When Jesus Messes Everything Up

There’s this one little passage in the Book of Acts that really messes with me; I’ve been sitting with it for about a week now, but it REALLY seems like it applies to most of my life over the past four months (at least). 

Here’s the way it reads in the Common English Bible: 

“Paul and his companions traveled throughout the regions of Phrygia and Galatia because the Holy Spirit kept them from speaking the word in the province of Asia. When they approached the province of Mysia, they tried to enter the province of Bithynia, but the SPIRIT OF JESUS WOULDN’T LET THEM.”

Acts, Chapter 16

If you’ve ever studied Paul’s journeys, it’s very easy to see that Paul was pretty organized. His trips around the Mediterranean make sense and are planned well (while simultaneously being “Spirit-led”). So when the story says that he and his companions were trying to go Asia and the province of Bithynia, it’s because (a) they were confident that’s where God wanted them to go, and also (b) it made a lot of SENSE to go there. 

But then Jesus shows up. 

And says, “Nope.” 

It makes me think about my reaction when something seems to go wrong that I believe is (a) where God wants me to go/what God wants me to do and (b) makes a lot of sense. 

I tend to think that if something doesn’t work out the way I’d planned my reactions are some combination of: 

  1. Human brokenness is to blame. We were too prideful, or whatever. 
  2. There is some kind of opposition—call it the devil, or Satan, or whatever—that is opposing “God’s work.” 

But here the Scripture clearly indicates that it was JESUS that was saying no.

And if Jesus is present in the “NO”, that means that everything that tends to come with Jesus—peace, love, compassion, joy, etc.—can be present in that NO as well. 

So I can settle down just a bit, and say, “Okay, Jesus: what are you trying to tell me or teach me right now?” 

(“Don’t go to Bithynia.”)

So…

Next time your plans seem to blow up, and nothing makes sense or lines up with what you thought God wanted you to do, consider: 

… Maybe it’s NOT a result of your (or others’) brokenness. 

… Maybe it’s NOT some kind of spiritual opposition. 

…Maybe it’s actually Jesus, which means there can be GIFTS inside the “No,” and all you really have to do to find them is to ACCEPT the reality of the NO and then ask with an open heart, “God what are you trying to show and teach me right now?” 

Most likely, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the answer. 

Thoughts: Prayer and Presence

I don’t pray for God to “show up.” 

There’s never any PLACE nor any TIME in which He is not. 

(If he wasn’t, the whole operation of creation would cease to exist.) 

What I pray is for the eyes to SEE where and how He is moving.

I don’t pray for God to speak; He’s always speaking. 

What I pray is for my openness to HEAR, and then the strength and COURAGE to obey. 

I don’t pray for God to be with me; when He—in the form of Jesus the Christ—opted to take on human skin, He did that ONCE AND FOR ALL

His love is not conditional. 

What I pray is for me to live in the reality of that solidarity and love, to reject shame and any effort to try and EARN grace. 

If God only showed up in certain times and places, if He only spoke or revealed Himself to certain people in certain conditions, if He was only with SOME people at SOME times, than (to me, at least), it would mean that there were “special people” that get to experience God, while the rest of us get some kind of lesser experience or portion of Him. 

And that’s not grace. 

So I take God at His word—that grace is REALLY grace (“unmerited favor”)—and that “Good News” (“Gospel”) REALLY IS GOOD NEWS. 

I have all I need, SHOULD I CHOOSE TO LET HIM BE IN CHARGE. 

When all is said and done, it looks a little like this: 

“God show me how You are moving today. I surrender everything: my will, my plans, my thoughts. You are in charge. Guide me, and show me Your will, and give me the strength and courage to follow You today.

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” 

“I Know Something”

I may not know a lot about you, but I know something
I may not know a lot about you, but I know one thing (and that’s)
I’m alive.

“I’m Alive” by pop poppins

Some of my favorite lyrics and musical ideas come from local bands that no one has ever heard of. 

If you weren’t there, you missed it: in this case, Dallas, TX, in the early 1990s. 

