Remember the story about the stonecutter centuries ago? He was chiseling a huge piece of stone, pieces of rock flying from his pounding hammer. All the while he was whistling and humming as he worked. A passerby stopped and asked him why he could make music while doing such mundane and arduous work. He said, "I'm not just chiseling stone. I'm making a cathedral."
The Tiger and the Fox An old Sufi story* tells about a man walking through the forest who saw a fox that had lost its legs and the man wondered how it lived. Then he saw a tiger come up with game in its mouth. The tiger ate its fill and left the rest of the meat for the fox.
The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger. The man began to wonder at God's greatness and said to himself, "I too shall rest in a corner with full trust in the Lord and he will provide me with all that I need."
He did this for many days but nothing happened. He was almost at death's door from starvation when he heard a voice say, "O you who are in the path of error, open your eyes to the truth! Stop imitating the disabled fox and follow the example of the tiger."
Three Nonnegotiables for Healthy Spiritual Living
This ancient story reveals several secrets to effective spiritual living and why we need people to become truly self actualized.
One, spirituality is deeply relational.
The fabric of our being is communal and relational. We thrive the most when we learn how to live effectively within the context of our relationships.
There's no such thing as a Lone Ranger spirituality.
There's this myth about spirituality in contrast to religion that says that spirituality is personal and private, while religion is communal. Not true!
Effective, transformational spirituality is not about living up on the mountaintop in direct communication with the Universe, like the stereotypical picture of the monk or guru who sits up on the peak alone receiving and dispensing the wisdom of life to intrepid and interested mountain climbers or spiritual seekers.
Effective spirituality is like the tiger in our story---taking what feeds us and sharing it with hungry people. And the truth is, everyone in our circles of relationships are hungry in various ways.
Spirituality is essentially relational because our growth as people is directly impacted by our ability to relate to people. It's in our relationships where the rubs of life so often take place. So unless we learn how to navigate those "rubs" - our journey toward becoming more actualized humans on this planet of people by living life well among people - we isolate our spirituality and it eventually withers into ineffectiveness.
Two, relational spirituality reframes faith and trust.
The man in our story was rebuked by God for trying to imitate the passiveness of the fox rather than the active sharing of the tiger.
Many people have the view of spirituality as mostly sitting and waiting on God. "It's just you and me, God," they say. "God will provide. I just need to have enough faith in order to experience God's intervention." It's the "monk in the cave" or "guru on the mountaintop" approach.
The problem with this kind of spiritual paradigm is that it leads to isolationism. If God only acted directly, why would you need others? If you could become completely self-actualized in a vacuum, why would you need others? God could simply put each of us in a sealed off vacuum chamber until we finalized achieved perfection, and then let us free.
Trust in God or the Universe is not just sitting in a corner trying to convince yourself that you will be provided for if you simply have enough faith.
I've discovered in my life that most often the way God has provided for me is through other people who have shared their love, generosity, and support with me. God has used "the tigers" in my life to bless me time and time again.
My willingness to open myself up to other people, to be willing to receive from them, is an act of radical trust in God and the humanity that God chooses to work through. My willingness to stop trying to be "superman," mister omnicompetent superhero in life who can go it alone very well, thank you, and instead realize my need for other people to help me grow into the man I'm meant to be, is an act of radical trust in God and the people God chooses to use in my life.
Three, spirituality demands a relational environment because at the heart of spirituality is forgiveness and love.
All spiritual traditions describe the fundamental nature of God with the word love. God is love.
Here's the way the Christian scriptures state this reality:
"Since God loved us that much [Jesus giving his life to forgive us], we surely ought to love each other. No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and God's love has been brought to full expression through us...God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them." 1 John 4:11-12
In the one of the most concise descriptions of the divine nature, we are reminded that God is love. And notice that central to the attribute of divine love is forgiveness. And the natural progression of that spiritual experience is that we are then people who love and therefore who forgive others.
Our spiritual development, the process of becoming more and more self actualized as human beings, is to learn how to love more deeply and more completely. We learn to love ourselves. And we learn to love others. Spiritual growth is about growing in the process of loving well.
But you and I cannot truly love either ourselves or others without learning how to forgive. The point is, it is only within the context of relationships---where we experience the bumps and bruises of life---that we learn how to love and forgive. That's where healthy spirituality is developed.
Loving and Forgiving Without Judgment
One of the obstacles we often face with loving and forgiving is our tendency to judge people. Notice in our story, the tiger gives food to the disabled fox without condemning or judging the fox. The tiger refuses to interrogate the fox about how it lost its legs. Was it being irresponsible? Who's fault was it? Did the fox make bad or unwise choices that led to this tragic loss?
No, the tiger saw the need and without judgment gave of its own abundance.
Divine love and forgiveness are always without conditions. They are simply given, no strings attached. That's why those actions and predispositions with God are called grace.
The truth is, you and I as human beings simply cannot grow spiritually to our most actualized selves outside the context of our relationships. Why? Because it is in our relationships where we are forced to rub up against others and they with us in a way that prompts and teaches us what it means to really love and forgive in every context of our lives.
So which do you find yourself modeling or identifying more with in your spiritual life? The man who tried to be like the fox, or the tiger?
* Adapted from Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, p. 79.
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There's an old rabbinical story that tells about two brothers living "time before time, when the world was young." They each shared a field and a mill. Each night they divided evenly the grain they had ground together during the day. Now as it happened, one of the brothers lived alone; the other had a wife and a large family. One day, the single brother thought to himself: "It isn't really fair that we divide the grain evenly. I have only myself to care for, but my brother has children to feed."
So each night he secretly took some of his grain to his brother's granary to see that he was never without.
But the married brother said to himself one day, "It isn't really fair that we divide the grain evenly, because I have children to provide for me in my old age, but my brother has no one. What will he do when he is old?"
So every night he secretly took some of his grain to his brother's granary.
As a result, both of them always found their supply of grain mysteriously replenished each morning.
Then one night the brothers met each other halfway between their two houses, suddenly realized what had been happening, and embraced each other in love.
The story is that God witnessed their meeting and proclaimed, "This is a holy place---a place of love---and here it is that my temple shall be built."
"And so it was. The holy place, where God is made known, is the place where human beings discover each other in love." *
Here are four ways from this story that our relationships can be turned into holy temples where God chooses to dwell.
First, God's holy place on earth is the intersection between people where love is the center.
Our relationships of love are where God's temple is. Those relationships are sacred ground. When people respond to each other from a spirit of love and compassion, a temple of God is raised up. God is revealed best and most completely within relationships of love.
Second, relationships become centered on love when each person looks at the other in a spirit of compassion and chooses to give what the other needs the most.
The spirit of compassion is antithetical to a competitive, win-lose worldview. Sacred relationships are based upon a win-win paradigm. We give what the other needs, not what we need to give. We love in the language of the other so that our act of love is truly experienced as love by the other.
Third, a relationship of love doesn't necessarily mean both people agree with each other on everything.
Our ability to love each other pragmatically in the midst of our differences creates God's temple. Contrary to popular opinion, love God's way doesn't mean having to unilaterally agree. God's way of loving is giving to others no matter what, even when we disagree.
Fourth, people are empowered to love compassionately and generously when they see the other as their brother or sister.
Family members certainly don't all agree with each other---whether politically, theologically, philosophically, sociologically. Families inherently contain great diversity. But because they're all family, blood runs thicker than water. Until we start seeing all others as members of our great global family---children of God, every one---we will continue struggling to give love and compassion graciously and generously to those we disagree with and are different than.
Fifth, when people are in a relationship of love, they're content to give to the other anonymously, without credit or recognition.
The joy is in the giving because, as A Course In Miracles emphasizes, when a person gives, they always receive. The New Testament references this reality when it says we reap what we sow. In this universe, you can never give away something you don't also receive. So you don't need credit or recognition in order to receive something; you've already received what you've given away. When you give, you are never in a place of deficit.
When you and I deliberately and intentionally design our relationships to be centered on love, compassion, generosity, and grace---because we recognize and acknowledge our brotherhood and sisterhood with all others---we enter into the holy temple of God, we are on sacred ground.
"And so it was. The holy place, where God is made known, is the place where human beings discover each other in love."
So how many sacred temples do you have in your life these days?
* Belden C. Lane, "Rabbinical Stories: A Primer on Theological Method," Christian Century 98:41 (December 16, 1981), pp. 1307-8.
I have to admit I'm getting tired of reading more articles arguing about the whole notion of choosing to be spiritual but not religious. I'm not tired about the theme—because I happen to be one of those who believe in the genuineness of spirituality outside of religious institutions. I work with people in this category all the time and continue to be impressed with their sincerity and passion to be spiritual and compassionate people. And indeed they are. So I'm tired of the pejorative tendency on the part of so many religious people to judge those who choose to remain unaffiliated or unattached to religious institutions but who still want to pay attention to their spirituality.
