What Works For Me, Pt. 1

To me, there is no “spiritual life.”

There is only MY life, and it’s up to ME as to how “spiritual” it is or is not.

This means that washing dishes can be as God-infused as a worship gathering.

(Though what is missing in dishwashing is often the gathered people of God.)

Someone wrote once that we live in a “God-bathed world.” I like that. I believe that there is no place or no time that God cannot inhabit, and so I seek to make my life as thoroughly spiritual as I can.

(Pssssst: before you think that somehow I’m a “super-Christian”, please know that I seldom get this all “right.” In fact, it’s not about “getting it right” or being perfect—sorry over-achievers—it’s about PRACTICING a spirituality that actually can work to change you.)

So, for the next few weeks, here’s how I do it. It’s about spiritual principles, a simple program, and some basic actions.

I wonder about the significance of the fact that I did not learn these in seminary, or from a famous pastor or Christian celebrity, but rather hanging out with people whose lives—like mine—were tremendously broken, dominated by obsessions, compulsions, and behavior over which they seemingly had no power. Somehow in our desperation, we reached out for ANYTHING that had the power to save us, and somehow we found something that works.

I was thinking this morning about the beginning of Jesus’ “beatitudes” in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 5, when he proclaims that “blessed are the poor in spirit”—or, as I’ve also heard it said, “blessed are the spiritual losers.”

It seems to me that if you think you have it all together in any sense of the word, maybe you just can’t get desperate enough to try something that seems so simple.

It’s only when our illusions are completely and utterly shattered that we get the clarity and humility to say, “Maybe I should try something different.” For better or for worse, it seems that it takes some kind of significant failure of whatever systems of maintenance and happiness we use to get us to be open to a new way of living in the world.

(And for some of us, even that’s not enough; we seem too stubborn and dug in—to our theology, to our emotions, to our tribalism—to be open to the idea that life might, JUST MIGHT, have more for us than what we are experiencing. In the meantime, we go on hurting ourselves and the ones we care about the most, cultivating more pain and more isolation in our lives.)

But… IF you find yourself at the end of SOME KIND of rope, and want something MORE, here’s what worked for me.

Let’s start with PRINCIPLES. I base my life, as do millions of others, on three spiritual principles: open-mindedness, self-honesty, and willingness.

They are very simple principles, but I hope a couple of things will stand out. First, I have found them to be extremely powerful, almost limitless in their potential. I can “go back to the well” again and again, and find something new. Also, to me they are inter-related, and in fact it actually undermines their impact if I sever them from one another.

OPEN-MINDEDNESS

For me, open-mindedness is closely related to concepts like humility and wonder. To be open-minded is to be willing to say, “I don’t know,” and (furthermore), “It’s OKAY that I don’t know.”

Open-mindedness means that I am willing to let SOMEONE or SOMETHING else—whether it’s God or a trusted friend, or simply a FACT that I haven’t considered before—impact my life and shape my behavior and my thinking.

To be open-minded is for me to ALWAYS consider the possibility that I am being blinded by my ego, or my background and brokenness. These things tend to warp my view of reality, and to convince me that I am more important than I actually am.

(HUMILITY, by the way, does not mean treating myself bad, or with shame. Humility means that I am willing to be “one of the herd,” neither more or less important than anyone else.)

Open-mindedness is also about being willing to believe that there is more to life than what we can see; that there are realities (and even beings) that may be “more real than real” and “more true than true.”

Practicing open-mindedness means that I have counselors (professional as well as informal) that have access to my life and can speak into it. (NOTE: It ALSO means that I LISTEN to said counselors, and am willing to change.)

Practicing open-mindedness means also that I am placing myself before facts and spiritual truths, and being willing to admit when I need to adjust my perspective.

Practicing open-mindedness means that I adopt an internal perspective that says, maybe, just maybe I don’t know exactly what’s going on, or even exactly who I am. Maybe, just maybe I can LISTEN at least as much as I speak (preferably more).

Maybe I can be open to input from others.

There’s a power and a freedom in open-mindedness. It means I do NOT have to have all the answers and, because it’s actually IMPOSSIBLE for me to have all the answers in the first place, I can be free to be imperfect, and to be human just like everyone else is.

Next Up: Self-honesty.

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 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.

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.

“The Game is On…”

1920x1080-427875-sherlock-background-wallpaper-for-computer-free.jpg

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?

The_Apostle_Paul_-_Rembrandt

“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.

