“The Game is On…”

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Recently, my son and I have been watching the recent BBC version of Sherlock together (it’s become a bit of a family tradition: we did the same with my daughter a few years back). It’s just excellent in so many ways: innovative directing and camera work, great storytelling, impeccable acting, and enough “Easter eggs” and clever references to keep us all entertained.

In the “old school” Sherlock stories, whenever the detective sprang into action he would declare to Dr. Watson that “the game is afoot!” The modern version updates that phrase to “the game is on!”, and whenever Holmes (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) exclaims it, the action always takes a great leap forward and the characters move into the story, the mystery, and in a variety of ways proceed to confront villains, solve problems, and in a general way bring some justice and resolution to the storyline. It’s a great time, and thoroughly enjoyable.

A few years ago, I was reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography when I ran across an exchange that gave me a pretty significant pause. Merton is talking with his friend Robert Lax. Lax asks Merton what he wants to be, and after Merton replies that he wants to be a “good Catholic,” Lax tells him pointedly, “What you should say is that you want to be a saint.”

Merton protests, declaring, “I can’t be a saint, I can’t be a saint.”

But Lax drives the point home: “Don’t you believe that God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.” 

Does that strike you as much as it struck me?

(For the record, Merton bounces Lax’s idea off of another wise, monk, who verifies the truth of it.”

Forgot all the challenging traditions and baggage you might know and feel about “saints”: the occasional over-emphasis on relics and veneration; the supposed miracles that are associated with old bones and mystical visions. Set all that aside for just a minute and think about what (or who) a saint actually is. 

What images come up?

What names come up?

Francis? Mother Theresa? Paul? Peter? John?

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“The Apostle Paul” – Rembrandt (courtesy Wikimedia)

Maybe there are some unofficial, modern ones as well: Martin Luther King Jr.?

I always think of “saints” as men and women who had essentially learned to live out of the radical reality of God’s love.

They had grown beyond the masks and identity traps that we fall into, and simply grasped the simple fact that they were/are “The Beloved” of God (just like Jesus).

After that, they just started to work out the implications of that reality in their own context…

“If I truly AM the Beloved… 

… Then I am free to live in poverty

… Then I am free to fearlessly look at my “shadow side” 

… Then I no longer need to hype God up, or scare people into the Kingdom of God

… Then I am free to speak truth to power

… Then I am free to see people the way God sees ME: as broken-but-beautiful; cracked-but-precious

… Then I am free to be compassionate to all 

… Then I am free from the fear of death

… Then I am safest in the arms of my Father in heaven. I have nothing to fear. 

(A note about one of those implications: I used to think that being a “saint” somehow meant that you somehow floated above life, and you no longer had to worry about things like “brokenness” or “sin.” However, the more I learn about the men and women who have achieved sainthood—officially or unofficially—the more I learn that they were actually incredibly in touch with their own limitations and brokenness. However, they were able to relentlessly place those limitations in the context of their Beloved-ness, and therefore resist the guilt and shame that plagues most of us. Rather, that awareness helped to unlock new levels of gratitude, appreciation and understanding of God’s free gift of grace, which in turn spills over into ever-increasing compassionate love for and service to the world that God loves so much.)

So now, think about that: God wants to make a saint out of you (no matter what Mick Jagger might say).

Now, make no mistake: when Robert Lax tells Merton, “All you have to do is desire it,” there is an awful lot packed into that phrase.

Because if we are honest with ourselves and each other, we desire an awful lot before we desire sainthood.

Here’s just a short list of my “desires”:

guitars

chips and salsa

pizza

quality music releases

a richly satisfying marriage

books

safety and maturity for my children

a secure retirement

a good vacation this summer

a healthy church

better leadership out of myself

a better workout habit

a richer prayer life

grass that mows itself

a teenage son that cleans up after himself

a book project that effortlessly writes itself

3 more hours in my day to be productive

3 more hours in my day to sleep

a 24 hour, free, soccer channel

comedy specials that actually make me laugh

a community that governs itself

(… and all that is BEFORE 9AM!)

But make no mistake: there is something that stirs in my heart sometimes, that gnaws at me, and that just sticks with me constantly.

Maybe it’s the growing desire to be MORE. It’s the growing desire to let God “make what me what He created me to be.”

And that thought has begun to stir my soul. It gets me out of bed in the morning (or rather, HE gets me out of bed in the morning), and into the presence of this God, this Love, this mystical and mysterious Presence that wants to grow me into something that He always intended me to be.

So I pursue prayer.

I pursue worship.

I pursue confession.