There was even a study that went viral stating that people who were spiritual but not religious had more mental illness than religious people. "Aw, you see! It's unhealthy to be spiritual but not religious," chortled the religion advocates.
Then I read some religious leaders' attempts to bolster that study's conclusions, stating dubious evidence that was suppose to support such a superficial and narrow judgment. “Enough’s enough,” I said silently to them. “It’s time to get over it!” There are simply different legitimate ways to building one’s spirituality.
Church leaders, whose sole mission is to support and perpetuate organized religious institutions, speak out demonizing the SBNR (spiritual but not religious, which happens to be the fastest growing religious demographic in America right now). SBNR adherents fight back, naturally so, arguing why they choose to be SBNR instead of religious affiliation. Both sides consider the other irrelevant and out of touch.
Truth is, both sides have elements of truth as well as misguided, incomplete perspective in their convictions.
Three Vital Characteristics of Healthy Spirituality
So I thought I would evaluate this tug-of-war in the context of three vital characteristics of Healthy Spirituality. Can a person be spiritual without being religious, and can a person be religious without being spiritual? Is it Either/Or (all or nothing) or Both/And? Or Neither?
CHARACTERISTIC ONE: Healthy Spirituality is a life of engagement and connection, not a life of isolation and alienation. Paul Tournier, psychiatrist and author, makes the observation: "There are two things in life you cannot do alone—be married, and be spiritual."
Now on face value, this truth would seem to favor religion's indictment against SBNR. But not quite so fast.
We have to realize--and the more I spend time with people who consider themselves SBNR, the more I see this side--that there are many different ways of developing a life of engagement and connection. Most of the SBNRs I know believe wholeheartedly in living within meaningful community and relationships. They just do it outside of religious institutions. They have deep connections with people where those connections are enjoyed in multiple and diverse environments--they just don't choose to do it within churches, synagogues, or mosques.
Looking for a place to learn and partner with not necessarily belong. I have seen, as I've watched the trends in spirituality and religious affiliations, that more and more people if they look to churches at all, look to them not for providing a place to belong, but as a potential place to stimulate their spiritual growth and personal development and as potential partners in addressing the many social ills of our world. They want to learn. They want to partner.
But they're not as interested in "signing up" for a place in which to build and establish all their relationships. They want to be given tools and practices that help them experience greater life transformation but are not necessarily looking to "consume" the entire menu of services and ministries that a congregation encourages its members to engage in which often includes that church’s entire belief system. They feel no need or desire for the whole cafeteria.
But isn’t that self-centered? This is one of the issues that irks religious leaders and adherents. Their indictment is, "That's completely self-centered!" Their point is that healthy spirituality has to be lived within community (and it usually comes down to their community) because that's where we rub up against others who may be different than us and therefore it teaches us to learn how to relate, how to forgive, how to soften the sharp edges of our personalities and spiritual lives.
Community in different places. The truth is, both groups believe in the importance of community facilitating healthy spirituality. But they each look for it in different places. Admittedly, both groups have people who think they can be loners in life and still be spiritually healthy. Neither group is immune from this temptation. Both need to look strategically and intentionally for community in which to learn the art of spiritual growth and spiritual health. The point is, let's stop judging the others’ strategy by thinking we have the exclusive environment to shape meaningful community and spiritual life.
CHARACTERISTIC TWO, Healthy Spirituality involves a particular way of relating to others and to the world. It's not just relating that is important, it's how we relate. It involves relating in love.
Just before entering the Promised Land after wandering in the wilderness for so many years, God offered the Israelites a very clear and stark choice:
"I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendents may live, in the love of Yahweh your God" (Deuteronomy 30:19-20).
Notice that choosing life, from God's perspective, is the same as choosing love. They go hand in hand with each other. Life and love.
Here's the way Dr. David Benner, in his book Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human, puts it:
"Choosing life is choosing love. And genuine love cannot remain for long as simply love of my life. Love of life is contagious. It spreads to all facets of my life, and it spreads to others. That is the nature of love. If I really love life, I cannot help but begin to value your life as well as mine. If I genuinely love life, I will treat all life as sacred. If I genuinely love life, I will care for the world because I care for the generations of humans who may yet be born." (p. 73)
Needing a conversation centered on love. It's sobering to me that so much of the conversation between religious adherents and those who don't religiously affiliate devolves into shouting matches about who's right and who's wrong. There's no genuine dialogue emanating from a place of love, honor, and respect for the Other. Instead there's finger pointing, judgments against the other, drawing lines in the sand where the side each is standing is the only true side.
That's not love. Is it?
Ironically, love is touted as the supreme value in every major religion. And yet history is filled with examples of hate and judgment and violence against those who disagree with the accepted norm of religious allegiance.
Love not tolerance. I'm tired of people elevating the concept of tolerance in this world. That's not love. Love is compassion, caring, support, honoring, and blessing the other--not simply tolerating the other.
Healthy spirituality is about choosing to learn how to love more completely and deeply in every environment and setting of life. And when we don't do it well, then we ask for forgiveness, and continue learning and practicing more effective ways to love others, especially those we disagree with.
Though both groups--the SBNRs and religious adherents--elevate the experience of love as defining genuine spirituality, the track record isn't very good about this happening effectively between them. Both groups need to keep trying. And both groups need to allow the other to learn the art of genuine loving wherever they choose their place of community and their style of artfulness.
CHARACTERISTIC THREE, Healthy Spirituality, which always engages in a life of love, is anti-legalism and anti-ritualism.
This is a defining characteristic. Here's what I mean by this. I do not mean that healthy spirituality is against law, rules, rituals, practices. Not quite. Rules, rituals, and practices are tools to help facilitate a deeper transformational spiritual life.
Every religion, and people who claim no religion, engage in practices and rituals to help themselves become better human beings—like meditation, breathing, mindfulness, prayer, scripture or devotional reading, or attendance in gatherings that lead a person to a higher spiritual place where their hearts-minds-souls can be inspired and moved (be it in church services or workshops or seminars or retreats).
People who take spirituality seriously believe that it's in relationships where we learn how to love and forgive the most effectively. Developing healthy relationships is one of the greatest spiritual practices and rituals of all. Relationships are our laboratory for the soul. And the list of meaningful, effective practices is long.
“Ism-izing” spiritual practices. What I mean by genuine love being anti-legalism and anti-ritualism is a refusal to "worship" form over content or outcome. In other words, when we elevate the style of practice over what the practice is suppose to accomplish in our lives we have "ism-ized" that experience. We end up saying, "Your spiritual practice has to look like this and not look like that." Or "True spirituality favors our accepted, traditional method or way of stating a belief."
I remember when I pastored traditional churches encountering some elders and deacons who believed that for the communion service to be legitimate, we had to cover the table of communion emblems (the bread and the grape juice) with a white cloth before the service, take it off during the service, and then put it back on immediately before the service concluded. Anything short of that was sacrilegious.
And when the service was over, the unused pieces of bread and grape juice had to be disposed of in precisely the "right" way to maintain the holiness. One church insisted on emptying the emblems into the toilet, another insisted on emptying them into a fire pit and burning it all. Both believed equally that their method was the right one. And if I didn't ask for it to be done the right way, or carry it out perfectly, I was deeply criticized and judged as a "less than faithful" pastoral leader.
That is "ism-izing" a practice ... where love has lost its true place in the spiritual life in favor of legalism and ritualism—when the rule or the ritual/practice supercedes the love it is suppose to generate. We cast deep value judgments against people who act or behave or believe differently than we think is right. We are convinced our way is the most effective way toward genuine spirituality.
Religious form instead of spiritual truth. Jesus spoke vehemently about this tendency among the religious leaders of his day. He exposed their "isms" when he pointed out things like "You are like whitewashed tombs--you look good on the outside, but inside you are filled with dead people's bones--you insist on tithing even the tiniest part of your income, but ignore the weightier things of the law, like justice, mercy, and faith." (Matthew 23:23, 27)
Jesus was indicting a form of religiosity--legalism and ritualism--for its separation of love from law—in essence being religious without being spiritual—adhering to the letter of the law but not the spirit of it. People were great at paying ten percent of their income--they practiced that spiritual ritual perfectly and faithfully. But they were neglecting the actual practice or outcome of being loving with others, especially those they didn't agree with or who were different then they. That’s legalism and ritualism.
This is one of the biggest indictments of Church I hear from people who have disengaged from religion.