I’ve always loved that line, and I was so grateful when the internet gave me the gift of being able to once again hear some of the music that we were soaking up, just out of college and being oh-so-serious about music. 

That line comes from a song called, “I’m Alive,” and the band was called “pop poppins” (inspired from Mary Poppins, no less). 

Beautiful, dreamy alternative (from when that word really mattered) music. 

But I use that line a lot. 

Seems like the older I get, the less I “know.” 

And I’m becoming okay with that. 

But it’s not like I don’t know ANYTHING. 

I do not have to know everything: about God, about life, about music, about creativity, about my wife or my children, or my friends.

I know SOMETHING. 

And that’s, well, SOMETHING. 

All I have to do is do something with the something that I know. 

And be content with all of the stuff I don’t know. 

Morning Pages, 3 Dec: When the Music is All Around

There are moments when the music is all around, when it surrounds me like a great blanket and I feel LOVE and there’s nothing between me and the universe and I’m not taking (nor faking) and there’s only notes BUT notes aren’t really notes they are BLOOMS and messages to and from the soul place. 

There are moments. 

There are moments when all the HURT and PAIN and DOUBT DISAPPEAR and I-am-making-a-difference to myself at least and that is usually enough and I can give and receive at the same time because they are actually both the same. 

I do not think of the shoes I’m wearing then, not do I remember why I picked the shirt to wear then I only CHOOSE without thought — is that a choice? — Maybe I only have to MOVE TOWARDS (not choose) the next note or chord, only because THAT’s the next note/chord to play. I need no reason, because THE MOMENT IS THE REASON. 

I don’t have an itchy soul then. I AM ERIC, and ERIC is music, because MUSIC is what is happening then. When music is not happening, then to be Eric will mean something else…

… making-eggs Eric

… reading-books Eric

… having-an-argument Eric

… praying Eric

… sleeping Eric

… being-lazy eric

ALL of those Erics are Eric, and they are all valid and LOVED.

It’s just that… music is… well, music is…

SSHHHHHHHHHHH. 

Manifesto: What the World Needs Now…

(Is for you to write for 10 minutes.)

Somewhere—I can’t remember where or even exactly when—I stumbled across the idea that my vocation, in general, is to “live creatively in response to the gospel.” 

Actually, the implication was that this truth applies to all people who call themselves Christ followers (“Christians”). 

Truth is, most of us don’t really do a good job of this. 

We get the “living” part, and even though I’m convinced a lot of us don’t really understand what “good news” (that’s what “gospel” means, in case you didn’t know) actually means, many of us could quote a Bible verse or two about the term. 

But what about that little adverb there: “creatively”? 

Many of us would just ignore it, and pretend it’s not there. Just do the “living” part, and go to church, and hope that things get better. 

We leave “creativity” to people with tattoos, funny hats, skinny jeans, and interesting glasses. 

(Artists and hipsters.)

But let me push on that just a bit. 

First, CREATIVITY AND ART ARE NOT THE SAME THING. “Art” is a subset of creativity. Creativity simply means bringing something into being, and for most of us it occurs when someone simply brings two things or concepts together that typically don’t belong together, and the result is somehow useful, or beautiful, or delightful, or just simply moves people in some way. 

In this way, ALL OF US can be creative. It’s actually pretty easy. 

(NOTE: It’s not always easy to get results that are amazing, or beautiful, or delightful, etc. But results ≠ process. We’re talking about PROCESS here.) 

Second, I believe the world is begging for more faith-inspired, intentional creativity.

Why? 

Well, Einstein said it best: “You can’t solve the world’s problems at the same level of consciousness that created them.” 

(I paraphrase.) 

We need new solutions to the problems that continue to plague our world: selfishness, greed, pride, anger, divisiveness, etc., etc. 

I’m pretty convinced that all good people—even (especially?) Christians—want to do the right thing, but what we are faced with is the same approaches to the the same problems. 

We need MORE. We need NEW. 

We need more/new from our leaders, we need more/new from our preachers, we need more/new from EVERYONE. 

(Including YOU and ME.) 

