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.

Truths

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:

1. WHEN THE TIME FOR TESTING COMES, YOU WILL BE FOUND WANTING…

2. … AND THERE WILL BE NO CONSOLATION FOR YOU. 

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: 

1. YOU ARE ENOUGH. FURTHERMORE, THERE IS NO TEST; JUST LIVE YOUR LIFE KNOWING THAT YOU ARE ENOUGH…

2. …AND WHEN YOU FALL (FOR ALL OF US SURELY FALL), THE GOD-WHO-SUFFERS IS THERE WITH YOU, AND SO ARE OTHERS WHO LOVE YOU. 

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. 

The Second Call

When I found myself “at the bottom,” with my life in shambles, a dear friend told me that if I chose to accept the gift of surrendering my life and learning to live in a new simple way—trusting God, cleaning house and serving others—that not only could I survive, I could actually grow through that trial. “If you do go on this journey,” he told me, “you will get to know yourself for the first time.

Since then, I have lived my life, one day at a time, according to this new, simple program.

In somehow choosing this new path, I believe I have received what many call, “the second call.” I read these words this morning, from Brennan Manning’s Ragamuffin Gospel.

Second journeys usually end quietly with a new wisdom and a coming to a true sense of self that releases great power. The wisdom is that of an adult who has regained equilibrium, stabilized, and found fresh purpose and new dreams. It is a wisdom that gives some things up, lets some things die, and accepts human limitations. It is a wisdom that realizes: I cannot expect anyone to understand me fully. It is wisdom that admits the inevitability of old age and death.

The second journey begins when we know we cannot live the afternoon of life according to the morning program. (That’s really good-EC.)

The second call invites us to serious reflection on the nature and quality of our faith in the gospel of grace, our hope in the new and not yet, and our love for God and people. The second call is a summons to a deeper, more mature commitment of faith where the naiveté, first fervor, and untested idealism of the morning and the first commitment have been seasoned with pain, rejection, failure, loneliness, and self-knowledge.”

Brennan Manning, Ragamuffin Gospel

Over the past six months, I have experienced more pain, rejection, failure, and loneliness than I could have ever imagined possible, let alone endurable.

And yet here I stand (with, I hope, just a little self-knowledge).

This “second journey/call” is exciting, but also terrifying, because for the first time in a very long while, I’m aware that I am NOT in control, and nor am I meant to be. I am trying very hard to put my life in the hands of the God of Abram, and Isaac, and Moses, and David, and Elijah, and John the Baptizer and Jesus and Paul… and everyone else who embraced the mystery and took a step out their front door to follow the CALL to “become who they are meant to be.”

Wake Up Call

Typically, I am almost always reading SOMETHING from Thomas Merton (currently, No Man is an Island). Here’s what I started with this morning:

The ultimate end of all techniques, when they are used in the Christian context, is charity and union with God.

Discipline is not effective unless it is systematic, for the lack of system usually betrays a lack of purpose.

Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island

Well now: that’s clarifying.

But Merton’s not done.

He goes on (and yes: this is DEFINITELY worth quoting at length, and I have added some emphases where it struck me):

Good habits are only developed by repeated acts, and we cannot discipline ourselves to do the same thing over again with any degree of intelligence unless we go about it systematically. It is necessary, above all in the beginning of our spiritual life, to do certain things at fixed times: fasting on certain days, prayer and meditation at definite hours of the day, regular examinations of conscience, regularity in frequenting the sacraments, systematic application to our duties of state, particular attention to virtues which are most necessary for us.

To desire a spiritual life is, thus, to desire discipline. Otherwise our desire is an illusion. It is true that discipline is supposed to bring us, eventually, to spiritual liberty. Therefore our asceticism should make us spiritually flexible, not rigid, for rigidity and liberty never agree. But our discipline, must, nevertheless, have a certain element of severity about it. Otherwise it will never set us free from the passions. If we are not strict with ourselves, our own flesh will soon deceive us. If we do not command ourselves severely to pray and do penance at certain times, and make up our mind to keep our resolutions in spite of notable inconvenience and difficulty, we will quickly be deluded by our own excuses and let ourselves be led away by weakness and caprice.

