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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Professional Faith 3: Muscle Confusion

So P90X is all the rage right now.

From what I understand (ahem), it’s all about “muscle confusion”: when you do certain exercises over and over, your body actually adapts to the routine, and eventually you begin to lose some of the benefits of your workout. In order to avoid this you need to keep your muscles “confused” by constantly varying your workout and introducing new exercises.

A professional faith also needs “muscle confusion” in a way.

One of the phrases pastors constantly hear is, “Well, I’m not a _________ person,” where that blank space is occupied by words like, “Bible”, “worship”, “service”, “tithing”, “solitude”, “community”, etc.

People are constantly identifying and declaring their “natural wiring”: how God has naturally wired them.

This is a good thing.

Mostly.

The thing is, as I hear people say (for instance), “Well I don’t really share my junk because I’m not really a community person,” sometimes I think is our faith really based on, “I’m not really?” Is it only based on who we are, or is it based on who we are capable of becoming

Someone better?

I think identifying our natural inclinations and paths for spiritual growth is absolutely invaluable, but if we’re not careful we surrender growth for remaining comfortable in those paths.

And I don’t think that’s what God intends.

All the great religions—Christianity included—are not based on us merely being what we are but on challenging us to be MORE than what we are.

And to be honest, I want that. I need that.

And so here enters the concept of muscle confusion.

A professional faith demands that we not get too comfortable in our daily or weekly disciplines. Growth demands that we stretch ourselves, meaning we engage in pathways and efforts that may feel alien or strange to us.

So community people: choose solitude every once and a while.

Bible people: make sure you are going on mission trips (both local and global).

Service people: make sure you are reading your Bible.

Make no mistake: these will feel uncomfortable, but that’s the point. Spiritual activity that becomes too rote and routine runs the risk of losing its effectiveness.

So to review (and to paint in broad strokes), a professional faith:

  1. Isn’t governed by emotionalism, but shows up, day after day, to do the work of spiritual growth.
  2. Has a plan and engages in tools it needs to grow.
  3. Isn’t afraid to occasionally shake things up in order to get out of routine.

Keep on growing.

 

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Coming Down the Mountain

“Mountaintop spiritualilty has perhaps been one of the most destructive things in my spiritual life.”

The words were really out before I had a thought about them. They emerged in a morning devotion with a group of people high up (ironically) in the Guatemalan hills, at a morning devotion time before we went out to build houses.

For me, it was a typically melodramatic overstatement, but in this case it was also pretty true.

Everest North Face toward Base Camp Tibet Luca Galuzzi 2006 (via Creative Commons)

Everest North Face toward Base Camp Tibet Luca Galuzzi 2006 (via Creative Commons)

I am certainly no mountain climber, but I’d spent a season reading and learning a lot about climbing Mount Everest through books like Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and a Discover Channel series called, “Beyond the Limit”, about a professional guide at Everest who helped people with their final ascent.

It is an absolutely brutal and a very real you-can-really-die-in-an-instance type of experience. The altitude and brutal conditions take a horrendous toll on your body, making taking even ONE step an excruciating experience. Some people end up being able to put one foot in front of the other about once every thirty minutes. In the last couple of ascents (it takes many days to get from “base camp” at Everest up to the top), the oxygen is so thin that your body is literally incapable of getting enough nourishment, so it begins to essentially “eat itself.” The caloric requirement is so huge, that your body goes into hunger mode, and starts devouring muscle protein in order to survive.

Every move, every stop must be highly scheduled and coordinated or you will literally die on the mountain (many bodies are left frozen on the mountain; you can see them as you climb).

All for thirty minutes.

Due to oxygen requirements (and the schedule that keeps you alive), you can only spend about 30 minutes at the top of Everest.

Now, that thirty minutes may be wonderful; the experience is absolutely magical and unmatched; the time there may even be transformative; but it does not last.

You have to descend.

THAT, essentially, is how I lived my spiritual life for decades: a quest to get from “mountaintop” to “mountaintop”, fixing on spiritual highs like a drug. I would climb the mountain, dwell in the heights for a time, and descend like Moses, full of optimism and reflecting the Glory of God.

But it always faded. It always does.

And so I’d climb again.

And again.

And again.

Is this what Jesus meant by a stream of living water, welling up inside me to eternal life?

This didn’t feel like abundant life to me; it felt like experience addiction.

Lately I have decided to “come down the mountain”, and approach my spiritual life with a different metaphor.

Sinai Desert, via Creative Commons

Sinai Desert, via Creative Commons

The desert is not like the mountain. Where the mountain apexes into a specific peak, the desert drones on and on in a sort of monotony. There is a definite sameness to the landscape (though it’s certainly no less dangerous than climbing; the desert can just as easily kill you with thirst or a rattlesnake).

The desert leaves you alone with yourself. It forces you to face our most difficult challenge: OURSELVES.

On the surface, the desert is the same, day after day, but if you look more closely and have eyes to see and ears to hear, you can encounter amazing life and variety.

But it’s not easy.

You have to be attentive.

You have to watch and listen.

You have to be silent.

For me, this is the way I have to live in order to stay sane in this world. Mountaintop spirituality was simply turning me into a “religion junky”, and the fix NEVER seemed to hang around long enough. The desert, on the other hand, is a consistent, day-to-day walk that continually forces me to find beauty in the apparent normalcy of my life. It makes me work out my salvation in a very consistent, low key manner.

I don’t think it’s any accident that after the “light show” of Mount Sinai took place in the midst of Israel’s long desert experience. It’s as if God wanted to emphasize the fact that the occasional mountain may show up (though you may not even get to ascend; you may just get to watch Moses walk up), MOST—if not ALL—of your life is going to be spent walking through the desert. You have to get the desert right in order to keep the mountain in perspective.