Let me be clear: we don’t need MORE/NEW so that we can ONLY have more/new songs, paintings, poems, sculptures, etc. We need more/new so that we can have more/new IDEAS, INSPIRATION, APPROACHES, INNOVATION. 

Because one of the great gifts of creativity is the increased ability to make “lateral leaps”—surprise linkages—in our thinking. THIS is how we stumble into new ways of thinking, new and innovative ways to approach old problems. 

MORE/NEW. 

Over my years of creative exploration, one tool has emerged as an absolutely essential building block, a foundation for songwriting, leadership, blogging, problem-solving, etc., etc. I first discovered it in The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s seminal work, and I’ve continued to tweak the process as I’ve gotten older. Cameron called them “Morning Pages”, and the concept was actually pretty simple: 

  1. Write three pages—absolutely no less—every single day. Even if the pages are filled with “I don’t know what to write,” etc., you have to fill the three pages. 
  2. Do NOT stop to edit, or go back to read what you wrote. Immediately put the pages away (I used to put a time limit of a minimum of two weeks). 

Later on, I combined Cameron’s approach with something I read in a book on lyric writing by Pat Pattison called “Object Writing,” where you take an object around you, and for ten minutes you write EVERYTHING you can about the object: it’s shape, it’s significance, it’s color, it’s position on the table, etc. Other principles remained the same: you HAD to write for ten minutes, not stopping, and you could NOT edit or go back and read. 

(NOTE: You can ALSO use these same exercises—particularly the “Object Writing” approach—to solve more specific problems. You simply take whatever problem or challenge you’re trying to solve and write SPECIFICALLY about that problem for ten minutes, using the same rules. No editing, have to keep the words flowing, etc. In THIS context, you CAN go back and read what you wrote, but maybe give yourself an hour gap between writing and reading.)

This SIMPLE act is the foundational creative exercise: it’s like stretching in the morning for an athlete. Sports and training metaphors are often found in the New Testament, and I believe they apply—critically—to more than just our physical bodies. We need foundational “exercises” that prime and prepare our minds (AND hearts AND souls) for more unexpected (i.e., “creative”) thinking. 

Remember: as best I can tell, Jesus says we are ALL—not just some of us, or the “good Christians—supposed to be the light of the world. That means ALL of us have a job to do, to do a little good in the world.

In other words, “to live creatively in response to the Good News.” 

The world needs more CREATIVE action that is Good News. 

So go: pick up your pen. Spend 10 minutes (or three pages, whichever you prefer). Then do it again tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that, etc. 

And let the ideas come. We need them. 

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.”

What ELSE Went With Abram

Still thinking about this guy named Abram.

It’s important to remember what else he brought on his journey (besides his issues). 

Namely, all the faith that he needed in order to start on that journey. 

There’s nothing in the Biblical text that indicates why Abram might have been chosen to go on this unexpected journey. Nothing that might reveal why this God might have picked him above everyone else. 

(By the way: what if it’s not so much that God PICKED Abram; maybe it’s that God is ALWAYS calling, and Abram was the only one who just happened to be willing to hear?)

It would have been easy for Abram to focus on the gaps in the invitation “go to a land which I will show you”? How do I enter that into GPS? 

Or on the enormity of the invitation—“Uh, how am I supposed to be the father of a nation when my wife and I appear to be unable to have children?” 

Instead Abram just does what life requires of us: he just starts moving. 

Life doesn’t require that we have all the answers (because I can guarantee you that we do not). 

Life doesn’t require that we know the DESTINATION. 

Life just requires that we are willing to take the first step. 

And what Abram is taking with him is that willingness to take the first step. He’s willing to believe that maybe, JUST MAYBE, life is more than what he’s experienced so far. 

And so he starts moving, and becomes the paradigm of faith for everyone, a reminder that how you do anything is how you do everything. 

Abram’s journey starts with a willingness to start moving—from Ur to Canaan. Our journey starts EVERY DAY with that same willingness. Start moving. Our unknown journey every 24 hours can be just as adventurous (and impactful) as Abram’s. 

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?

HIMSELF.

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.

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.