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Spiritual Trapeze Artists: The Journey of Becoming

I remember when my kids were small taking them to a Ringling Bros. circus.  It was so much fun watching them be awed by all the commotion--roaring tigers, trumpeting elephants, fancy-suited bareback riders, brightly colored shouting clowns, comedic acrobats, ball and plate jugglers, jaw-dropping sword and fire swallowers.  And then the most dramatic of all--even I was looking forward to this act--the high-flying trapeze artists!Trapeze Artists There was always that moment (the one everyone goes to the circus for)--that moment of uncertainty and fear--when you could hear the collective breath being sucked in as the trapeze artist made one final swing and then let go of the bar.  We watched almost breathlessly as that woman soared through the air, wondering whether or not she would make it to the other bar at precisely the right time or whether she would fall precipitously to the net below.  What a collective sigh of relief that erupted into deafening applause when, sailing through that no-man's land of midair, she grabbed a hold of the opposite bar, swinging brilliantly and majestically up to the platform in the sky on the other side of the huge tent.

My kids were truly in awe.  I loved watching the expression of relief and delight on their faces.  I had the same look on mine.

Spirituality is a Journey of Becoming

Spirituality is essentially the journey of becoming.  In Christian terms we might speak of this as becoming our true self in God, becoming like Jesus, or merging and aligning our selves with the divine image in us.  In other spiritual traditions this concept is often presented in terms of becoming enlightened, awakening to what's true and highest, or becoming one with all that is.  In psychological language it is framed as becoming increasingly integrated, becoming free, or becoming all we can be, more whole and true to who we really are, more fully human and alive.

Early church father St. Irenaeus once wrote, "Man fully alive is the glory of God."

So the spiritual journey is about the process of becoming more fully human, more alive, more whole.  The two words "journey" and "becoming" signify two central elements of spirituality.  Both terms denote movement, dynamic process, stages of development.

And the reality is that the fulfillment of our God-given humanity doesn't happen automatically.  If it did, then the older people became, the more years they lived, the more fully developed and mature and whole they would be.  But we all know that isn't a given.  The becoming of spirituality is necessarily an intentional path.  It takes work, attention, practice, and persistence.

Spiritual Trapeze Artists

And this is where the trapeze metaphor comes in.  As in life, also in spirituality, every path has transition points.  So spirituality is a journey of learning the art of navigating transitions:  how and what to let go of, how to steer through the no man's zone of uncertainty before the new unfolds, and grabbing a hold of the new.  If we can't master these stages of transitions, our becoming is stunted.

That's exactly what happens when any one of the stages of metamorphosis for the butterfly is interrupted or messed with.  The egg becomes a larvae (a caterpillar which molts its skin 5-6 times) which becomes a pupa (during which it completely disintegrates in order to form a whole new body) which finally emerges in a rather violent and painful-looking process to become a beautiful adult butterfly with wings.  Tamper with any one of those transitions of becoming and the butterfly ultimately dies.

Developing healthy and effective spiritual lives are dependent upon our ability to navigate well the many transitions along the path of life.  Unfortunately, many people are living stunted spiritual lives because they get stuck in one of the stages of transition--locked up, paralyzed.

The Danger of Stunted Spirituality

I have conversations often with people who are experiencing this spiritual stalemate.

Some have allowed themselves to see this stuck place as their new normal.  They simply live with it, even though they're feeling unhappy, unfulfilled, and a bit stale (when they're willing to look inside and admit what they're feeling).

Others are paralyzed by fear--fear of the unknown they see coming if they should let go of the bar and fly through the "neutral zone"; fear of conflict with others should they keep moving ahead spiritually which might lead to rejection or ridicule or other negative judgments by people; fear of disequilibrium, losing their balance and sense of normal; fear of giving up control over every aspect of their lives; fear of sliding backwards, losing ground, and feeling like a spiritual failure.  The list of fears I hear from people goes on and on.

But the truth is, the egg-larva-pupa never become the soaring butterfly without going through each stage successfully and willingly.

We have to face our fears.  We have to confront our sense of inadequacies.  We have to look our weaknesses squarely in the face.  We have to be willing to let go of that which is no longer serving us.  We have to face uncertainty and manage a sense of insecurity at times.  We have to dream of the new, envisioning what could be and who we could become more of, who we truly are.  And we have to chart a path for this becoming.  We have to want to be more fully alive.