Keep on walking.
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Perry and Jane’s gets it… (WARNING: If you know Jane’s Addiction, you know that this video is probably, well, CRAZY, and even a bit NSFW)

Why Not Become a Professional Christian?

I’d like you to think about becoming a professional Christian.

Do those two words even belong together? What does that look like? A televangelist? A faith healer? A church shopper? A person who takes faith and turns it into something legalistic and dead?

It seems like a far cry away from the idea of loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving others as yourself.

A far cry from the Good Samaritan; from the Father running after his long lost son; from the powerful images pulled from the BIble. Rather it seems dry, dead, almost crass.

I’ll actually allow that it’s really easy to think about it like that; in fact, that’s very much the way I used to think about it.

A year or so ago, a little book was recommended to me, and it has revolutionized my way of thinking about a lot of things.

In The War of Art, writer Stephen Pressfield sets forth powerful insights into the nature of creativity, but as I read the book a thought started to form in my head…

What if these same creative principles apply to living the “Spiritual Life”? 

What if our primary call is to create our own Gospel-shaped life? 

Pressfield says that the key to the creative life is to “become a professional.” Here’s how he describes it:

The amateur plays for fun. The professional plays for keeps.

To the amateur, the game is his avocation. To the pro it’s his vocation.

The amateur plays part-time, the professional full-time.

The amateur is a weekend warrior. The professional is all there seven days a week.

The word amateur comes from the Latin root meaning “to love.” The conventional interpretation is that the amateur pursues his calling out of love, while th epro does it for the money. Not the way I see it. In my view, the amateur does not love the game enough. If he did, he would not pursue it as a sideline, distinct from his “real vocation.

The professional loves it so much he dedicates his life to it. He commits full-time.

So many people are hungry for something different.

So many people ask themselves, “Can my life really be different? Can it look at all like some of these stories I read in the Bible or church history?”

So many people even want it to be different.

But they aren’t willing to “turn pro” as Pressfield defines it.

They may be willing to give their life to God, but they’re not willing to give their life to the process of God’s work in their lives. They’re not willing to give their life to it, to show up every day in order to create their “work of art”—their Gospel-life.

You can hunger all you want, but most of the time it—life change, or spiritual growth—is simply not going to magically happen. We have to commit to going beyond being “amateur Christians” and actually choose to do the work—not in the sense of earning our salvation, but in the sense of arranging our lives for spiritual growth. 

Letting God do the work, but making sure we show up and give His Spirit the space to do so.

What would it look like if you decided to “turn pro”?

What would have to change?

What would you gain?

What would you lose?

 

more thoughts to come….

 

 

 

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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.

The Rule Behind the Freedom Behind the Rule…

I don’t know about you, but there is a constant tension in my life of faith between my efforts to grow, and the call to rest in God’s love, forgiveness, and grace (“unmerited favor”). Most of us would readily say that Jesus came to set us free from “rules” and works-based faith, but the reality is much more subtle than that simple platitude.

In the first place, most Jews of Jesus’ day had no illusions that they (just like the Christians) were children of grace. They knew that their very existence—as a people—was as a result of God’s preemptive action in the Exodus. The law came after God set them free; their obedience came out gratitude for God’s liberating action. They knew that YHWH was a God of lavish mercy and forgiveness, and they rejoiced and celebrated that forgiveness.  So when Paul (or Peter, or the Gospel writers) proclaims that God freely forgives, and that forgiveness is based not based on our works, he is not actually proclaiming anything radically new to a Jew.

But there’s more.

Paul has a troubling habit of talking a lot about “works”—these works from which Paul is (supposedly) telling us we have been freed. Paul never really says, “Don’t do works.” However, he does constantly say, “Don’t trust your works to save you; work, but still trust in Jesus’ saving work on the cross, and God’s faithfulness.”

A great example of this tension is in Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae, particularly in the section between 2:6 and 3:18.

In this section, Paul constantly emphasizes our freedom in Christ. It culminates with verses 20-23:

You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, ‘Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!’? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.

Paul certainly wants us to avoid relying only on rules and “discipline” to transform us. But it’s not quite that simple, because shortly after telling us to not rely on “rules”, Paul reminds his readers (and us) that we do need to do a few things, and one thing in particular.

For Paul, it all revolves around 3:10: “Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him.”

In other words, though we should not rely on rules for our salvation, it is our responsibility to:

  • Put on our new nature
  • Learn to know our Creator
  • Become like him

Paul goes further in the verses before and after this one (all from chapter 3):

  • set our sights on—and think about—the realities of heaven (vv2-3)
  • put sinful things to death (v5)
  • get rid of anger, rage, etc. (v8)
  • don’t lie (v9)
  • clothe yourself with tender-hearted mercy, etc. (v12)
  • make allowance for each other’s faults (v13)
  • teach and counsel each other (v16)
  • sing psalms and hymns (v16)

Actually seems like an awful lot to do!

But as I read this passage this morning, it seems it all flows from the three things in 3:10 (put on our new nature, learn to know our Creator, and become like him). That verse struck me as the culmination of the passage; everything—the lists that Paul writes before and after—flows from that.

Still, that’s no small thing.

In summary, I’d say that, even though entry into God’s Kingdom and His people is utterly free, with the only requirement being humility and a belief in Jesus’ work and faithfulness, God (through Paul) actually does expect His people to have a character and presence in the world.

He expects us to be different, specifically by putting on our new nature (identity in Christ), learning to know Him, and becoming like Him.

So, today:

  • are you willing to embrace the notion that God wants to partner with you in your change?
  • are you willing to orient your life around the three things in 3:10 in order to allow Him to change you?