Jesus’ core value. I’m inspired by the way the eminent Islamic scholar Khalifa Abdul Halim describes Jesus' core value here:
"In Jesus we have the culminating point of that upward movement where God and religion are completely identified with love which has preference over all the legalism and ritualism."
Healthy Spirituality--the kind Jesus advocated--is anti-legalism and anti-ritualism. Jesus summarized the entire Jewish Law (in the Old Testament) with love. "On these two commandments hang the whole Law, and the Prophets--you will love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second resembles it: You must love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 5:43-44)
Healthy spirituality, both inside and outside religion, always centers on love; and the ultimate test of it being how we show up with those with whom we have our biggest disagreements.
"Just as love was the measure of his own life, so too Jesus made it the measure of human fulfillment and the supreme criterion of healthy spirituality" (David Benner, p. 73).
The only question that matters. So the only question that truly matters—the question that helps guard against legalism and ritualism, in the end—is, Does this practice, this rule, this ritual empower me to love the Other more deeply and completely? Does it help me to be more forgiving and honoring of all people, especially of those with whom I disagree?
Jesus truly stated the bottom line when he said, “By this will all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)
A Church that doesn’t genuinely love, and treat with equal honor and respect, all people is actually being religious without being spiritual. A nonreligious person that refuses to love all people is only being nonreligious without being spiritual.
It’s time for all of us, whatever our religious or nonreligious perspectives, to step into a more Healthy Spirituality as we hold ourselves accountable to genuine love for all others.
The song features two individuals: Eleanor Rigby, a woman who lives alone, and Father MacKenzie, the priest of the local parish. The suggested tragedy is that these two individuals never meet up in any meaningful way, never connect with each other beyond perhaps a perfunctory "hello" at the end of weekly mass.
During the week, Eleanor stands at the window of her small apartment looking out at the world, wishing she could be out there among people and be truly seen and accepted for who she is. Instead, she keeps a "face" inside a jar beside the door to put on whenever she emerges from her lonely little world inside her apartment. She's afraid of not being loved and accepted for who she is. So she puts on the "face" she thinks will be acceptable.
The one time the song describes her emerging, it's to attend a wedding. But that only increases her angst. She picks up the rice in the church where the wedding has been and wishes it was for her. "Who is it for?" She's consigned to live a fantasy of imagining and longing it's her.
Meanwhile, Father MacKenzie spends his week writing his Sunday sermon. But the song points out that he writes sermons that no one hears. The implication is that very few people are there at church on Sunday. And whoever does attend isn't very interested in his words. He feels useless and meaningless. But he keeps writing in his little study because it keeps him occupied, away from the lonely reality of his life and his own existential angst. Better to be alone in his office then out with people who don't "see" him, either.
And at night, all by himself, "Look at him working, darning his socks in the night when there's nobody there, What does he care?" Like Eleanor who keeps her face in a jar by the door to be able to put on when she might go out or someone might visit, he darns his socks to get ready to use when he goes out. He must look good, after all, for whoever might notice. But of course, no one ever does.
As the chorus theme repeats, "All the lonely people, Where do they all come from? All the lonely people, Where do they all belong?"
Two lives, living alone, not really "seen" by anyone. One is too busy writing sermons to notice the other. The other is too busy worrying about what others might think about her to notice him. Two ships passing in the night.
Until finally the end comes when the two meet up. Father MacKenzie officiates Eleanor Rigby's funeral. And this tragedy becomes complete:
"Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name, Nobody came. Father Mckenzie wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave, No one was saved."
The Beatles' indictment against the institutionalized Church is driven home. A lonely woman is completely forgotten. Her name is buried with her body. And all Father MacKenzie is concerned about is whether she or anybody else was saved or not by his sermons.
Here's the way one reviewer put it: "This song is a bold-faced accusation against the self-righteous and overly religious that refuse to reach out to the all the lonely people and then wonder why so few come to church. This song is saying that it isn't enough to be friendly. This song is saying that as long as people, especially religious people, remain cold and aloof, the Eleanor Rigby's of this world will continue to die and be 'buried along with her name.'"
Isn't it a tragedy that institutions too often get so self-absorbed with their own structures, rituals, rules, and policies--the "work" they simply have to keep carrying on--that individual people are forgotten or set aside or even neglected. It writes its sermons in the isolation of the office and study, It conducts Its "business" in the isolation of Its board rooms, oftentimes ironically not connecting to the very people It's suppose to be loving, helping, and paying attention to. Rather than trying to listen to people's stories, it's easier to preach them sermons.
And whatever attention is given to the people, it's attention more for their "salvation" than their personal needs and interests. The religious institution allows their faces to remain in the jars beside their door. In other words, people have to put on the mask in order to feel accepted and loved and embraced by the Church.
And what results? As Eleanor Rigby reminds us, "All the lonely people, Where do they all come from? All the lonely people, Where do they all belong?"
In contrast, Jesus said, "I have come that people will have life, abundant life." How different Eleanor Rigby's "song" would be if the followers of Jesus would give the same gifts He came to give: abundant life now and for ever. And central to the experience of abundant living is meaningful connections with others, being truly "seen" and "heard" and loved.
If this happened with greater regularity, as part of the very DNA of the Church, the Eleanor's of the world could emerge from their apartments into a world filled with love and compassion and acceptance. Preachers would feel the courage to connect with others and even themselves without agendas other than to simply love and be loved in ways people and themselves need it the most.
It's time for a new stanza to Eleanor Rigby.
"What the country needs right now is a good hedgehog." So begins Wednesday's insightful editorial by Arianna Huffington ("Why America Is Deeply in Need of a Good Hedgehog"). Which begs the question: what is a hedgehog and why do we need one? Fox Or Hedgehog?
She references Isaiah Berlin, well-known British philosopher, who in 1953 laid out two opposing styles of leadership--foxes and hedgehogs--taking his cue from a line in an ancient Greek poem by Archilochus: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."
She notes: "According to Berlin, the fox will 'pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way.' In contrast, the hedgehog offers an 'unchanging, all embracing... unitary inner vision.'" The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.
The Power of Focus
So why is this an important quality? There's something very powerful about focus. Recent brain science tells us that focus and attention on something you believe is possible actually prompt the brain to begin charting a path, called a motor map, toward the realization of that goal. The brain acts on the power of your focus and begins setting into place (creating) what you imagine. From your focus, it actually determines the best route that will take you to your goal.
Cultural Habits Work Against Us
So with this built-in tool to help us, why is it so difficult? We live in a culture that demands our attention every time we turn around. And we've given it 24/7 access to us through our smartphones, computers, iPads, laptops, radio, TV. I notice that when I'm working on my computer, even though I'm deeply focused on the screen with what I'm doing, my eyes wander to the 20 other tabs I have open in my browser. And before I know it, I'm browsing the latest news in those tabs. Or I hear a text come to my iPhone so I immediately look at it. Focus gone. Attention lost. And when I return to my document, I have to read again what I've already written in order to get back into focus. Time lost.
Comparing Hedgehogs and Foxes
The power of the hedgehog is its focus on the one big thing important to it. It drills down without distraction or dilution. It focuses on what it knows it does best and does it again and again.
The fox is all over the place, going really fast here and there. It's very busy and active--it has a million different ideas, scampering from one to the other. It might look to an outside observer that it's sure getting 'er done and being really successful.
But busyness isn't synonymous with effectiveness. Activity, activating, don't necessarily mean productively purposeful or purposefully productive.
So whenever the fox wants to grab the hedgehog for its next meal, attempting its million different strategies for stealth attacks, the hedgehog simply rolls into a spiky ball. And the fox ends up the loser every time.
So what is that one big important thing to you? What do you live for? What do you work for? What are you in relationships for? Is there a common thread in those life areas that would help define your "one big important" thing? What are you truly focused on? What holds your attention? What do you know you're better at than anything else? What one thing do you wish you could do more than all others? Answering those questions will help to identify your hedgehog.
All spiritual traditions through the centuries have reminded us that effective spirituality is about developing focus and attention. You could call it Hedgehog Spirituality.
I'm reminded of one of the successful spiritual luminaries in the Bible who delivered a very hedgehog-like statement: "13 I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us." (Philippians 3)
St. Paul expresses a very hedgehogian perspective. "I focus on this one thing." Remember, the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. And St. Paul is choosing to stay focused on his one thing.
And to do this hedgehog-like experience, notice what he has to include: forgetting the past, and pressing on to the end goal. That's the power of focus.
Brain scientists tells us that when we focus on one thing thing (especially inspirational, positive things like hope, allowing our imaginations to hold it and savor it), our brains immediately go to work establishing neural pathways that short circuit our tendency to fear which as St. Paul describes it can keep us anchored in the past. That positive focus engages our brain centers in charge of activating our behaviors to achieve that focus goal. As St. Paul said in another place, "By beholding, we become changed."