"Igniting the Fire of Your Spiritual Life"

These are some of the reasons why I am having my cycle of three retreats called "Igniting the Fire of Your Spiritual Life."  Each retreat is centered on each of the three stages of spiritual transitions:  letting go (Winter), uncertainty and planting seeds (Spring), and harvesting and undergirding the new (Fall).  Participants will be guided through each of these stages in ways that honor who each person is and what it means to each one to become more fully human and alive.

And since this process of spiritual transition is challenging and sometimes difficult and anxious and uncertain, we're going on this journey in community with others who are hungering for a transformational spirituality, too.  We are not alone!  And we can reap the rewards of joy and greater contentment and empowerment with others.

I invite you to participate in this round which begins January 25-26.  There are four spots left.  Here is the link to more information and registration:  "Igniting the Fire of Your Spiritual Life."

I Dare You to Trapeze!

Trapeze artist 2My wife and I were walking on the Santa Monica Pier a few years ago when we came across a place where people were being given lessons on trapezing.  We stopped and watched.  A woman was doing a courageous job of trying to go from one swing to the other.  Bless her heart!  She encountered one fall after another.  I was glad there was a huge net below to catch her every time she fell.  But to her credit, and to our admiration, she kept trying.  Her instructor kept guiding her, giving suggestions, helping her.  And she kept trying.  I wasn't sure how long we wanted to stay.  But just about when we turned to leave, she swung way out on the right trajectory, let go of the bar, sailed through the air, and caught the next bar.  Grabbing tightly, she swung herself up to the next platform, beaming from ear to ear.  She had a look of extreme delight, satisfaction, and pure joy!  She made it ... and made it well!

That's what I wish for you and me on our spiritual journeys of becoming more human and fully alive.  Navigating our transitions will bring us the same exhilaration and satisfaction, too!  We just need to hang in there and keep going for it.  The egg-larva-pupa will become a butterfly.  You and I will become more deeply and fully ourselves in God's image.  So why not!

Developing A Faith That Works, 3: Two Metaphors

[Please SHARE this blog with people who might be interested!  Hit the button on the right to subscribe or to share the post] We're talking about faith and the different meanings attached to that word.  We've discovered that faith is more than just a matter of the head - what you believe about God and life - notional propositions.  Faith is a matter of the heart.  And there are three words for faith used to describe this picture.  The first word is "fiducia" which means "trust, confidence."  See my blog entry about that word. Now we're dealing with the second word for FAITH, "fidelitas" - which literally means fidelity, allegiance, loyalty, faithfulness.  How does this word define "faith" as a part of the spiritual journey?  What nuances does this word "fidelity" suggest about the faith life?  Scripture uses two intriguing and very personal metaphors to describe the faith experience.  These metaphors provide a glimpse into what genuine faith is not.  The first is adultery and the second is idolatry.  Let's consider these a bit.

Fidelity vs. Spiritual Adultery

Here's the way one author describes this metaphor:  “When the Bible speaks about adultery, most often it is not speaking about human sexual relationships.  Sometimes it is, as in the Ten Commandments and in some other passages.  But when the prophets indict the chosen nation of Israel as adulterous or Jesus speaks of ‘an evil and adulterous generation,’ they are not saying that there is a lot of spouse swapping going on.  Rather, they are referring to unfaithfulness to God and God’s covenant [which involves their personal and corporate calling and identity].” (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity)

So what does this say about faith?  Let's unpack the metaphor.  I have a bit of credibility with this since I can speak from a very painful personal experience.  But the lessons I've learned are hugely significant to life and spirituality.  I can understand more clearly and deeply why scripture uses this metaphor to talk about the spiritual journey.

What is the nature of adultery?  At its simplest, adultery is a loss of loyalty and faithfulness to a covenant.  Right?  It’s a shift in loyalty, steadfastness, and allegiance from one person to another.  Sometimes it’s very subtle and invisible.  Adultery in a relationship happens long before the bed is involved.  Small shifts in attraction or connection.  And with every shift to another, there’s an equal shift away from the other.  So adultery isn’t simply something a person does in a new relationship, it’s also something that person isn’t doing in the covenanted  relationship – and usually that shift comes first.