That certainly can give you perspective before you walk out the door to live your life… if you let it.

What I Learn in the Monastery 1: Psalms Are For Praying

Many of you know that I take an annual 4 day silence and solitude retreat at The Monastery of the Holy Spirit outside of Atlanta, GA. Over the next few weeks, I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned in the years that I’ve been going. 

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1.  Psalms are for praying. 

The backbone of a monastic “worship service” is singing (or more accurately, chanting) the Psalms. With five gatherings of worship/prayer a day, they get through the entire catalog of 150 every two weeks. 

Mostly, I grew up in the faith assuming that “psalms” = “songs”. That’s true some of the time, but not all of the time. Many times, the Psalms are actually recorded prayers, and what’s great is that they pretty much reflect the entirety of human experience and emotions (including many emotions that I would personally be terrified to express during prayer).

Initially, it was actually a bit challenging, at least partly because I simply wasn’t used to praying other peoples’ prayers (even if they’re written by King David). I always said my own words. But the more I got used to the gentle rhythm and melodies of the Psalms, I could feel them sinking down into my soul, and what’s more I began to find that I could actually identify with a lot of the sentiments that I saw expressed: I may not have physical enemies like the Psalmists express, but I certainly have internal enemies that are certainly out to get me, and so I could use the feelings towards the physical enemies and point them towards the tapes and baggage of my own life.

In addition, I started to feel an actual security and confidence in these ancient, tested words and prayers. A professor in seminary used to say repeatedly, “The thing is to ask yourself, ‘Can I become the type of person that can pray this prayer with integrity and honesty?’” That phrase resonated with me, and now the Psalms have become a bedrock part of my prayer life.

Two Things That Christ Desperately Wants You to Know, Part 1

I don’t know if that title qualifies as “click bait” or not, but whatever: that’s the title that came to me, and what’s more, I believe it.

On one hand, I think Jesus lived in an utterly different reality compared to most of us. I think he dwelled in what might be called “the sacred now.” He lived in a dynamic, living interplay with his Heavenly Father, and I think that reality and relationship was on of the defining characteristics of his life and his ministry.

On the other hand, one of the things that I have come to understand through the years of seeking the Kingdom and pursuing Christ is that Jesus came to show us that we can live in that same reality. 

It’s available to us. Now. 

(As opposed to later, when we die.)

Throughout the stories and reports of his life, Jesus makes these remarks about the potential of life here and now, on this earth: 

One of his favorite “pronouncements” is that the Kingdom of God—a way of life that is soaked through with divine, loving potential—is available and present now, in and among us (Matthew chapter 4, Mark chapter 1, Luke chapter 17).

In John’s gospel, Jesus repeatedly refers to a life that is characterized by a “stream of living water” (that is, water that is flowing and moving) that is, again, available to human beings in their present reality, not distant. 

So, what if Jesus was telling the truth? 

I know for myself, much of my life has been marked by anything but that type of reality. Most of the time I found myself either waiting for a “magical” transformation (that never seemed to happen), or a simple resignation that I could/would never change until I died and then I could go “be with Jesus in heaven”, at which point I would:

  • get a harp to play and a toga to wear
  • sing some sort of vague worship song while living on a cloud
  • finally” be changed

This reality seems pretty counter to what Jesus was saying. According to Jesus, “salvation” is actually a life: a God-bathed, Spirit-directed life.

“Salvation is a life.” This is one of two closely-related ideas that I think Jesus desperately wants his followers to know. Furthermore, I think that if we had a conversation with him right now, he would tell us that to the degree that we can make this (and next week’s) truth a present reality in our lives, we would find ourselves radically, revolutionarily changed.

In fact, I think that one of the important reasons we have these “Gospels” (“Good News” stories about who Jesus was and what he did and why he was our long-awaited Messiah) is that they show just what a “salvation life” actually looks like.

(Hint: it looks like Jesus’ life: helping other people; healing others; being radically compassionate to the hurting; experiencing a joyful dynamic intimacy with his Father; the ability to endure setbacks and suffering; and finally the willingness to offer the totality of his life and body as an instrument to be used for the sake of others.)

