I have a picture on my desk I love looking at. It's of me when I was a small child, along with my whole family in Japan, with our Japanese nanny. Guess which one I am??
[Please SHARE this blog with people who might be interested! Hit the button on the right to subscribe or to share the post] Marcus Borg, a professor of religion and culture at Oregon State University and a prolific author and speaker about the importance of a progressive Christianity, was on a plane trip sitting next to a woman who said, "I'm much more interested in Buddhism and Sufism than I am in Christianity." When he asked her why, she said, "Because they're about a way of life, and Christianity is all about believing." She continued: "I don't think beliefs matter nearly as much as having a spiritual path and following a way."
He commented later in one of his books: "I understood her comment, even as I silently disagreed with part of it. To begin with the disagreement, Christianity is about a way of life, a path, and it has been from its very beginning. At the center of Jesus' own teaching is the notion of a 'way' or a 'path,' and the first name of the early Christian movement was 'the Way.' Indeed, seeing Christianity as a 'way' is one of the central features of the emerging paradigm." (The Heart of Christianity, p. 31)
The woman's statement does reflect the most common understanding of the word "faith" in modern Western Christianity: that faith means holding a certain set of "beliefs," "believing" a set of statements to be true, whether cast as biblical teachings or doctrines or dogma. If you possess this faith, you're even called a "believer."
As a result, this concept of faith as primarily an intellectual exercise has turned faith almost exclusively into a matter of the head. But significantly, that was not the central meaning and use of the word "faith" in scripture and among followers during the centuries from the time of Jesus to the Enlightenment. Faith was not a matter of the head but a matter of the heart - that deep level of life below our thinking, feeling, and willing (intellect, emotions, and volition), deeper than our conscious self and the ideas we have in our heads.
And faith was always seen as central to experiencing the God-life, accessing the divine spirit and allowing It to transform existence. One of the authors of the Christian New Testament even stated this spiritual reality in strong terms like this, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” (Hebrews 11:6) He’s not suggesting that God hates us if we don’t have faith, or that if we don’t believe the right things God thinks less of us. No, he’s saying that “faith” is central to the spiritual journey – it’s a key to accessing the divine life and living a transformed life. In fact, that verse is in the context of a whole chapter that tells the stories of how various people in the Bible journeyed with God – some of them knew a lot about theology, others knew very little. But all of them chose to stay on the journey with God through thick and thin, successes and failures. That was called “faith” – the willingness to be in presence (in synch) with the divine spirit
OVER THE NEXT FEW BLOG POSTS, we'll take a look at four words that are translated as "faith." We'll unpack each word and explore what it means and what the differing nuances suggest about developing a faith that works in real life, a faith that transforms life, a faith that helps define ourselves and produces a rich and deeper experience of both God and Life.
TODAY’S WORD: “fiducia”
This is the Latin word for “faith” which literally means trust, confidence. It's where we get our financial word “fiduciary” - a person to whom property or power is entrusted for the benefit of another. Of, based on, or in the nature of trust and confidence. I mean think about it - if you're going to give another person access to all of your money and estate, you want to be able to trust that person. Right?
In a biblical context, this word for “faith” is describing a radical trust IN God. This trust "faith" may not mean you know everything there is to know about God. There will still be lots of questions, maybe even doubts about the metaphysical issues surrounding the divine, the universe, how it all came into being, who or what started it all and how everything is sustained. But faith as trust is the willingness to connect with God (as you know It/Him/Her) and has a degree of confidence that this Divine Force is, as Albert Einstein put it, a friendly Universe - that God has your best interests in mind.
So let’s look at a couple of metaphors and illustrations of what TRUST is – how TRUST relates to our experience of God and the spiritual life – what are some of the dynamics of TRUST?
Floating in Water:
Soren Kierkegaard, one of the pre-eminent existentialist philosophers and spiritual writers in the 20th century, described faith like this: “Faith is like floating in seven thousand fathoms of water in the ocean. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float.”
So, if God is the water, and we’re floating in It, what does this metaphor mean? Floating in water (without struggling and thrashing about) describes a kind of relaxing quality to trust – you can hold your life without struggling – you relax with yourself and with the Unknowns in your life (after all, you don’t know or understand everything about the fathomless ocean you’re floating in but you can still be there) because you’re being “held up,” supported – the physics works whether you understand everything about the principles and dynamics or not.