So adultery in scripture is referring to unfaithfulness to the covenant between the people and their God.  What would the Hebrew prophets be referring to by using this metaphor – how were the people unfaithful to the covenant?  What were subtle shifts taking place in their attention and commitment to the God of their covenant?  What were things they stopped doing in that covenant that led them to shift allegiances?  Significantly, often in the context of this accusation is a reference to the people’s refusal to honor the poor, widows, orphaned, and marginalized among them – a neglect of taking care of those in need – they were dishonest in their financial dealings, they robbed people by charging interest – the religious bureaucracy would enforce their own views of religion and God on the people, setting up impossible rules esp. for the poor and economically disadvantaged, portraying God as a vengeful Judge. Their role was suppose to be to represent the truth about God by how they treated each other.  And yet they built a very exclusive community and religion, considering other people less than themselves.

So when Jesus came along and made the profound declaration, "If you've done it to the least of these people (the poor, orphaned, hungry, captives), you've done it to me," the fact that they were not taking care of these disadvantaged among them meant that they were not being loyal to God.  And that shift away from the needy was a shift away from God.  Which led to shifts in loyalty to other gods (we'll see this in the next metaphor).  All of this was called by the prophets spiritual adultery – unfaithfulness to God and the covenant with God.   Here's a classic passage from one of the Hebrew prophets about this (Jeremiah 7):

7 “How can I pardon you? For even your children have turned from me. They have sworn by gods that are not gods at all! I fed my people until they were full. But they thanked me by committing adultery and lining up at the brothels …

23 But my people have stubborn and rebellious hearts. They have turned away and abandoned me.

28 They refuse to provide justice to orphans and deny the rights of the poor.

31 the prophets give false prophecies, and the priests rule with an iron hand. Worse yet, my people like it that way!"

Notice the powerful emotional shift the people are experiencing away from God - the last line:  "My people like it that way!"  The allegiance has completely turned, a new loyalty has been formed away from God - they actually like "the other" better.  And it's being revealed by how they live their lives with the disadvantaged and needy among them.  They no longer value what their God values.

So faith as loyalty, fidelity, and faithfulness to God (in the context of this metaphor of adultery) involves keeping focus on God, not allowing shifts in devotion and loyalty away from God; it involves paying attention to what God pays attention to; centering one’s self on God’s intent for life; being true to our calling and purpose and God-given identity; valuing what God values by living in alignment with the highest values of life.  Placing your heart on God by placing your heart on what God places the divine heart.  Which leads to the second metaphor.

Fidelity vs. idolatry

Here's an interesting take on the meaning of "idolatry" in the context of our faith journey.  I came across a fascinating connection with fidelity in the electronic and technology world.  Here's the definition:

“FIDELITY is the degree to which the output of a system accurately reproduces the essential characteristics of its input signal. Thus, high fidelity in a sound system means that the reproduced sound is virtually indistinguishable from that picked up by the microphones in the recording or broadcasting studio. Similarly, a television system has a high fidelity when the picture seen on the screen of a receiver corresponds in essential respects to that picked up by the television camera. Fidelity is achieved by designing each part of a system to have minimum distortion, so that the waveform of the signal is unchanged as it travels through the system.” (Sci-Tech Encyclopedia)

So the concept of fidelity in electronics is about achieving a pure alignment and congruency between the input signal and the output signal.  What comes in is what goes out.

What does this say about faith as fidelity?

Scripture also uses the metaphor of idolatry to describe the opposite of fidelity in faith.  So using the above illustration of fidelity from the electronic world, idolatry would then be a lack of alignment or congruency between the input and output of our lives.  In other words, we’re not being true to ourselves, to the divine image in us, which is another way of saying we’re not being true to God and God’s purpose/design for us.  We have allowed a disconnect to exist.  Idolatry is incongruence – a shift in our allegiance from who God made us to be to who we think we're suppose to be (perhaps someone else's image of us or who they think we should be).  Either way, we’re “worshiping other gods” by not being ourselves.