I pursue submission to a spiritual director.

I pursue service.

I pursue community.

I pursue study.

I pursue meditation.

Yep, as Sherlock would say it, “The game—of growth, of maturity, of spiritual evolution, of transcendence—is on.”

Where are you at with your spiritual growth? Do you believe—and trustthat God wants you to be a “saint”?

 

Thanks for liking // sharing // commenting.

Under the mercy.

 

 

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Into the Silence

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In just a few days, due to the amazing generosity of people in my life, I am driving up to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, outside of Atlanta, Georgia, for a few days of solitude and silence.

This particularly monastery is a Trappist (or Cistercian) monastery. Now, there are different monastic orders: Franciscans, Benedictines, etc. From what little I’ve learned, the different orders have different emphases: study, poverty, service, etc. Broadly speaking, the Cistercians are focused on prayer and silence. They are not the “most silent” monastic order—my understanding is that the Carthusian monks get that distinction—but silence is a major theme of their life. When you are at the monastery, visitors are generally expected to eat in silence and to talk very quietly, and then only when necessary.

In other words, this is not a place that  is interested in reinforcing my life “as it is.”

If you know me at all, you’d think that my introverted self would be chomping at the bit for this: silence and solitude! No people! Woo hoo!

Well, you’d be wrong.

In a way, I am absolutely eager and ready to go. I am hungry for this, and have been trying to get something like this to happen for months now.

But in other ways, more than ever I know that (a) wherever you go, you bring yourself (or your SELF), and (b) when you really get alone and quiet, you can easily encounter some of the uglier parts of your soul.

As I’ve written before, the “solitary chair”” can be terrifying, because most of us subtly surround ourselves with enough noise to keep us distracted from the real issues in our lives: our brokenness, our deep emotional/spiritual struggles. There are simply things we do not want to see, confront, or deal with.

Silence exposes those things.

On one hand, going away to someplace like a monastery or a campsite or wherever seems like an easy exercise in getting away from the noise of life. But for me, I need to be honest with myself and admit that I can easily carry other “noise” with me: books, music, and my “monkey mind.”

Noise doesn’t always look like Netflix and McDonald’s.

So next week, I am traveling with the absolute bare minimum: no computer, a journal (handwritten!), only the Bible and 1 other text.

My choice is to let God speak and to not distract myself. To try and go deeper, to the next level of foundation in my spiritual life. I want to see more clearly: both God, Christ, other people, as well as my own brokenness and shortcomings.

This is not necessarily something to look forward to.

But I do know that I need it.

(You do too.)

I’m hoping for a deeper revelation of love; a deeper experience of healing and peace; and more centeredness, loving detachment, and clarity in my life.

But I also realize that what I carry into the monastery (including expectations) is not what might be waiting for me. So I hold all of those things loosely, and say (as Mary did), “LET IT BE DONE TO ME.”

If you’ve never gotten quiet and taken the time to really let God speak to you, I’d say (1) I understand; it’s probably pretty scary, and (2) what are you waiting for? 

As C.S. Lewis said of Christ, “No, he’s not tame: he’s dangerous… but he’s good.” 

 

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Lessons I Learn (… over and over again)

August to November was a difficult season, but somehow some of the clouds are parting and some light is creeping through…

I was sitting with some friends of mine recently—older men who have gone round and round with life and lived to tell about it—and unpacking the things I’ve seen and heard and done.

Most of it revolves around buying into the same lies I’ve bought into countless times before, namely that I can somehow control the brokenness inside me. Some of us—I’m not the only one—lose sight of the fact that our false self is manipulative and sneaky, and largely seeks to just throw us off our path.

It hits me again and again; it’s a strange thing when you can’t trust your own thoughts (because “your own thoughts” are really the thoughts of your false self).

One of the amazing gifts of centering prayer and meditation is that gradually you can learn to identify these tricks of your false self as such, and steer clear of them, but sometimes…

… Sometimes you still drift.

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul uses the phrase “the old self” (6:6). I used to understand this phrase theologically, as a reference to “just” our sin. Now, however, I realize that Paul is actually wading into to pretty deep psychological waters: the “old self” = the “false self”. It’s the part of ourselves that seeks to find its solace in security and control; in acceptance and affection; in power. Technically (and theologically) it has no power over us except the power that we give it. 

When we buy into what the false self is selling, we tend to reap the consequences.

The only cure for it is to deliberately (and painfully) return to rejecting this false self through meditation and prayer, and to choose to live in reality instead of the illusion of the false self.