Fighting and struggling and thrashing about only tire you out and facilitate your sinking. Trusting means letting go of your fears and anxieties and uncertainties and simply letting yourself live life in the embrace of God and God’s love; relaxing in the truth that the Universe is friendly and is on your side and will bring what’s good to you and will redeem what’s painful and evil and bad by bringing good growth to you.
So would you describe your personal spirituality or style of life with the word "relaxed?" Would your faith be described as a "relaxed confidence" in Life or God or Goodness? Do you feel that the Universe is fundamentally friendly (as Einstein once said, the most important question we'll ever ask ourselves is, Is the universe friendly?). Faith as TRUST is about relaxing, holding life with an open hand (rather than a clenched fist that tends to signify our desire to control, to hang on for dear life from fear of losing something). A relaxing confidence!
Rock and Fortress:
The Hebrew poets of sacred scripture, especially in the book of Songs (Psalms) often used two other metaphors to describe faith as trust: God is both Rock and Fortress. Notice this piece of poetry:
5 Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. 6 He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken. 7 My victory and honor come from God alone. He is my refuge, a rock where no enemy can reach me. 8 O my people, trust in him at all times. Pour out your heart to him, for God is our refuge. (Psalm 62)
What do these metaphors – Rock, Fortress - say about trust? God is secure, solid, able to be counted on. What’s that insurance company that uses the “rock” in their advertisement? Prudential. What’s their point: you can count of them when you need to – they’re reliable – “rock solid.”
Notice the phrases about “trust” in these verses: waiting quietly before God, putting hope in God, not being shaken, resting in a safe place, pouring out our hearts to God. The poet's point is that he can trust in God as the one upon whom he relies, as his support and foundation and ground, as his safe place. A solid confidence!
Does this kind of "solid" trust mean that you never have any doubts about God? That God always comes through for you by protecting you from evil or harm or danger or pain and suffering? This is certainly the kind of theology (picture of God) that many religious people have - it's very simplistic though real to them. But, as I've experienced personally, the danger of this belief is that when you go through the storm, the tendency is to question God and wonder what the heck is going wrong? Where is God? Why am I going through this? God really must not care about me after all! When I lost my job, went through a divorce, experienced great failure in my life, I wondered where the Divine Rock and Fortress were for me. Either I had failed so miserably that God had left me and wouldn't have any more to do with me or God simply wasn't going to come through for me and couldn't be expected to. Either way, I was on the losing end! There wasn't much solid in the swamp I was in.
The psychiatrist and spiritual writer Gerald May once wrote: "I know that God is loving and that God's loving is trustworthy. I know this directly, through the experience of my life. There have been plenty of times of doubt, especially when I used to believe that trusting God's goodness meant I would not be hurt. But having been hurt quite a bit, I know God's goodness goes deeper than all pleasure and pain - it embraces them both."
The naive belief that if God is truly good and solid in that goodness then your trust in God will be rewarded with lack of pain and trouble and suffering. God's goodness = no pain. I learned that, as Gerald May wrote, it isn't true. God's goodness, God's solid rock and fortress, can be counted on to be a reliable presence in the midst of ALL of life's experiences (self-imposed or externally imposed). God showed up for me during those dark times most often through other people who chose to come along side me and support, love, care for, and journey with me. And as the dark tunnel finally emerged into the light, I saw that God's goodness was involved in helping to redeem the pain in my life by ultimately bringing good out of it, by doing a work of transformation in me, maturing me, establishing my confidence in myself, in others, and ultimately in God.
So would you use the word "solid" to describe your confidence in Life or God? What would you use the words "rock" and "fortress" to describe in your life? What power outside yourself can you count on to bring you redemption and transformation or is it just up to you alone to muddle through the swamp? Is God a "safe place" (as the poet described) you can be with or be in?
Faith is about trust; and trust is about both a relaxed and solid confidence in Another. And that kind of trust can only come from a journey ... together ... through the bumps, bruises, hurts, joys, sorrows, ecstasies of life ... where you begin to discover that nothing you do minimizes or maximizes the Divine love or Goodness for you. It continues flowing like a River all the time, in you, around you, through you, enveloping you, embracing you. Trust is about choosing at some point to relax, to give in to the Flow and embrace It back and let it carry you along the winding waters until It empties out into the boundless and deep Ocean.
Stay tuned to word two for faith.