St. Paul's choice to focus and give powerful attention empowers him to stay pressing on, even when the going gets rough and tough and discouraging. Giving focus to our One Big Thing activates our brain to keep us pushing forward.
Runners all know that when you're running a fast race like the 100 yard dash you have to keep your face pointed forward. Otherwise, the moment you look around or sneak a glance sideways or backwards, your body loses speed, easing up even a tiny bit. And that tiny bit can cost you the win.
Notice the three runners in the picture at the right. Where are they focusing? Keep your focus forward.
St. Paul's Hedgehog
I'm inspired by St. Paul's One Big Thing--that which he kept his eyes upon, what he allowed his mind to savor and attend to. God through Jesus Christ. A few verses before this, Paul refers to the faithfulness of God. Paul is motivated, his life propelled forward, by his focus on a God revealed through Jesus who is faithful, who loves him without condition, who breathes life and soul into his spirit freely and abundantly, who has a prize waiting for him at the end of his race whether he comes in first or last. Faithfulness, compassion, relentless tenderness--the big L, Love.
Imagine living your entire life with your One Big Thing as Love, the divine kind of love. Imagine how that focus and attention would empower you to show up every where you go in Love--showing up at work in Love, showing up at home in Love, showing up at the grocery store in Love, showing up in your relationships in Love, showing up in your conflicts in Love, showing up in our world of need in Love.
What would it take to make Love your One Big Thing, your hedgehog, the one thing you do better than anything else, the one thing you are keeping your face forward focusing on, leaning into, savoring? And then imagine receiving that heavenly reward from the hands of a God who has been there beside you every step of the way.
What the world needs right now is a good hedgehog!
The Frog and the Princess Do you remember the fairy tale about the frog and the princess? A beautiful princess loses her favorite play thing, a dazzling golden globe, in a pond. A frog ends up finding it and bringing it back to her. Delighted and grateful, she promises the frog that it can come to her palace (never thinking it will take her up on the offer). The frog shows up later, much to her dismay and disgust. But feeling convicted of her need to be true to her word, she lets him enter, feeds him every day, and puts him to sleep every night in her bed. And then one morning, feeling sorry for it, she plants a gentle kiss on its head. Suddenly, the frog turns into a handsome prince ... and in true fairy tale fashion, they live happily ever after.
This simple story reveals the deep psychological connection between our attitudes toward people and their capacity for transformation. As one author says, "Only what you have not given is lacking in any situation." A counter-intuitive concept, isn't it.
As it turns out in the tale, the frog had once been a prince but had come under the evil spell of a wicked witch. She had turned him into a frog to live in a pond forever or at least until someone kissed him again. Sounds like the story of the Beauty and the Beast. An act you would least think of doing or even want to do is the act that brings transformation.
Our Typical Approach: the Blame Game
The author's statement is unusual to how we typically think. We often look at others (the people in our lives closest to us, especially) and think that the way they're choosing to behave is creating the lack in our relationship. "If she or he would just act this way or that way, we'd have a great relationship." Our focus is on wishing for something different from them. So we'll cajole, criticize, guilt, shame, or "encourage" a change in their behavior. It's the typical blame game.
But the quotation above states a counter-intuitive reality: what is lacking in any situation is what WE are not giving to it. That's not to say that the other person doesn't have responsibility for their behavior and actions in how they are contributing to either pain or joy, peace or conflict. They do have responsibility. But you and I cannot force their responsibility. And our delusion is in thinking we can "help" them change their ways. And as we often discover, unfortunately that only exacerbates the issues, certainly our own personal frustration and pain.
3 Principles for Healthy Relationships
Years ago I read Cecil Osborne's book "The Art of Understanding Your Mate" in which he points out that there are 3 primary principles in developing healthy, fulfilling relationships: 1. I cannot change other people; 2. I can only change myself; 3. But other people tend to change in response to my change.
Sounds like the fairy tale. As much as the princess shrank in disgust from housing the ugly frog, it was only when she softened her heart toward it and then ended up kissing it, that the frog was transformed back into what it had originally been created--a handsome prince. There was no amount of arguing, cajoling, guilting, shaming, forcing, criticizing she could do to change that frog. She had to change her attitude first.
So you and I have to ask ourselves the questions, "What is lacking in this relationship? What am I not giving that I can give to it from a place of authentic heart and soul?"
Loving First Is the Highest Way
Marianne Williamson, in her book "The Return to Love," states this reality: "What this signifies is the miraculous power of love to create a context in which people naturally blossom into their highest potential. Neither nagging, trying to get people to change, criticizing, or fixing can do that. The Course says we think we're going to understand people in order to figure out whether or not they're worthy of our love, but that actually, until we love them, we can never understand them. What is not loved is not understood."
In the fairy tale, the princess doesn't suddenly know the trick for transformation. She isn't aware a handsome prince is hiding inside the skin of an ugly, warty frog. She doesn't therefore simply grit her teeth and force herself to endure the gross act of kissing the ugly thing. She comes to a place where her heart softens to a frog not a prince. And she ends up kissing the frog in an act of gentle acceptance. When her heart was in a place of "pure love" her act brought transformation.
Now let's be honest: I don't think the princess ever really enjoyed having the cold, damp, warty frog sleeping in her bed or eating at the table right beside her in the royal dining room. We don't have to like the difficult characteristics of the people in our lives. And in some cases, their dysfunctions might be so dangerous for us we have to separate from them for safety's sake. We can't hold ourselves responsible for their irresponsible attitudes and behaviors. Sometimes, no amount of personal change can change the other.
But the principle is true: what is not loved is not understood; and accurately understanding the other is the foundation for compassion, empathy, and respect which all combine to reinforce a space of love which is the only environment in which genuine transformation can take place. Without that love and understanding, we hold ourselves separate from people and wait for them to earn our love or we resort to trying to force their change through whatever devious or not so subtle ways we can think up.
Accessing the Divine Miracle
So Marianne continues: "But people deserve our love because of what God created them to be. As long as we're waiting for them to be anything better, we will constantly be disappointed. But when we choose to join with them, through approval and unconditional love, the miracle kicks in for both parties. This is the primary key, the ultimate miracle, in relationships." (p-129-130)
Our attitude toward people powerfully impacts their capacity for transformation. The rub is that they have the ultimate choice (the whole freedom thing) for what they want to do with it. And painfully, sometimes they choose not to respond in kind to our love. But if transformation is going to happen, it will happen through our choice to love first.
But Frogs Are Disgusting!
The whole thought of kissing a frog is pretty disgusting. I grew up in the rice paddies of Japan spearing frogs for entertainment, not kissing them (I'm ashamed to admit ... I'm still not sure where that behavior came from ... the tendency toward violence of little boys is scary). We were told that if you even handled frogs you would get their worts. The whole point is that we were instilled with the attitude that you simply stay away from or certainly don't get close to, much less handle frogs.
No wonder this fairy tale points to such a counter-intuitive experience that we don't have much proclivity toward. We carry this "hold at arm's distance" philosophy into our human relationships. Relating to The Other (those who are different from us, who don't act or believe like us) is extremely difficult. So we tend to insist on the other "changing" first - we want them to change to become more like us in order for us to accept them and love them and embrace them.
We see this paradigm manifested in attitudes toward people of other religions and belief systems, sexual orientations, political parties, racial profiles, and yes, even in our closest relationships in marriage, romance, and friendships. No wonder our world is in such a mess!
Following the Divine Way
I'm reminded of the divine example for how this works. The disciple always considered closest to Jesus writes about it this way:
"10This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a way to show His divine love in the midst of our waywardness. 11 Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. 12 No one has ever seen God. But if we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us." 1 John 4
The divine way is "kissing the frog" when it's still a frog. Notice the radical, countercultural dimension of this approach: it's when we love each other in this way that the fullest expression of God is experienced in both the giver and the receiver. It is the only way that the full expression of divine love is grown in us which results in transformation. God knows that. So God acts first. And the frog turns back into the prince. That's the divine miracle we receive and we pass on.
I know I can be such a frog at times! I'm painfully aware of many of my warts--I am awakening to more and more. Thank God my wife keeps kissing me! My princehood is awakening. The miracle continues ... and it empowers a desire for me to do the same with others. Imagine a whole world where love keeps awakening everyone to their true royalty! Now that's a world I want to live in.