The Biblical, Jesus-exemplified salvation is a life, not a death.

It is potentially now, not then. 

It is potentially here, not there.

I don’t know how that strikes you, but I remembered that when I began to wake up and open up to that reality a couple of things happened inside me:

First, I realized how much I had “settled” for something less than the Kingdom of God here and now. My sights had lowered, and I had given up hope that change was possible. I had nearly completely resigned myself to the idea that I would limp and stumble through my earthly life, repeating the same old mistakes and sins I had always committed, experiencing relief only when I breathed my last, and could finally “lay my burden down.” (Don’t get me wrong: I will be happy to lay aside some of my burdens, but it was really about where and how I was settling in my current spiritual life.)

Second, I realized how desperately hungry I was for this life. If Jesus really was offering me a life that looked just like his, and he was offering me that now, rather than later, I wanted it. I needed it. I was beginning to leave a trail of destruction, both in my personal life as well as in the life of those who were closest and most important to me. I wanted and needed this change.

So I guess the questions this morning are:

  • What does “salvation” mean to you? Is it “here and now”, or is “there and later”? 
  • What is your life capable of becoming? Do you believe that Jesus thinks you are capable of living a life like his?

Next week: the other thing that Jesus wants you to know.

Under the mercy,

+e

I’m so grateful for each and everyone of you. As usual: please like, comment and share. 

 

 

It’s Been a Week…

 

I don’t know what kind of week you have been having, or what kind of words you’ve been encountering, but this is been a relatively rough one for my community.

The words I have encountered this week or words like:

“cancer” 

“overdose”

“suicide”

It goes without saying, but these are not the type of words that we’d prefer to see and hear in a week.

On the other hand, it seems all too common.

So how do I respond? What do I do when those words enter my reality?

I can certainly rail and rage against them. That’s an option that is easy to embrace. But for me, I eventually come up against something that I cannot control, be it other people, disease, (or even broken politics and a pathological culture)

But then again, I am driven back to the simple reality of accepting the things I have no control over, and embracing what I can control (which is mostly my reaction to all of this stuff).

Two thoughts that help me:

First, I am reminded that life goes on. I remember walking the streets of Chicago with my wife on September 11, 2001. everywhere was under silence, exacerbated by the fact that all air planes were grounded, but that reality was shattered when we heard people laughing at a joke. We felt so violated, like that time and space and silence was sacred. Even in the midst of devastating sadness, somewhere a baby will be born; there will be genuine laughter and care in a family somewhere; new, creative work will be done to make the world a better place. When I was younger, as I encountered pain in the world I would expect the whole world around me to stop and be devastated right alongside with me. I always treated it as a grave injustice for there to be laughter in the midst of pain. But now I think I realize that it is both our gift and our struggle that life goes on. What’s more, I know that the cross means that as long as there is suffering in the world, Christ suffers right along with us. Thomas Merton said “Christ remains in agony until the end of time, and in His agony Christ triumphs over all power.”

Second, I find soul-affirming comfort wherever I can. Jesus actually prayed that we would not be taken out of this world (John 17; really, Jesus?). But he also told us that he would not leave us alone (John 14). That means that his presence, and his peace and his love and his compassion is really always available to us. For me, I find it in friends, and in prayer, and also in art.

I stumbled across Bill Fay while I was driving in my car around 2013. Florida State radio station play the song that instantly grabbed me, and also instantly made me think, “boy Jeff Tweedy is ripping this guy off big time.”

(Tweedy appears on “This World, off of Fay’s 2012 record Life is People, and Fay covers Wilco’s “Jesus Don’t Cry” on the same record. Tweedy has also covered a couple other Fay tracks, like “Be Not So Fearful” and “Please Tell My Brothers” in his acoustic shows.)

Ever since then, whenever I need to hear something comforting and gentle, but also full of faith, I turn to Bill thing. I actually even had a friend who, when he did his fifth step in recovery, made sure that he had Fay queued up to play on his drive home from his sponsor’s house.

There are plenty of good tracks, but this is one of my “go-to’s”.

May you be comforted, and remember that “the healing day” is coming sometime for all of us.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DdZzBO_YPJM