Learning to love my challenges?!

I had plenty of time to get to my retreat in western Massachusetts. I had flown into Boston the night before and after a relaxing morning at my hotel, it was checkout time. Having spent my last few bucks on a tip, I needed to get some cash for the I-90 “Masspike” tollway.

Three unsuccessful attempts at the hotel’s ATM?! No problem, I’ll just find another one on Google Maps.

Road closed?! No problem, I’ll just go back to the hotel for directions.

Bank missed by a mile?! No problem, I’ll just turn around.

No parking?! No problem, I’ll just park a little ways down the road.

Debit card expired 4 days ago?! No problem, I’ve got another card.

Wrong turn after the tunnel?! No problem, I’ll just exit and turn around.

One-way sign on a two-way street?! No problem, I’ll just turn anyway.

Flashing police car lights in front of me?! No problem, he must not mean me…right? Bye, Mr. Officer.

Deep anxiety over what I just did and thoughts of getting arrested?! No problem, I’ll just stop thinking about it.

Finally find I-90 but go East instead of West?! No problem, we all make silly mistakes like that sometimes.

Bathroom door at Dunkin’ Donuts won’t open?! No problem, learn the secret technique from a friendly local: pull, turn, then pull again.

Two hours later and still in Boston with lingering fears of incarceration?! PROBLEM!!!

Lord, you’ve got me. I give up. I have my limits. I’m still human. I’m not so “with it” after all. Thank you for reminding me. Spiritual awakenings notwithstanding, I’m still the guy whose college roommate‘s sister matter-of-factly identified as a “re-re.” (What exactly does that mean again, Greg?!)

In the end, my wife told me I was being silly and convinced me over the phone not to turn myself in to the local police station. I made it to my destination, nicely tenderized for a divinely orchestrated weekend with Tama Kieves. My challenges perfectly suit me to realize my potential—even and perhaps especially when I lose faith in that affirmation.

Seeing miracles

Seeing miracles – Podcast #7

There are two ways to live your life—one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle. — Albert Einstein

What are miracles? Are they anomalies? That would imply they are exceptional and rare. But some people are regularly astounded and amazed by what happens around them. For these people, miracles are commonplace. What do these people know that the rest of us don’t know? What do they see that we don’t see?

For a period of time following my faith crisis, I eschewed the notion of the supernatural. In particular, I disliked the separateness it implied between the “spiritual” and the “physical.” It seemed to me that these must be different aspects of the same thing. Also, I was not at that point seeing what I considered to be miracles. I had let go of the idea of miracles altogether when I finally embraced mainstream science’s story of the evolution of our world and our species. The writings and videos of Michael Dowd (Thank God for Evolution) had a big impact on me. He eschewed the supernatural, seeing it as an unnecessary concept. I followed along.

But in the ensuing months, I started seeing miracles! It’s like God became most alive to me only after I let him die—when I was no longer trying to keep him alive. I now once again accept the supernatural as a useful concept. And I do believe in miracles, extraordinary events that seem to defy natural law. This has not been the result of an intellectual or philosophical investigation. This has been the result of direct experience—many, many moments of what SQuire Rushnell calls a “godwink”: “a direct and personal message of reassurance from God to you.” This, of course, is something I can’t prove to anyone else. The proof is for me and me alone. But once you do have these experiences and open yourself enough to see them in the first place, you too will know that you’re not alone—regardless of what you call that Presence: “God,” “the Universe,” “Cosmic Intelligence,” etc.

The natural is supernatural. A miracle is what happens when someone notices a miracle. The distinction is in our awareness, not in the nature of reality. Reality is of one substance. The “natural” describes what we can explain by our physical laws of science. The “supernatural” (or “paranormal”) describes the phenomena that we can’t explain by those laws, or perhaps that might be explained by more metaphysical laws, such as the Law of Attraction. The nice thing about this is that there is no investment in keeping the handcuffs on science. Science cannot do away with miracles, but it might explain some of them. There’s no contradiction here. After all, the revelations of quantum physics are nothing short of miraculous.