[If you're here at this Blog for the first time, click back and read Part 1 of this topic: "Can Holiness Invade Your Office and Your Kitchen?" It will fill out this post more meaningfully.] As I noted in my last blog post (see "Can Holiness Invade Your Office and Your Kitchen? Part 1"), Dr. Susan Smalley, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, talks about the importance of developing a pervasive spirituality, where the sacred is seen and experienced as inherent to daily life. She has discovered that this kind of spirituality has great impact on minimizing individual self-centeredness and increasing a deeper sense of personal well-being and compassion for others.
I love the way Brian McLaren, in his book Finding Our Way Again, describes the process of developing a pervasive spirituality. He says that rather than simply trying so hard to practice our faith (which ends up only adding to our already over-filled To Do lists), we could be “Faithing our practices” - "embuing our normal [everyday] practices with meaning derived from faith.” It's about learning how to see Holiness in every part of our ordinary days.
The Jews do this with what they call "the blessing." By giving a blessing for everything they encounter during the day, they are reminded of the sacredness of all of life because a Blessing isn't something that embues what is being blessed with goodness or God's presence. A blessing is simply a tangible, intentional act of acknowledging the inherent Sacredness and Goodness in those things as gifts from God. “The purpose of the ancient way and the ancient practices is not to make us more religious. It is to make us more alive to God ... alive to [God’s whole world].” (McLaren)
The Hebrews in scripture also built altars of remembrances out of stones at places where they encountered the Sacred and Divine in meaningful ways. Why put ordinary rocks on top of each other on the side of busy thoroughfares and even in out of the way places? The point was that every time they saw them they could be reminded of God's activity in their lives. They could tell each other the story of their encounter with God and remember that life is sacred and blessed. Stone altars to help holiness pervade ordinary life.
I wear a ring that has a cross on it on the middle finger of my right hand. It was a gift from my wife. It's there as a constant reminder of my calling and life purpose. Throughout the day, I'll feel it and look down and notice the cross and remember: I am loved; I have a divine purpose; my life is a calling to live for God. It's amazing how that thought, generated by a tangible symbol, suddenly transforms that moment into a sacred moment, a divine encounter, an embracing of God's continuing and pervasive presence in my life.
Last Saturday, at my Second Wind spiritual community, in the middle of our discussion on this topic, we engaged in what is called prayerwalking. We all went outside and individually walked around the neighborhood community with the goal of intentionally noticing what captured our attention. We were to do several things: 1) What did we notice? 2) Offer a blessing on it. 3) Consider how it reflected God to us? How was the Sacred revealed to us through it? And 4) pause and be in the moment. Then when we all returned to the room, we tried to capture our experience by jotting thoughts/reflections on paper, staying silent, staying in that Sacred Space.
When we debriefed the experience, it was astounding how much all of us described paying attention to life around us in new and meaningful ways. There was a sense of sacredness we expressed feeling as we each walked around the blocks in such an intentional frame of mind. The activity reminded us how something as simple as walking around with a different intention (an open, more "enlightened," purposeful mind) could contribute to a more meaningful spiritual experience and a greater receptiveness to life around us. When you begin seeing all of life as sacred and spiritual, you look at it all very differently.
What symbols, reminders, tangible ways do you have to remember the Sacred and the Divine all through your day? How are you decompartmentalizing your spirituality so that all of life is experienced as holy and sacred and thus more meaningful and purposeful?
I love the way Carrie Newcomer describes this in one of her songs, "Holy As A Day Is Spent":
holy is the dish and the drain the soap and sink, and the cup and plate and the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile showerheads and good dry towels and frying eggs sound like psalms with bits of salt measured in my palm it’s all a part of a sacrament as holy as a day is spent
holy is the busy street and cars that boom with passion’s beat and the check out girl, counting change and the hands that shook my hands today and hymns of geese fly overhead and spread their wings like their parents did blessed by the dog, that runs in her sleep to chase some wild and elusive thing holy is the familiar room and quiet moments in the afternoon and folding sheets like folding hands to pray as only laundry can i’m letting go of all my fear like autumn leaves made of earth and air for the summer came and the summer went as holy as a day is spent
holy is the place i stand to give whatever small good i can and the empty page, and the open book redemption everywhere i look unknowingly we slow our pace in the shade of unexpected grace and with grateful smiles and sad lament as holy as a day is spent
and morning light sings “providence” as holy as a day is spent
Perhaps every day life could be filled with a deeper sense of well-being and meaning if we intentionally saw the holiness in all of it? Maybe we could close the HPI (Happy Planet Index) gap here in the States if we allowed our spirituality to pervade all of life, including our offices, our kitchens, and even the baby's play pen? Want to join me in experimenting with this?