The Commercial Have you seen the 30 second TV commercial with actress Betty White and Snickers candy bars? It was introduced during the 2010 Super Bowl. It's an interesting portrayal of personal identity. Watch it:
The Snickers Identity Paradigm
The ad's a great example of how so often we see others by what they're doing on the outside. Their identity is their performance. If you're not playing football very well we see you as a Betty White (although I would have had second thoughts about playing ball against a younger Betty White--she's got the spirit!). "Come on, man, don't be such a wuss! Get it together and start playing like a man!" If you're really good (which is to say, proficient, skillful, aggressive), then we see you as your "real" self. Our culture bases everything about identity on externals. Get that real job! Drive that real car! Make a real salary! Date that real woman or man! Buy a real house! Wear that power suit! Carry that real purse or wear those real shoes! Show your stuff (whatever "stuff" is) and stop wimping around!
And if you're just not "manifesting" it rightly, then eat a Snickers bar and turn yourself back into a real man or woman! Notice the interesting solution to being your "true self": a candy bar (or whatever external things the advertisers are offering).
You and I are tempted every day to buy into this perspective on identity and reality. If we can just manifest the right outside and external world, we can be satisfied that all is right with the world, we are who we're suppose to be. So our identity is held captive to what we can or cannot manifest on the outside.
But here are a couple of big dangers with this paradigm. One, if you base your identity on what you can manifest in your life (the externals like people, things, circumstances), then you never have a solid foundation for your self esteem. Your identity is dependent upon what happens on the outside. And so your self esteem fluctuates based upon circumstances created by either you or others. Your self esteem and personal identity are victimized by the fluctuations of whatever's happening to you or by you. Definitely not a very secure way to live.
And two, it becomes easy to put yourself down or to put others down who aren't manifesting everything you think you or they should. You can guilt people by saying, "If you just would get your thoughts right, you should be able to do it. So if you're not doing it, there's something wrong with you!"
It's so subtle how our attitudes impact our sense of self and our expectations of others.
An Alternative Paradigm: Secure Identity and Inner Peace
There's an alternative way to live that produces far more confidence, assurance, and solid peace. Notice this statement from scripture:
"Even though on the outside it often looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace." (2 Corinthians 4:16)
Now considering the context of this statement, the significance of it increases dramatically. The author is writing to people who have developed the insidious belief that your external world validates who you are. The worldview was that if you were experiencing a life of success, ease, and prosperity that was a sign that you were being blessed by the divine universe. And being blessed by God was always manifested by a life of prosperity. They claimed that the condition of your external world indicated your personal identity and your status with the gods.
But author Paul is trying to counter that popular paradigm by describing his own life. When he talks about looking like things are falling apart, he's painting a pretty graphic picture of his life experience:
"You know for yourselves that we're not much to look at. We've been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we're not demoralized; we're not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we've been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn't left our side; we've been thrown down, but we haven't broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus' sake, which makes Jesus' life all the more evident in us. While we're going through the worst, you're getting in on the best!" (2 Corinthians 4:8-12)
Notice his juxtaposition of external circumstances and internal attitude and identity. Even though his external life would appear to be a complete failure, falling apart at the seams, his sense of identity and security with himself and with God are completely secure. There's an internal sense of peace and certainty that pervades his mind and heart. He is describing himself as possessing true life in its deepest and most meaningful sense, a life that God is continually creating and recreating in him. And the more centered he finds himself in this internal life, the more grounded he finds himself in how he faces his external world.
And he ends that paragraph with a sentence describing another truism (did you notice it?): our internal attitude does impact our external environment with others. As Paul centered himself on inner peace that he allows God to create within him in the midst of external chaos, he blesses others with that environment of peace, too, giving them opportunity to experience inner peace for themselves. It may not still the storms swirling all around, but it does provide inner calm and centeredness which is contagious.
Our True Miracle
That's the true miracle we all are needing. Being able to live life with the continual unfolding of divine grace within us, where God is making a new life every day--not based upon what people think about us or even what we're tempted to think about ourselves based upon what we have or don't have, do or don't do, but based upon what God gives us inside--an nonfluctuating identity as a child of God embued with eternal value because of that stamp of love on our souls. The ability to live in love rather than fear is the greatest miracle of all. That should be our highest manifestation in life. And it certainly has the power to impact others with a spirit of peace and love, too.
By today's standards based upon the Law of Attraction, Paul would be considered a real failure. And yet Paul is completely confident in who he is, what God is doing in his life, and his courageous living of his purpose.
Marianne Williamson, author and spiritual teacher, puts it this way: "We're not asking for something outside us to change, but for something inside us to change. We're looking for a softer orientation to life...Everything we do is infused with the energy with which we do it. If we're frantic, life will be frantic. If we're peaceful, life will be peaceful. And so our goal in any situation becomes inner peace. Our internal state determines our experience of our lives; our experiences do not determine our internal state." (Marianne Williamson, A Return To Love, p. 66)
So build your identity, your sense of self and esteem and worth, on a foundation that remains secure, that outside circumstances and people cannot destroy. So whether you have much in life that you truly want or have very little, you still are rich--you are grounded on the eternal truth of your being as a child of the God of the universe and nothing can take that away.
What are the internal changes and transformations you're experiencing in your life these days? Are you clear of your identity and what it's based upon? Do you possess a centered and grounded sense of who you are and where your value comes from? Do you have that "softer orientation to life" that comes from living with love instead of fear? Do you have a peace and security regardless of what's happening in your external world?
Next time I find myself face down on the muddy football field, and others think I'm playing ball like Betty White, I think I need to stick something more substantial into my soul than a Snickers bar.
I heard of a professor of theology at Harvard Divinity School ending every class with the question, "So what's the cash value?" His point was that theology, any discussion about God, any view of the nature of God and words and descriptions of God, theological ideas have real effects on the world, they must result in something practical and ethical for the good of the world. There must be "cash value" from both the ideas and the conversation. So what's the cash value of faith? How do you define faith and what difference does that faith make in living your life? In truth, how we define faith radically shapes both how we show up in the world and what kind of life experience we enjoy.
Is the Universe Friendly?
Albert Einstein once said, "The most important question you'll ever ask is, Is the universe friendly?" His point was that how a person views the universe impacts the way that person responds to the challenges of life and uses available resources for those challenges. Here's how he put it:
"For if we decide that the universe is an unfriendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to achieve safety and power by creating bigger walls to keep out the unfriendliness and bigger weapons to destroy all that which is unfriendly, and I believe that we are getting to a place where technology is powerful enough that we may either completely isolate or destroy ourselves as well in this process.
"If we decide that the universe is neither friendly nor unfriendly and that God is essentially 'playing dice with the universe', then we are simply victims to the random toss of the dice and our lives have no real purpose or meaning.
"But if we decide that the universe is a friendly place, then we will use our technology, our scientific discoveries and our natural resources to create tools and models for understanding that universe [and cooperating with it]."
His point is that how we see the universe is ultimately an issue of faith. Faith has cash value - it radically impacts the way we react and respond and behave toward ourselves, others, and our world. It takes the form of both attitude and behavior. It impacts how we use all the resources available to us - either in love-based or fear-based ways. Everything we think, feel, and do will follow our faith correspondingly.
God Is Love
Sounds a lot like the biblical perspective emphasized in 1 John 4: "God is love, and all who live in love life in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. Such love has no fear because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of judgment, and this shows that his love has not been perfected in us." (verses 16-18)
Love is the central value and force in the entire universe. Love is the very nature of God. No wonder Jesus made the same claim by saying that all of God's commandments are summarized into two: loving God with all your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself. All of God's totality manifested in words are summed up by love. Love is the operating force in the universe.
Fear is antithetical to love. Fear judges. Fear condemns. Fear criticizes. Fear chooses against the other. Fear coerces. Love and fear cannot operate at the same time. Human life is comprised of making the choice to think, feel, and act in love or in fear. Life works best, the way the Creator of the universe designed it, when it is lived in harmony and alignment and congruency with love. Faith is believing enough to stake your life on the centrality of love, even when it seems counter-intuitive in a situation you're encountering.
What Is Faith?
Marianne Williamson, a spiritual teacher and author, in her book Return To Love, describes the cash value this way: "To trust in the force that moves the universe is faith. Faith isn't blind, it's visionary. Faith is believing that the universe is on our side, and that the universe knows what it's doing. Faith is a psychological awareness of an unfolding force for good, constantly at work in all dimensions. Our attempts to direct this force only interferes with it. Our willingness to relax into it allows it to work on our behalf. Without faith, we're frantically trying to control what it is not our business to control, and fix what it is not in our power to fix. What we're trying to control is much better off without us, and what we're trying to fix can't be fixed by us anyway. Without faith, we're wasting time ... We learn to trust that the power that holds galaxies together can handle the circumstances of our relatively little lives." (p. 52, 56)
Two Ways Faith Impacts Life
So what's the cash value? Here are several implications I'm learning. One, relax. Have you noticed how much of life is lived with anxiety, uncertainty, chaos, conflict, power struggles? We invest an inordinate amount of personal energy in those negative energy fields. Think of the "fights" you have with your significant other, for example? How much energy is used up in those fights? Over what? Universe-altering issues? Global-impacting concerns? Do or die principles where life will literally come to an end if the situation doesn't resolve according to your idea? So this implication is hugely significant. Relax.