So I would not define “miracle” as something that won’t ever be explained by science. No. It has more to do with its impact on us. A miracle is an event that astounds us, surprises us, engenders wonder, hope, a feeling of being watched over, a sense of being cared for. A miracle awakens us to a larger reality beyond the conventional world we’re used to operating within. A miracle is a personal proof that Life is magical, God is real, that we’re not alone, that there’s a greater Intelligence to our lives and our world.

Today I love to hear stories of miracles, large and small. They help build my faith. Some of them might be made-up, but it doesn’t matter. That’s no less true with conventional, “non-miraculous” stories. Most of them are simply true stories. My experience of faith-filled people has been transfigured. The people who I used to respect less because of their faith are now the ones that I’m most interested in hearing from. However, the more “respectable” people—the ones who know a lot more about theology, for example—have become less interesting to me. They know what miracles “should” look like, but they haven’t necessarily received the gift of seeing them.

Some of the most faith-filled people at church used to make me blush, because I thought their examples of “miracles” could be easily explained away or seemed selfish or just trivial. But “God is no respecter of persons.” They’ve experienced the miraculous and they know it, whether it’s healing from cancer or the convenient appearance of a parking spot. The larger majority of us stand at arm’s length, in unspoken doubt and judgment.

But now, that arms-length stance looks so funny to me! So silly! It’s so clear to me that most of the time we walk around with blinders on. The world in which we live is absolutely brimming with aliveness and energy and magic and color. If we could just get a glimpse of who we are, we’d be utterly astounded! This is what was so maddening for Jesus: “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will never believe.” (John 4:48) But even then it’s not enough. When our minds are already made up, it doesn’t matter how many stories we hear, or how many miracles take place before our eyes. The miraculous is hidden in plain sight. It’s like the emperor with no clothes, except the emperor represents all of us.

How can we cultivate sensitivity to seeing miracles? Faith precedes knowledge. It’s a different route than philosophical or theological speculation. It’s a reversal of the familiar, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” Jesus understood that you’ll see it when you believe it. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” (Mark 9:23) Yes, there is a leap. But on the other side you can find true knowledge. Not rationally deduced or logically argued, but a deep, cellular knowing.

It’s not about joining a particular tribe or religious affiliation either. Now, thinking that it is won’t necessarily prevent you from seeing miracles, but it might blind you to the miracles God is performing among people of other cultures, religions, and walks of life. Every time we put a restriction on what God or Nature is “allowed to do,” we only limit ourselves. “Don’t put God in a box” is a Christian cliché. But every time we make a point of saying what we don’t believe, we do just that. With every denunciation or negation of what’s outside our understanding, we erect another wall. What we’re really doing, of course, is putting ourselves in a box, setting up a nice, comfy prison for our mind. Not only that, but we pride ourselves on just how small we can make it, giving it respectable labels like “orthodoxy” or “skepticism,” depending on our particular persuasion.

So what holds us back from believing? Undoubtedly: our preconceived notions about the nature of reality, whether they’re theologically, scientifically, or just plain culturally mediated. A theological straitjacket is no better than a materialistic straitjacket. Either way, God remains elusive. Even for Jesus! “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6:5,6)

Truly believing is easier said than done. I spent most of the first 35 years of my life seeking after this knowing—desperately wanting real knowledge, not just faith. Things did not go as I planned. I became very sick (Lyme disease was among my diagnoses) and very depressed. The struggle between faith and doubt reached a breaking point, and all my faith drained out—and, with it, all my investment in any religion, let alone a specific one. But my despair lasted only for a moment. The world has become more and more magical ever since. God is both more real and more mysterious to me than ever before. Letting go of my theological preconceptions paved the way for God to truly appear to me. Now, joy of all joys, I am finding great meaning and truth in my own Christian faith tradition! Who could have ever predicted this?