 

 

Grace

Lately, I’ve been saying repeatedly, “Grace isn’t about getting us into heaven; it’s everything.” 

I think most of us “Jesus people” are guilty at one point or another of reducing grace into some kind of holy club (that most people wouldn’t want to visit). We reduce it and turn it into “who is going to heaven” (again, a group that most people wouldn’t want to go with).

In doing that, we turn it into something exclusive. Something that is about figuring out who is in and who is out.

Do they have the secret handshake?

Have they passed the Jesus quiz? (psssst for Jesus, the answer is always “all of the above”).

Do they have the right credentials?

But grace is simply (and infinitely more explosively) “define favor”. It is everything: our gifts, our talents, our resources, our friends, our family.

“Grace” says that everything we have is a gift.

It’s not about a club. It’s about a gift, a resource for dealing with life.

One of my favorite quotes on grace (and faith and Christianity) comes from theologian Bob Tuttle. He says,

I’m into Jesus Christ for one reason and one reason alone: faith and trust in Jesus is the only way I know how to access the power of the Holy Spirit that enables me to overcome the things that would attempt to swallow me whole.

In this sense, “grace” is synonymous with the Holy Spirit.

This is a “real-world” spirituality. It’s not about a club (unless it’s a club of the broken-hearted); it’s about growth and transformation.

Sign me up for that.

 

+e

 

Into the Desert: Place of Faith

The Desert-2After a series of plagues, pharaoh finally tells the nation of Israel, “Get up! Get away from my people, both you and the Israelites! Go!” (Exodus 12:31), and so the people do just that, and they take off.

However, Pharaoh quickly realizes that he is saying goodbye to his free labor force and quickly changes his mind (as dictators occasionally do), so he sends a military force after Moses and the children of Israel. Exodus 14 tells the story of Israel being pinned between the “Sea of Reeds” and Pharaoh’s army. (It’s instructive to remember that the Egyptian army represents the pinnacle of military technical superiority at this point; for Moses and a group of escaped slaves, fighting wasn’t really an option.)

The people understandably freak out, and accuse Moses of leading them to this point only so they can die in the desert. They then ask if they could go back to Egypt (more on these points later), but instead Moses responds to them by saying, “‘Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and watch the LORD rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you. You just keep still.’” Fighting will do know good in this battle; this is something that only God can do.

Then God’s “messenger” appears, first as a cloud, then as darkness falls as a pillar of fire, and we are told that the cloud/fire moves from in front of the camp to behind them, in between Egypt and Israel (14:19-20). At that point Moses stretches out his hand and the sea in front of the nation parts. Exodus 14:22 says very matter-of-factly, “The Israelites walked into the sea on dry ground. The waters formed a wall for them on their right hand and on their left.” To be honest, I really don’t know what this must have looked like. I believe that something happened, but I don’t know that it really needed to look like Charlton Heston’s (Cecil B. DeMille’s) version.

Besides, that’s not the point: to me, the point is where the fire was, and where Israel was walking. The text says that this all happened at night, and that the pillar of fire is behind the nation, between them and Egypt. So they are told to start walking, by Moses.

Into—as far as they know—the sea.

When light is behind you, what does it do? It casts a shadow, right in front of you. Where you are stepping.

In other words, the people can’t. See. Anything.

This is what faith looks like.

Going into the desert requires a moment when you finally say, “Okay, I cannot see what’s in front of me, but I am ready to take a step.”

What most of us call “faith” in our world isn’t really faith at all, because most of the time we live comfortably, and can see right in front of us. We “know” what God is up to; we feel safe and secure in our faith, or if we do not we can easily identify the problem and “fix” things.

But occasionally God does something different. When we are called into a true desert to address something deeply meaningful and life-changing, we are called to a moment of “sheer faith,” where we may not be able to see anything ahead of us. In this moment, all we have is knowledge and belief that we are being called through the waters to “something else.” This moment of sheer faith is similar—but not necessarily identical—to the concept of “The Dark Night of the Soul,” when God withdraws His presence in order to call His followers into deeper levels of faith and trust.

In the Exodus moment, there may be an awareness of some kind of “protection” so we can make our walk to freedom, but other than that we are walking in darkness into the unknown. Everything inside us wants to see. We may pray for the fire to come around in front of us so we can have our way lit, but in this case we left with a promise and a call forward. The text says that the land was dry, but Israel wouldn’t have known that until they started walking forward.

And this is just the beginning of the desert!