But what does faith have to do with my ability to relax? If I believe that God is working for my greatest good, and I'm willing to surrender the results to God in every situation, allowing only my self to learn what I need to learn as opposed to having to teach everyone else what I think they need to learn, I can relax. I can have a greater inner peace about stuff. Why? Because I'm not obsessing, anxiously trying to control and fix everyone and everything else around me according to what I think everyone needs. I'm not desperately trying to hang on to a specific outcome. I can relax in a trust that the Power holding the galaxies together, the Power behind even our own laws of gravity and photosynthesis and thermodynamics in our world, for example, can and is handling the convoluted and chaotic circumstances of my own inner and outer life. I can relax because I am choosing faith, love, and surrender.
Two, cooperate. My ability to relax is directly related to my willingness to cooperate with the universe's law of love. If I believe that the fundamental nature of the universe is love rather than fear (as both Einstein and 1 John 4:16-18 suggested), then when I make the deliberate decision to love rather than to fear in any specific situation I am intentionally placing myself in harmony with God's universe. I am choosing to come into alignment with God's fundamental nature and operation. And here's what happens:
"When we love, we are automatically placing ourselves within an attitudinal and behavioral context that leads to an unfoldment of events at the highest level of good for everyone involved. We don't always know what that unfoldment would look like, but we don't need to. God will do God's part if we do ours. Our only job in every situation is to merely let go of our resistance to love. What happens then is up to God. We've surrendered control. We're letting God lead. We have faith that God knows how." (Ibid., p. 57)
Here's how this works. Surrender, cooperation, means giving up attachment to results. I realize that most of my personal angst in both my relationships and my life experiences are often because of I grab a hold of a specific outcome (result) and refuse to let it go at any cost. So when it begins to appear that others aren't working for MY results, I get threatened and insecure. I often fight back to try to ensure I get my way. And painful conflict results instead.
But when I surrender to God (cooperate with God), I let go of my attachment to how I think things are suppose to happen on the outside and I become more concerned with what happens on the inside of me.
"The more important it is to us, the more important it is to surrender. That which is surrendered is taken care of best. To place something in the hands of God is to give it over, mentally, to the protection and care of the beneficence of the universe. To keep it ourselves means to constantly grab and clutch and manipulate. We keep opening the oven to see if the bread is baking, which only ensures that it never gets a chance to." (Ibid., p. 58)
What's the Cash Value?
So imagine being able to live life with a more relaxed attitude toward everyone and everything. Imagine seeing all of life, including yours, in the hands of a benevolent, loving God who loves and provides equally for us and everyone else. Imagine experiencing a profound peace from being able to surrender everything in your life to Love and no longer having to control or manipulate or coerce or connive life to conform to your expectations. Imagine the transformation possible from only having to look at your self and aligning your self with God and letting God take are of the rest. Imagine a world where others are doing the same thing, where Love is the reigning, guiding force in all relationships and life experiences. Wouldn't that be Heaven? Not bad for cash value.
So are there any spiritual vaccinations to bring protection and healing to the spiritual diseases we can fall victim to described in my last blog (10 Spiritually Transmitted Diseases)? Let me suggest several. David R. Hawkins (MD, PhD) for the last several decades has been on the leading edge of the science of behavioral kinesiology which is the study of the relationship between thoughts-feelings and muscle strength. Research repeatedly shows that our consciousness has a powerful impact on our bodies - some thoughts and feelings make our bodies go strong, others make us go weak.
If you haven't already, you can experiment with yourself and a partner. You stand erect, your right arm relaxed at your side, your left arm held out parallel to the floor with the elbow straight and both hands open. Your tester faces you and places his left hand on your right shoulder to steady you. He then puts his right hand on your extended arm just above the wrist. Now, he tells you that he is going to try to push your arm down as you resists. He quickly and firmly pushes down on the arm, just hard enough to test the spring and bounce in the arm, but not so hard that the muscle becomes fatigued. This is simply to test your basic resistance level with a neutral stimulus.
The testing continues with you holding a negative thought about yourself in your mind - what is a limited belief about yourself that you tell yourself from time to time? Think about it and the negative feelings associated with it, hold it in your mind as your partner tests your muscle strength. Repeat the testing with a positive statement about yourself that you hold in your mind. Compare the results.
The point is, our thoughts and feelings do make a powerful difference with the way our bodies respond.
Dr. Hawkins, from his extensive research, has developed what he calls a "map of consciousness" - it charts the progression of the states of thoughts/feelings from the weakest to the strongest, along with accompanying worldviews, picture of God, primary emotions, and life processes for each state.. The results are quite profound. If you click on the following Map (c), you'll see a bigger, clearer image of it.
Notice that the weakest state of thinking and feeling is shame (3rd row from the left, bottom), followed closely by guilt, apathy, grief, and on up the chart. Courage is the tipping point toward everything strong. Everything below Courage tests weak. Courage and everything above test strong.
So what does all this mean? Contemporary science is confirming what ancient science has been saying all along. Notice these ancient observations:
"Be careful what you think, because your thoughts run your life." (Proverbs 4:23)
"As a man thinks in his heart, so is he." (Proverbs 23:7)
All of this science is suggesting a hugely significant spiritual reality - what we think impacts our life experience. And Dr. Hawkins has mapped out the strongest kind of thoughts and feelings - courage, trust, willingness, acceptance/forgiveness, reason/understanding, love, joy, peace, enlightenment. This list, describing the attributes of a strong life, are mirrored in another piece of ancient wisdom which describes the attributes of the divine life. Notice the parallels:
"So what does living the divine life look like? God brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others (love), exuberance about life (joy), serenity (peace). We develop a willingness to stick with things (patience), a sense of compassion in the heart (kindness), and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people (goodness). We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments (faithfulness), not needing to force our way in life (gentleness), able to marshal and direct our energies wisely (self-control)." (Galatians 5:22-23)
According to both contemporary and ancient science, the process of life transformation involves choosing to reflect upon, contemplate, think about these powerful, divine-like traits and qualities. The very act of spending time thinking about them brings about spiritual growth and change. This is one of the primary vaccinations against the spiritually transmitted diseases I talked about in my last post.
Here's the way another piece of ancient wisdom describes this spiritual vaccination:
"Don't become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on the divine life. You'll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize this divine reality, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you." (Romans 12:2)
Vaccination one is to make the choice to fix our attention on the strongest qualities and attributes and thoughts and feelings in life possible. Look at that list often. Repeat it to yourself often. The very process of doing that, says Dr. Hawkins and scripture, begins to transform our thinking and feeling which in turn makes our bodies strong.
One of the ways I've done this lately is to repeat these attributes of the divine life in my prayers, going over and over each quality in my mind and heart, asking for the divine spirit to grow that "fruit" in my life. It's kind of a targeted prayer and meditation that helps to keep me focused, to fix my attention on the strength and power of the divine life. You and I can exercise our ability to choose, our willingness to experience transformation by how we direct our thoughts and feelings.
Dr. Hawkins describes the dilemma of the human struggle as well as the antidote to it in this statement: “The world of the ego is like a house of mirrors through which the ego wanders, lost and confused, as it chases the images in one mirror after another. Human life is characterized by endless trials and errors to escape the maze. At times, for many people, and possibly for most, the world of mirrors becomes a house of horrors that gets worse and worse. The only way out of the circuitous wanderings is through the pursuit of spiritual truth … At first, spiritual purification seems difficult, but eventually, it becomes natural. To consistently choose love, peace, or forgiveness leads one out of the house of mirrors. The joy of God is so exquisite that any sacrifice is worth the effort and seeming pain."
And this process leads to vaccination two. Here again contemporary and ancient science provide us with a profound and powerful transformation process.
In 1665 a Dutch Physicist and Scientist named Christian Huygens discovered what is now known in physics as the principle of entrainment. It was during his research with pendulum clocks that Huygens noted the new physics concept. He found that when he placed two of them on a wall near each other and swung the pendulums at different rates, they would eventually end up swinging at the exact same rate. They fell into rhythm with one another. He realized that this concept applied to not just pendulum clocks, but as a basic law of physics: the tendency for two oscillating bodies to lock into phase so that they vibrate in harmony. It's easier and takes less energy for systems to work in cooperation than in opposition. So the powerful rhythmic vibrations from one source will cause less powerful vibrations of another source to lock into the vibration of the first, stronger source.