So what is fidelity in this case?  A willingness to be a transparent and unobstructed channel through which the Divine Spirit flows.  Letting God’s Spirit continue creating the divine image in us so that we manifest God’s love and goodness in clearer and clearer ways.  And the divine flow through us is always manifested most accurately and powerfully when we're living in alignment with who we are, our true identity, our God-given purpose.

Here's the point:  When we allow and discipline ourselves to focus on these qualities we are placing ourselves in direct connection with God’s Spirit and we become transformed – the disconnect between the source of the input and our output is removed.  We become congruent with God.  THAT’S THE PROCESS OF FIDELITY.  It's a deliberate and intentional choice to be in harmony with God - to allow the heart of God to shape our heart, to value what God values, to live in alignment with the divine passion to show compassion, care, support, and loving action toward ourselves, others, and the world - and to all of this in our own unique, special, and God-designed way.

Jesus made this point when he summarized the entire Hebrew scriptures (what Christians often refer to as the Old Testament):  love God with all your heart, mind, soul and body, and love your neighbor as yourself; on these two commandments rests the entire law of God.

Idolatry (the opposite of fidelity) is about allowing our hearts, our attention, our values to shift away from God and what God values to other interests - when we try to live someone else's life instead of being who God made each of us to be - when we become preoccupied with ourselves to the exclusion of caring for others - when our egos take control and we become unable to live beyond ourselves in self-forgetfulness and compassion - when we become obsessed with fear, anxiety, insecurity in our relationship with God and the world.  Interesting picture of idolatry, isn't it!

God's Fidelity and Faithfulness

In the end, what is it that empowers us toward fidelity and faithfulness?  Sacred scriptures make clear that our loyalty and faithfulness with God are radically empowered by a recognition and embracing of the central core truth of the divine nature:  God’s unconditional compassion and faithfulness.  One of the great theologians, Paul Tillich, defined faith as “the courage to accept acceptance.” Imagine what your confidence level in living life would be like if you lived from the truth of your complete and unconditional acceptance - if you truly knew your self and uncategorically accepted your self the way God accepts you!

Fidelity is not about never sinning, never being selfish and self-centered, always doing everything perfectly and never failing.  Fidelity is about faithfulness to the journey.  Staying on the journey with Life, with God.  Having the courage to accept God’s acceptance so that we give it gently and patiently to ourselves and to others.  Fidelity is about staying on the journey!

And what is the most powerful motivation for us to keep on keeping on is the central truth of scripture:  God’s faithfulness (even in the midst of our unfaithfulness).  Here’s how one of the Hebrew prophets put it in the context of one of the most beautiful love stories in scripture.  God reaffirming his commitment to his people after they have been so unfaithful to him.  Listen to a piece of this powerful poem from Hosea 2:

14 “But then I will win her back once again.  I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her there. 15 I will return her vineyards to her and transform the Valley of Trouble into a gateway of hope. She will give herself to me there, as she did long ago when she was young, when I freed her from her captivity in Egypt.

16 When that day comes,” says the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’ instead of ‘my master.

17 O Israel, I will wipe the many names of Baal from your lips, and you will never mention them again.

18 On that day I will make a covenant with all the wild animals and the birds of the sky and the animals that scurry along the ground so they will not harm you. I will remove all weapons of war from the land, all swords and bows, so you can live unafraid in peace and safety.

19 I will make you my wife forever, showing you righteousness and justice, unfailing love and compassion.

20 I will be faithful to you and make you mine, and you will finally know me as the Lord.” (Hosea 2)

I know this faithfulness personally!  What has kept me going with boldness and courage and persistence, even through the darkness of my own failures and stumbles, is experiencing in the very core of my self that commitment and loyalty God has for me.  It continues to transform and empower my life!  Faith is about staying on the journey with a faithful God.

Here's my prayer:  “God reminds me, no matter what I’ve done, whether great or ungreat, successful or unsuccessful – my faithlessness to God or anyone else doesn’t negate God’s faithfulness to me!  God is committed to me forever, no matter what!  So I will live in this truth!  Embrace it!  Let it melt my heart and fill it with hope and courage and relentless trust!  God believes in me, period!  And with this loyalty together, we will go on to change the world!  Amen.”

Stay tuned for word three for faith in my next blog.  Thanks for staying on this journey of exploration about faith.