognize the power of addiction even more clearly in the lyric.

It’s death.

It wants to kill you; if not physically, at least spiritually.

I can’t write like Trent Reznor, but I can just speak plainly for a moment.

If you are struggling with something, and can’t stop, you need to take it seriously. 

Get help.

The entire nature of this thing is that you can’t get on top of it. You need to get help.

And get this as well: it (whatever “it” is for you) wants to destroy you. 

It DOES have teeth, and it wants to gnaw your life down to the bone. 

It wants to burn it all down. 


You have to stop.

Ask for help and start the work.

This isn’t nearly as subtle as the studio track, but it gets the point across:

“With Teeth”

She comes along
She gets inside
She makes you better than anything you’ve tried
It’s in her kiss
The blackest sea
And it runs deeper than you
Dare to dream it could be

With teeth …

Wave goodbye
To what you were
The rules have changed
The lines begin to blur
She makes you hard
It comes on strong
You finally found
The place where you belong

With teeth …

I cannot go through this again …

With teeth …

She will not let you go
Keeps holding on
She will not let you go
Keeps holding on
This time, I’m not coming back
She will not let you go
This time, I’m not coming back
She will not let you go


Lent Reflection #6 :: Jesus Uncomfortable Healings

I’m probably alone in this, but sometimes I feel like Jesus has a funny way of healing people.

To my eyes and ears, Jesus’ healings have a hard edge to them.

For instance, we are told that one time Jesus heals a man with a “withered hand” on the Sabbath, and the religious experts are pretty ticked off about it (Mark 3v1-6). There are some interesting aspects to the story:

  • according to the text at least, the man hasn’t asked Jesus to heal him; in fact, Jesus initiates the whole process (in front of the community in the synagogue)
  • the man’s life isn’t at stake (even for Pharisees, saving life on the Sabbath was actually permitted)

There’s a sense in which Jesus is standing there, and commands the guy (who is not supposed to be in the synagogue), “Get in here and stand up in front of everyone so they can see what’s wrong with you.”

Can you sense the social awkwardness?

What begins to emerge is the possibility that Jesus is essentially using this man’s affliction and subsequent healing as an example, as a way to push the religious authorities into a corner (and to begin to plot Jesus’ death).

And all of this happens very publicly, in front of everyone. The man is healed, but first the man has to stand up in front of his community.

To me, it’s very tense. Why couldn’t Jesus have privately healed the man? Why couldn’t he have pulled the Pharisees and the Herodians aside and performed this act of political theatre in front of them alone?

Why subject the man to this public scrutiny?

A few chapters later, Mark relates the story of a woman who has been suffering—”bleeding”—for twelve years. Without going too deeply into social laws of the time, the cultural laws maintaining purity at this time were quite strict; this poor woman would have been strictly and severely ostracized.

So in a way you can understand her desperation to get to Jesus; to be made whole again. She reaches out her hand and grasps the edges of his cloak (or prayer shawl) and, “immediately”, we are told, her illness is gone.

Awesome. And then she goes away and is restored to life and community, right?

Almost. Not before Jesus very publicly calls attention to her. 

Before her ultimate restoration, Jesus makes sure the entire group of people knows that she is there, and that she has received a healing.

Again, part of me wonders why Jesus didn’t pull her aside, privately bless her and then restore her to the life.

Why the public display?

The last healing story actually comes out of John’s gospel. Jesus finds a man by a pool believed to have healing properties. The man had been there for thirty-eight years. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be made well?”

The man explains why he can’t get into the pool in time, and Jesus responds by saying, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.”

For some reason, on top of all the very public displays of Jesus’ healings, this one has been sticking with me.

And it’s all because of the mat. 

I don’t know the mat looked like. If it was comfortable; if it was threadbare and worn; if it was donated. I don’t know any of the details.

But I do know what it represented.

It represented the man’s weakness.

It represented his brokenness.

It represented his need for restoration; for health.

And Jesus tells him to pick it up and take it with him. 

If I put myself in the man’s place, I would have longed so deeply to leave the mat behind. Who wants to carry around the reminder of our past? Our brokenness? Our shame?

But instead, Jesus tells him, “No: actually this is the thing you have to bring with you. I know you’d like to leave this part of your life behind, but people need to see this. They need to ask, ‘Hey what’s with the mat?’ And you have to tell them your story.”

Looking back over these three stories, Jesus’ there’s always another agenda operating around Jesus’ healings. They are never “the endpoint.” If they were, it’s possible for Jesus to be considered more of magician—a first century “House”—than the Messiah. The healings are there to make theological points, to tell stories, to point people towards God’s restoration agenda for the entire world. Not to say that it’s great to be healed, but we need to remember that God’s (and Jesus’) agenda is always bigger than our own individual situations, and the healings are always a part of that agenda.

So maybe Jesus has done something for you. Maybe there’s some brokenness in your past (gosh I know there’s some in mine).

And maybe what you really want to do is to leave your mat behind. 

But instead Jesus is telling you, “Pick it up; pick up your past. Pick up your brokenness, the things you’ve seen, the things you’ve done, and even though I have restored you, tell others about them.”

Obviously, just because you carry your mat with you does not mean that you’re still crippled. But somehow you still have to tell people about it.

Live your life in such a way that people go, “Hey what’s with the mat?”

What does your mat represent? Have you left it behind? I think in so many ways Jesus is saying to us, “Go back and get it; carry it with you. Not in a shaming way, but in a way that helps others.”