Entrainment happens all around us, all the time. It's like Newton's Law of Gravity. It just is. It occurs biologically, such as when women who spend a lot of time together find their moon cycles synchronizing. It occurs sociologically such as when people in the same cliques or communities or social groups dress and think similarly. It happens mechanically, like all of the grandfather clock pendulums in a clock shop swinging together in unison after a few days, even if they started off unsynchronized. It can be found on emotional levels too, such as what happens when you walk into a room full of people who are laughing and light-hearted and your mood magically lifts to match theirs. Even our brain waves follow this physics principle. It happens when people are subjected to certain stimulus and their brain frequencies shift to calmer states.
Here's the power of this principle when it comes to our spiritual lives. An ancient scripture describes it this way:
"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all contemplate the attributes of the divine life, are being transformed into that likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." (2 Corinthians 3:16-18)
When we deliberately and intentionally place ourselves in the presence of the divine life, as well as in the presence of those qualities being lived out in others, when we acknowledge our connection to God and reflect on the divine life and spend time in environments that reflect those qualities, we the weaker of the two energy sources are drawn into greater and greater synch with the stronger Energy which is God. The result is increasing transformation into a likeness of the divine life. The principle of physics results in profound spiritual growth. The Spirit increases our freedom to become more and more of who are designed to be.
So how's your vaccination history? Time for some more healthy antidotes?
It's so easy for me to allow my thinking to get lazy and distracted - to make an almost automatic choice to allow negative and unhealthy thoughts take over - to let my limiting beliefs about myself and others be my default mode. But the good news is that life is like standing on the train station - our thoughts are the various trains set to leave the station to their destination. When a negative trigger happens in our lives, and our automatic response tends to be to get on that negative train thought, you and I have the choice whether or not to get on the train. We can actually let that train pull away from the platform without us. We can instead choose to get on another more healthy train. And when we make that significant choice, the ride ahead is much more enjoyable - for ourselves and for the others in our lives.
So here's to getting vaccinated! And here's to getting on a good train for a good ride into the divine life!
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I took today's perceptive title from a blog post I read recently written by Dr. Mariana Caplan, an internationally acclaimed author and teacher on Western Spirituality, and a psychotherapist specializing in spiritual issues and somatic and body-centered approaches to transformation. She has an active practice in San Francisco and Marin County. You can read her whole post here. Dr. Caplan provides what I think is a helpful description of the some of the dangers inherent in the spiritual life. These are dangers that we often don't want to think about or simply don't see, especially in relation to ourselves. In the midst of our genuine desire to grow spiritually, to commit ourselves to experiencing transformation and positive change in our lives, regardless of the specific religious environment we're a part of, there are certain blind spots that have the potential of derailing our spiritual growth.
Blind spots are those places that we simply don't see but by not seeing them, we are susceptible to crashing. Remember taking driver's ed training and the teacher talking about being careful of the blind spot between what you see in your rearview mirror and what you see in your driver's side mirror. There could be a vehicle in that blind spot and if you make a lane change too quickly, you could hit that vehicle. So what are you suppose to do? You're suppose to check your mirrors first, and then look over your left shoulder to take a specific visual cue of what's actually there. And if there is in fact no vehicle there, you turn on your signal blinker and slowly make the turn. You've checked your blind spot in order to navigate safely.
The title also suggests another spiritual reality. If we aren't aware of our spiritual blind spots, not only will we hurt ourselves, we'll hurt others, too. Dr. Caplan describes these spiritual diseases as transmittable - we can infect others with our spiritual deformities. Our sneezes pass on our diseases. How significant, then, for us to be aware of our own issues and work hard to deal with them effectively. It's good for everyone in our lives! The health of a spiritual community is only as good as the health of each individual's personal spirituality.
So here are Dr. Caplan's 10 spiritually transmitted diseases. Ask yourself which one(s) you tend to suffer from.
1. Fast-Food Spirituality: "Mix spirituality with a culture that celebrates speed, multitasking and instant gratification and the result is likely to be fast-food spirituality. Fast-food spirituality is a product of the common and understandable fantasy that relief from the suffering of our human condition can be quick and easy. One thing is clear, however: spiritual transformation cannot be had in a quick fix."
And I would even add this caution for Christians: though belief in the grace of Jesus is hugely significant to building confidence and security (we can't work our way to God's favor and the Next Life - it's a gift), grace is no substitute for the intentional discipline of applying that grace to every aspect of our lives. Transformation doesn't happen in us spontaneously or magically. It takes effort, determination, and practice. Healthy, transformational spirituality cannot be purchased in a drive-through, fast-food delivery system.
2. Faux Spirituality: "Faux spirituality is the tendency to talk, dress and act as we imagine a spiritual person would. It is a kind of imitation spirituality that mimics spiritual realization in the way that leopard-skin fabric imitates the genuine skin of a leopard."
This is true because deep spirituality works from the inside out. It deals with motives and values, feelings and thoughts, not just behaviors. Even Jesus, in commenting on many of the religious professionals of his day, called them "white-washed tombs; cups that were clean on the outside but dirty on the inside." Their kind of spirituality was external only - what you see on the outside is what matters most, not who you are on the inside. That kind of spirituality was not acceptable to Jesus.
3. Confused Motivations: "Although our desire to grow is genuine and pure, it often gets mixed with lesser motivations, including the wish to be loved, the desire to belong, the need to fill our internal emptiness, the belief that the spiritual path will remove our suffering and spiritual ambition, the wish to be special, to be better than, to be 'the one.'"
Have you ever asked yourself, what tends to motivate my actions when I'm around other people? Is my spirituality being driven by healthy motivations?
4. Identifying with Spiritual Experiences: "In this disease, the ego identifies with our spiritual experience and takes it as its own, and we begin to believe that we are embodying insights that have arisen within us at certain times. In most cases, it does not last indefinitely, although it tends to endure for longer periods of time in those who believe themselves to be enlightened and/or who function as spiritual teachers."
5. The Spiritualized Ego: "This disease occurs when the very structure of the egoic personality becomes deeply embedded with spiritual concepts and ideas. The result is an egoic structure that is 'bullet-proof.' When the ego becomes spiritualized, we are invulnerable to help, new input, or constructive feedback. We become impenetrable human beings and are stunted in our spiritual growth, all in the name of spirituality."
Perhaps this explains why oftentimes it's spiritual or religious people who simply can't be argued with. They know "the truth" and they believe they're embodying it, which makes them right and everyone else wrong. They're already on "the way" so what can anyone else teach them, especially those who don't have "the truth" like they do? They've allowed their identities to become completely enmeshed with their spirituality - so if their spirituality is threatened in any way, their identity feels threatened. So they cannot allow their spirituality to be questioned. And they will fight to keep their "rightness" and certainty.
6. Mass Production of Spiritual Teachers: "There are a number of current trendy spiritual traditions that produce people who believe themselves to be at a level of spiritual enlightenment, or mastery, that is far beyond their actual level. This disease functions like a spiritual conveyor belt: put on this glow, get that insight, and -- bam! -- you're enlightened and ready to enlighten others in similar fashion. The problem is not that such teachers instruct but that they represent themselves as having achieved spiritual mastery."
Contrary to many church's religious zeal and methodology, you cannot mass produce spirituality through attempts at mass movements or mass conversions. And genuine spirituality is not a "cookie-cutter" life where everyone looks and acts and believes the same or where everyone only has to utter the same words in a simplified formula. Authentic spirituality looks different in different people. It's achieved differently because everyone is unique. Embodied spirituality
7. Spiritual Pride: "Spiritual pride arises when the practitioner, through years of labored effort, has actually attained a certain level of wisdom and uses that attainment to justify shutting down to further experience. A feeling of 'spiritual superiority' is another symptom of this spiritually transmitted disease. It manifests as a subtle feeling that 'I am better, more wise and above others because I am spiritual.'"
I find it significant that the primary spiritual teachers and leaders from the major spiritual traditions (people like Jesus, Abraham, Buddha, Confucius, Mohammad) were people of great humility. Jesus commented about his spiritual life by saying, "I assure you, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing." No wonder, on the eve of his death, in an upper room where he and his disciples had gathered to celebrate the Passover meal, when it became clear that there was no servant to wash their dusty feet, he took off his outer robe, picked up a towel, and began to wash his disciples' feet. Genuine spirituality is not driven by pride but by authentic humility.