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I read recently about a person who discovered that he should drink 16 glasses of water a day. The next morning he brought to his office a large pitcher filled with water. Throughout the day that pitcher on his desk frequently reminded him of his need, and he'd pour another glass and drink. Overall, it was a positive experience—other than having to go to the bathroom 27 times in a period of eight hours. Remaining hydrated, he learned from that experience, requires intentionality. He had to stop periodically in the midst of his busyness, become aware of his body's need for liquid, and take a few moments to drink a glass of water. It was amazing how helpful having that pitcher of water in front of him all day was to his intention of drinking more water. Intentionality is a huge piece of what makes people effective and successful - setting intentions and then determining a specific course of action to accomplish those intentions. It applies to every area of life, right? We intentionalize what we desire, what we can and what we have control over, and then hold it all with an open hand, recognizing that sometimes the best things that happen do happen as surprises. However, intentionality is an important value. And what helps our intentions become reality are the tangible reminders we put in front of ourselves regularly of what we're trying and wanting to do - finding ways to integrate our intentions with the rest of our lives.
Dr. Susan Smalley, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, posted an article in the Huffington Post last week in which she tries to understand some of the reasons India ranks so much higher than the United States on the Happiness Index (especially considering the comparative massive economic disparity and rampant poverty in India). The Happy Planet Index (whose most recent compilation came out in July 2009) strips the view of the economy back to its absolute basics: what we put in (resources), and what comes out (human lives of different length and happiness). Its the first ever index "to combine environmental impact with well-being to measure the environmental efficiency with which country by country, people live sustainable, long and happy/meaningful lives." That's the way they define it. The resulting global index of the 143 nations reveals some interesting comparisons.
So after just returning from her first trip to India, she reflects on her experience of its culture and posits a significant observation. First of all, she defines spirituality as "a sense of connection to something larger than oneself." And then, recognizing recent research that shows that spirituality positively impacts health and well-being, she describes her experience in India:
"In India this attention to spirituality is pervasive. It is evident in every aspect of the culture - there is constant integration of reminders that we are part of something larger than the self ... in the shrines present on every street corner, sides of houses, roadside stops, hilltops, alleyways, back of tractor trailers, and beyond. Shrines are big, small, colorful, bland, dedicated to Shiva, Ganesh, Hanuman, or thousands of other manifestations of our shared nature, to Hindus the manifestations of a Oneness or God or an Ultimate Reality. It is evident in the pervasive Namaste - a greeting with hand folded in a prayer position accompanied by a bow that means something like 'I see the Oneness in you.' It is evident in the pervasive 'bindi,' the smudge of color between the eyebrow - a reminder that we are part of something larger than the self - visible by a 'third eye' if you will … I am so impressed with the complete integration of spiritual development into daily life. Being surrounded by constant reminders of our connectedness and dependent nature make emotions and actions stemming from self-centeredness more difficult to come by."
In contrast here in the West, we tend to compartmentalize our time for spiritual practice if we engage in any at all - once a week in spiritual gatherings, or a specific meditation time each day, or at religious Holidays, or prayer at meals. Other than these moments, the rest of our lives is rarely surrounded by spiritual reminders or awareness. Our passion to separate Church from State, our carefulness to maintain distinction and distance between the spiritual and the secular, has led to an overly heightened sense of individuality and independence and self-importance. Our worldviews have gradually narrowed through the decades from cosmos to planet to nation to city to neighborhood to self, with whatever happening to self carrying the ultimate significance and importance.
This reality, suggests Dr. Smalley, helps to explain some of the difference between India and the U.S. on the Happiness Index - it's about how pervasive spirituality is in everyday life.
The point is, the journey of spirituality (and a corresponding sense of well-being and happiness) don't simply happen by chance. It takes intentionality and thought and discipline. It takes structuring our lives around tangible reminders of our connection "to something larger than ourselves." It takes decompartmentalizing our lives and integrating spirituality into the flow of daily existence. It means allowing the divine to incarnate itself into the fiber and fabric of our lives. It means engaging in specific activities, tangible reminders, intentional words, visual - auditory - kinesthetic experiences.
So what would it look like to make spirituality a way of life for me? What intentional ways do I build into my day to be reminded of transcendence? How intentional are I about living life deeply and with greater awareness and enlightenment?
STAY TUNED TO PART 2: What are some tangible ways to facilitate a more pervasive spirituality?
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