(By the way, this is called repentance: it’s really not as scary of a word as you might think.)

And guess what: reality is actually kind of refreshing and peaceful.

I Know I Am (But What Am I?)… 

I like personality and gift tests: Myers/Briggs; Strengthsfinder; Enneagram; so on and so forth. Enjoy finding out how I (and others as well) am wired, and why I think the way I think. Overall, it’s really helpful. In fact, a lot of organizations (including churches) take great stock in how these gifts are allocated and mixed through staff members. All of these tests help us identify how to interact with each other, and where the pitfalls may be in our common life.

However, the last time I was a part of a round of these tests, I found myself thinking, “How many times do I need to be told what or who I am?” Furthermore, I found myself thinking a lot of how I’d used my personality type as an excuse for some issues in my life that I actually needed to address. Rather than thinking about my behavior or thoughts as issues that needed to be addressed or changed—as sin or brokenness—I thought about them as “this is the way I am.”

But is that all there is to life?

Lately, I’ve stopped being so interested what/how/who I am now, and I’ve become much more interested what/how/who I can be. 

I love all of these tests, but I know for me that I am very adept at hiding inside these labels and avoiding the call to grow, to change. I’m afraid that it’s all too easy to use these labels and titles to simply reinforce my “false self”—the part of me that is so good at hiding from God and others—and ignore the possibility that all of these “strengths” and “gifts” may actually inhibit my growth if all I ever do is focus on them and remain content.

Which is ultimately what we are called to: I wholeheartedly believe that the point of the life that Jesus offers us is to change and to become increasingly more like him. Our personalities, or strengths, or gifts are tools that we can use to grow and change, but there’s also a limiting side of those gifts. I’ve come to believe that every part of our personality has a shadow side; a broken part that can keep me from growing and being shaped into a “little Christ” (as C.S. Lewis would put it).

For instance, I know that I’m an introvert, but I also know that I have a tendency to use my quietness as an excuse to hold back from people, from actively welcoming the stranger, from being a voice of invitation.

I know that I tend to look at the world from a “strategic” perspective, and this has been very helpful to my church. However, I also know that this perspective sometimes keeps me from getting in and just “doing the work” to ideas and initiatives that I don’t always understand. It can also keep me from supporting ideas that I don’t agree with.

The point is not to reject my gifts and personality; it’s to think about the idea of change and growth as an imperative. It’s about refusing to be content with what the assessments say that I am, and writing off my behavior as, “Well this is just as good as it gets, because I’m an INTJ (or whatever).”

It’s about seriously accepting the call to grow, and never stop growing until I can say that I have truly adopted the “mind of Christ” that Saint Paul says I’m supposed to have.

No I’m not there yet. But I am increasingly knowing who I am, and hungry for who I’ll be next.

Does this make sense?

 

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Is Jesus Cruel?

“We were always taught that Jesus said these things to remind us of how utterly depraved we are.”

I am journeying through the Sermon on the Mount with some friends of mine, and we spend last Wednesday going through Jesus’ “re-interpretation” of the Torah in Matthew chapter 5. If you haven’t read it, you can see it here, but essentially Jesus selects a few of the Ten Commandments, and takes them to incredibly high levels:

  • He says it’s not enough to “not kill”, but if you’re even angry with someone you’ve broken a commandment.
  • It’s not enough to refrain from committing adultery; if you look at a woman (or a man, for that matter) lustfully you have broken the commandment.
  • Divorce is prohibited except for pretty extreme circumstances (either sexual unfaithfulness or incest, depending on your interpretation of porneia in 5:32).
  • Revenge is ruled out as well, as is swearing allegiance or taking oaths, and an overall rejection of human ideas of honor and humiliation.

It is an incredibly high standard of living; something that seems virtually unattainable.

So the question is, “Did he mean it?”

One school of thought—reflected by my friend’s comment above—is that Jesus never intended for us to be able to live that way. In fact only he could actually do it, and the whole point of the Sermon on the Mount is therefore to remind us how awful we are; that we can never live up to this standard, and therefore we just grateful that Jesus would die for us wretched people.

Frankly, I find this image of Jesus cruel, and I just dont’ think that Jesus is in the “cruel” business.

Succinctly, I think:

1. He totally meant it, and furthermore,
2. He thinks we can do it.

Now in no way is it easy; in fact, it IS impossible, but only if we refuse to do the things that he did in order to live the life he lived. 

One way that you can interpret Jesus’ kingdom pronouncement—”The Kingdom of God is here/near/among/within you”—is to hear or read it as, “The eternal life that you will live forever, in God’s presence, is available now.”