What do you need to let go of? Or loosen your grip on? What leap do you need to make? Crack open the rusty hinges of your mind. Look around and begin to wonder. Look for evidence in your life that you are being guided. And imagine. Imagine that what I’m saying is true. Imagine that your life has great purpose, that you are here for a reason, and that you are known and dearly loved—even when you’re not aware of it. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

Wake up! “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8)

Words come second

Words come second – Podcast #6

Salvation, redemption, sanctification, repentance, incarnation, conversion. What do these terms actually mean? We often treat them like technical terms, using each to signify a precise component of a constructed system of theology. But what if these terms are actually poetic terms about life? In that case, they’re not so tidily defined. But isn’t that a good trade-off? Isn’t it worth compromising some precision in favor of making them more relevant to our lived experience?

“Twenty people got saved that night.”

“Wow! That sounds amazing. Tell me more!”

“What do you mean? I already told you: they received salvation. They accepted Jesus into their hearts.”

That certainly sounds promising, but what does it actually mean? What did it then look like for those people as they went home? What changed in their lives? Were they happier? Healthier? More loving? More grateful? Did they transform in some way? What new impact did they have on others?

We often don’t ask these follow-up questions. We tend to stop at the certification, the “diploma.” It’s like deciding to hire someone based on a credential they got from taking a test, while ignoring their actual skills and experience.

This is a sure sign that our religion has become divorced from life. We go around speaking a code language, evaluating ourselves to make sure we’re speaking it correctly. That’s fine as far as it goes, but that’s often as far as it goes! Getting our theology right easily becomes a substitute for living a truly redeemed life. Not only that, but we are discouraged from talking about it in other terms. If, for example, we borrow a term from another religion, others look askance. We then focus all the more intently on how we’re speaking so as not to stray from the boundary lines. And lo and behold, our experience of God is diminished.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a sense of freedom around language instead of fear? Consider the freedom with which Paul spoke. Do you think he was trying to use only the accepted lingo? Of course not! He had direct, ongoing mystical experience of God. His words flowed forth like a fountain from that experience.

Now wouldn’t it be ironic if the people who were reading Paul’s words missed the point, thinking it was all about the words rather than the experience behind those words?

It’s not that we don’t care about experience. We do want to feel God. We do want to love God, to feel God’s love for us, and to love others. But we are stricken with a peculiar mental illness: we imagine that when we get our words, concepts, and beliefs just right, our life will fall into place. It’s like turning a secret code ring. In just the right configuration, God’s favor will be unlocked.

Not only does this illness limit our own experience of God, but we also fail to perceive the image of God in others. We check for their certification, their credentials. If they don’t conform to our requirements, then we completely distort or even shut down our perception of them as human beings! I’m speaking from experience here. When I saw people more loving than me who got “certified” at a different “school” or who weren’t certified at all, I had to do something quick to make sense of what I saw: I looked for the bad in them. Then I could tell myself, “See? There’s the sin.” My certification idolatry made me more, not less, judgmental.

Christianity is not God. It’s a formulation of our understanding of God. The key is to trust in the Reality of which the formulation speaks. If that Reality is truly real, we should not be surprised to find that there are other formulations. Indeed, we would expect this to be the case. Otherwise, we are no longer worshipping God but our own religion, our own formulation. “These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” (Colossians 2:17)

When you’re in touch with a great truth, you will find more than one way to describe it. When I say “we possess Infinite Intelligence in our very DNA” and “we humans are Magnificent Creators,” some Christians become uneasy. Yet if I say that we are “children of God” and “made in the image of God” and that God has “given us everything we need…to participate in the divine nature,” (2 Peter 1:3,4), they don’t bat an eye. Some verbal expressions of the truth are allowed and some are not. But is being “made in the image of God” such a trivial reality that there can be no other way to describe it? If we find ourselves policing our language in such ways, we should be highly suspicious that we’re not talking about known truths anymore. Instead, we’ve become dealers in static, lifeless words and doctrines. God, on the other hand, inspires poetry.