Ultimately, what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 5 is what the “eternal life”, the kingdom looks like. Obviously Jesus lived this life perfectly, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t begin to experience it for ourselves now as well.

I think this is the point he’s trying to get across.

What’s more, I think that he hints at how to start experiencing this kingdom life in the very structure of the Sermon.

Briefly, he begins the sermon with the Beatitudes. It’s easy to see that these are simply a way to say, “Before anything you are blessed. You don’t have to work for your blessing. You are blessed because of God’s love for the outcast, the outsider, the spiritual losers.” (And by the way, aren’t we all these things?)

After the Torah reinterpretation of Matthew 5, he spends over a chapter talking about working out your spiritual life in humility: away from the expectations (and praises) of others.

+ Praying in private
+ Giving in secret

These things, and others, are simply ways to humbly separate ourselves from the reward systems that our culture so readily gives us, but that ALSO go to reinforce the pathological parts of our existence, the parts that make us demand, and strive…

and fight…

and objectify…

and crave revenge…

(In other words all the things he says we can’t do.)

Ultimately I think the Sermon is a call to live the Kingdom life, and to start doing it now. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean that Jesus releases us from it, and ultimately it’s not working to be a person who isn’t angry, or lustful, or vengeful, or who swears allegiance to anything or anybody over God.

It’s about wanting to be that kind of person, and then living our lives as radically blessed as God while we intentionally cultivate humility.

That’s not easy, but I think Jesus believes in us.

Gospel Artist and Rainer Maria Rilke

I picked up Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I quickly stumbled across this:

I know no advice for you save this: go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise: at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside.

Seen through the eyes of a Gospel Artist, and one who is called to change, this is a great quote. I actually we believe we are all called to create a gospel-shaped life. We take the destiny of Christ-likeness (or at least we do, if we choose), and begin our pilgrim path of change and evolution.

Have you ever considered that change is possible? That you are called to create (along with God through the Holy Spirit) a life that is shaped by God?

What would it look like if you were called? What could your life look like if you decided to create something wonderful and beautiful?

What would it look like if you chose to be an artist? 

Tools for the New Year: Rails

The concept of a train is simple: wheels on rails. The rails constrain the wheels and prevent them from wandering, but they also give the wheels a smooth the path to travel. Unlike a car, a train can’t go

wherever it wants—it has to travel the path that the rails follow—but a train can trust the rails, and as long as they haven’t been destroyed or damaged, the rails will take the train where it needs to go.

A few days ago I wrote about how humility is the key to growth, and one further aspect of humility is admitting our need for “rails” in our lives.

If you’re anything like me, I’d prefer to think of myself as a free-ranging vehicle (a Jeep 4×4, especially): I can go anywhere and do anything I’d like, and I will continue to grow into the person that I need to be and that God wants me to be.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

After 40-something years on this earth, I am able to say with a fair amount of certainty that left to my own devices I will wander to and fro, and “growth” will remain far from the top of my “to do” list.

I don’t make such a good Jeep.

I need rails, things that keep me on track.

Maybe I make a better train.

Now, rails have other words too:

  • systems
  • routines
  • habits
  • disciplines
  • rules

These “rails”, as long as I follow them and choose to stay on them, tend to take me to the places I want to go spiritually. (To extend the metaphor just a bit, it’s important to remember that the point of a train is not to just “ride the rails”; trains go places; the destination is what’s important. When the rails become the point of everything, we’ve lost the point.) At first, they feel odd: constrain you; they cramp your “style”; they stretch you, and may challenge you to do things that aren’t in your “nature” (“Well, I’m not really a Bible reading person, ya know?!?!”). But, after a while, they don’t feel as odd or forced. You find yourself moving with them, anticipating their turns. You’re working with the rails now.

Specifically, here are some of the rails and “constraints” that I use:

  • a regular habit of focused prayer and mediation each morning
  • a discipline of regular Scripture reading and studying
  • a commitment to regularly (1-2 times a month) sit down with 1-2 older spiritual mentors and humbly submit to their leadership and suggestions (again with the humility)
  • a system of managing my time, projects and energy (I use both electronic and paper calendars, and a combination of OmniFocus and Apple’s Reminders)
  • a method of examining the overall direction and theme of my life

As some of these rails have become cemented into my character, I have had to rely on the externals a bit less, but the principles remain the same: I submit to the rails.

Because I have somewhere to go; a person to be; a redemptive movement to play a part in.

And I trust the rails to take me there.

Do you have any rails? What are they? Do you need to reevaluate any of them?

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