Since truth is only expressed—never captured—by language, we naturally are always finding new words to describe our experience. This is why Paul emphasized the importance of inspiration not only in writing the “words of God” but also in reading them: “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 2:14)

We need a shake-up. We need real experience. We need to open our eyes, to look around, and to feel the sensations in our body. God is here right now! We need to spend time alone and with each other in a profoundly more present way. We need to see each other for who we are. We need to practice letting go of our thoughts for a time so we can begin to hear that “still, small voice.” We need to wake up! Then we can talk all we want about our experience and enjoy the new poetry and words that flow from it.

The return of devotion

The return of devotion – Podcast #5

It’s 6:30am and I’ve only gotten 5 hours sleep. Why in the world am I up writing now? Usually, this would mean that I received some direct inspiration—a fully formed insight upon waking which I then need only “download” through my pen onto paper. This is a wonderful experience, and it still happens from time to time. But this morning, I only have a vague sense that I need to get up and start writing, and to not do so would be disobedient.

What’s returning in my life is a sense of devotion. Devotion to a higher calling that goes beyond who I experience myself to be. I am being called out of myself to create external structures and habits that put me more consistently in the place of receiving inspiration—even when I don’t feel inspired to do it.

The popular praise song “Breathe” is running through my head right now:

This is the air I breathe
This is the air I breathe
Your holy presence living in me

This is my daily bread
This is my daily bread
Your very word spoken to me

And I, I’m desperate for you
And I, I’m lost without you

There is a sense of feeling lost, when I’m out of sorts or unhappy with how things are or aren’t progressing. I feel discontent and the pain of that discontentment drives me to take a new step forward. This happened most dramatically when I quit my job two months ago with no other income sources lined up. All I knew is that I was being called to take a leap of faith and to trust that we would be okay. Since then I’ve been learning to live from inspiration on a daily basis, to let go of all forms of self-abuse and be gentler and more loving to myself than I ever have been before. It’s been a profoundly healing process.

I’m still committed to living from inspiration. But after a couple of months of much napping (which I will continue to do, unabashedly), some divine discontent is returning. Mind you, fears have been confronting me all along, and I’ve been continually facing them and releasing them. But this is not fear. This is a desire to grow up, to take responsibility, and to prepare myself to take on even more responsibility. For that, I need to step outside myself and exercise some muscles I haven’t used in a while.

This is surely, undoubtedly another paradox. My mind would love to formulate the difference between fear (“Things aren’t moving fast enough!”) and divine discontent (“Things aren’t moving fast enough!”). And if I was forced to do so (I can’t resist), I would say the presence or absence of peace is the difference that makes a difference. But you know what? I’m not sure that’s always true either. God can use anxiety, guilt, and shame pretty effectively to launch us forward too. So it comes down to “it depends” and “trust your own best judgment” and “heck if I know.” 😉

I am also experiencing this as a return of masculine energy. I have been in such a receptive phase—mothering myself, nurturing myself, comforting myself. This is in great contrast to the masculine drive that was playing such a destructive role in my life: you must force yourself to go to work, even if it’s killing you. Letting go of this was absolutely essential. But now it’s as if the masculine energy is returning to me in a more supportive, self-honoring way. My mind has been resisting it: “wait a sec, I don’t want to make myself do anything. Isn’t that self-abuse?” But again, this is a paradox and not so easily formulated.

The words of Jesus are so helpful here:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)

Here we have the perfect picture of co-creation. We are not to bear the burden of the whole world—not by our little selves anyway. Instead, we are to receive rest. Yet neither are we to offload the burden entirely. We are to take this “yoke” upon us. It’s easy and it’s light, but Jesus still calls it a burden.

If you’ve got no clear sense of direction right now, then it’s probably not time to force yourself to do anything. You need to listen and heal and rest. But as soon as you receive a “nudge,” act on it! I’ve been doing that on a smaller scale—moment-by-moment. At the 140-character scale of Twitter. Now I’m being called to act on a larger scale—do some planning, create some new habits, make time to write. Even when I don’t feel like it! This is a stretch, but it’s a good stretch. I’m learning that my mood is irrelevant when I’ve got a higher calling on my heart. I will obey no matter what.