8. Group Mind: "Also described as groupthink, cultic mentality or ashram disease, group mind is an insidious virus that contains many elements of traditional co-dependence. A spiritual group makes subtle and unconscious agreements regarding the correct ways to think, talk, dress, and act. Individuals and groups infected with 'group mind' reject individuals, attitudes, and circumstances that do not conform to the often unwritten rules of the group."
Every authentic spiritual tradition encourages inclusivity and compassion as core to the spiritual life. Ironic, then, that so many religious groups develop an "insider" vs. "outside" mentality - an "us" vs. "them" worldview. "You can only be here if you become like us!"
9. The Chosen-People Complex: "The chosen people complex is not limited to Jews. It is the belief that 'Our group is more spiritually evolved, powerful, enlightened and, simply put, better than any other group.' There is an important distinction between the recognition that one has found the right path, teacher or community for themselves, and having found The One."
This deadly spiritual disease has been the motivator of countless persecutions, executions, and shunnings in the name of God. The paradigm is, "If we have been chosen, then you can't have been chosen, too. For you to be equally chosen like us, you have to join us, believe what we believe, live like us." So the whole mission of the "chosen people" is to bring everyone else into alignment with them. And if they resist, they are resisting God. So we either have to "fix" them, or walk away from them lest we get contaminated by them. This is a deeply destructive spiritual disease that can often be terminal for both parties.
10. The Deadly Virus: "I Have Arrived": "This disease is so potent that it has the capacity to be terminal and deadly to our spiritual evolution. This is the belief that 'I have arrived' at the final goal of the spiritual path. Our spiritual progress ends at the point where this belief becomes crystallized in our psyche, for the moment we begin to believe that we have reached the end of the path, further growth ceases."
I'm reminded of the super-disciple of Jesus, Paul, who once wrote about himself that he had not arrived. He was still on the journey. And so he kept his gaze on the one he was following, Jesus, in order to stay focused and remain moving forward. Spirituality is not about arriving, it's about traveling; it's about a transformational process and journey that continues one's whole life. That reality should produce great humility in us.
So which of these 10 spiritually transmitted diseases do you struggle with the most? Is there one you tend to be infected with more than the others? How does the disease manifest itself in you? What are your primary symptoms?
Dr. Caplan's partner, Marc Gafni (an author and teacher), makes this statement: "The essence of love is perception. Therefore the essence of self love is self perception. You can only fall in love with someone you can see clearly--including yourself. To love is to have eyes to see. It is only when you see yourself clearly that you can begin to love yourself."
And when you and I begin to truly love ourselves, we are empowered to love others in healthy, meaningful, and compassionate ways.
So are there any spiritual vaccinations we can take to prevent and/or heal ourselves from these spiritually transmitted diseases? In my next blog, we'll take a look at some powerful antidotes that have the potential of effecting profound, honest, authentic spiritual growth and transformation. Stay tuned!
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[If you enjoy this blog, please SHARE it with your friends and others who might be interested. You can click in the column to the right and choose how you want to share this.] A RECAP FROM MY LAST POST: Remember Walt Kowalski (from the movie Gran Torino)? Walt is living a lonely, isolated life in a world that looks so different from his past. He's turned himself into a gruff, crude, angry old man who pushes everyone away. His defense mechanisms (his ego defenses) are so strong that he's placed himself on a trajectory toward a lonely, painful ending. His only legacy will be the perfectly kept, spotless car from his past - a Gran Torino - which has come to symbolize the way he wished life still was - something good from the past he religiously hangs on to.
Is there any hope for a man like Walt Kowalski? Is the Gran Torino all there is? Here-in lies the power of this contemporary story, especially in light of this Season's theme of death and resurrection. There are two spiritual traditions centering on two powerful stories that both Jews and Christians celebrate this time of year. Both stories have a lot to say about the important dynamics of spiritual growth and transformation. Both center around the experiences of death and resurrection.
Notice THE STORY OF THE JEWISH PASSOVER. There’s an existence of bondage and slavery in the foreign land of Egypt (with an accompanying loss of a sense of true identity and purpose) – there’s weeping and wailing and death and status quo and survival. The people have gotten use to living with a certain frame of mind (with strongly developed defense mechanisms) and a corresponding way of life – victims, hopelessness, death – as the chart in my last post shows, fear-anger-shame. Then there’s an appeal by Moses on behalf of their God to exit this life of slavery and bondage and enter their true Life (a life promised by God that will be lived out in the Promised Land). And God will provide a way of escape. How? They must choose to trust in this Life-giving, Nourishing God by spreading the blood of a killed lamb over the doorposts so the angel of judgment on the Egyptian slave empire will “pass over” their homes; then they must leave their homes and follow Moses out of the country; then they must willingly escape across the Red Sea (once God divides it) in the face of the enemy army to “pass over” to the other side away from their land of bondage and into their resurrected new life.
Notice the process: God promises – they choose to trust – they follow specific directions – they walk away from their old life – they go into the unknown, face pain and danger – and they finally choose to keep going, all the while learning about their reclaimed Identity, until they arrive at their New Life (the Promised Land) where they can finally live in complete alignment with their God-given identity. Cross – Resurrection. All along the way, their egos are dying on the cross as they follow God and God provides what they need to make intentional choices. And the result is a resurrection to their New Life. The point is, you can't have a resurrection to a new life without also choosing to leave something else behind.
NOTICE THE STORY OF THE CHRISTIAN EASTER. In this Christian story, the Way of Jesus is all about the confidence with which he lived his life all the way to the end. In spite of all the voices trying to tell him who he was, who he should be, whom he shouldn’t be, he developed a powerful security in his identity as God’s beloved son. Only a really secure person can serve so unselfishly and compassionately and courageously. Right? That’s why the Gospel of John (chapter 13), when it describes Jesus in the upper room the night of his betrayal celebrating the Jewish Passover service, says about Jesus, “And Jesus, knowing who he was, where he had come from, and where he was going, took off his outer garment, took the servant’s pitcher of water and a towel, and washed his disciples’ feet.”
Only a really centered person, who has learned to move from a small-s “self” to capital-S Self, who has learned who he truly is, who God has called him to be, can face the powerful religious and political systems of his day and oppose them for all the right reasons – in spite of their vigorous persecution and vitriolic aggression against him. Only a truly centered and secure person can deliberately break the unjust rules and boundaries of his time and proclaim a message about the Kingdom of God being a world of justice and compassion for everyone, knowing that this message, along with all of his courageous acts of love, will be dangerous and potentially life-threatening.
Here’s the way one author puts it: “The way of Jesus involves not just any kind of death, but specifically ‘taking up the cross,’ the path of confrontation with the domination system and its injustice and violence. His passion was the kingdom of God, what life would be like on earth if God were king and the rulers and systems of this world were not. It is the world that the [Hebrew] prophets dreamed of – a world of distributive justice in which everybody has enough, in which war is no more, and in which nobody need be afraid … Jesus’ passion got him killed. But God has vindicated Jesus. This is the message of Good Friday and Easter … The way of the cross leads to life in God and participation in the passion of God as known in Jesus.” Marcus Borg, Jesus, pp 291-292.
The Way of Jesus shows what can happen when a person is so centered on God and God’s passion, is so centered on God’s calling and one’s true Identity, that they are empowered to let go of every image and defense mechanism that isn’t the truth about themselves, and then live with courage and boldness to love and give no matter what and no matter who they’re confronted by.
The power of the Jesus story is how it illustrates the Way to New Life, the abundant and joyful life, the divine life that we’re designed to enjoy. Two powerful symbols that describe this Way: the Cross, and the Empty Tomb; death and resurrection; the laying down of the ego, in order to find, to reclaim the Essential Self.
It’s interesting how so many of us want the new life without the pain of the cross. We expect there to be a “silver bullet” that suddenly launches us into our true Selves without having to go through the “grave” of the ego. We are constantly tempted to project a certain image of ourselves in order to protect ourselves – so we make choices to protect that image at all costs. Instead of living out of our core truth, instead of having the courage to be who we really are, to live in alignment with who God has created and called us to be.
BACK TO “GRAN TORINO”
So how does this way of the cross and resurrection, this sacred portal and thin place, get lived out by Walt Kowalski in the movie “Gran Torino?” What happens with the central metaphor of his prized and perfect Gran Torino, that symbol of escape from the real world into his safe, secure, predictable fantasy world?
Walt has spent multiple decades shining and polishing and nurturing his Gran Torino – he has invested himself in this car because it has come to represent the way he wished life still were. That car has become his ego defense mechanism and he continues massaging it, hoping for a better world.
But haven’t you noticed that often the very things we do to get what we’re really looking for are the very things that keep us from getting it? Walt’s anger, shame, and fear – and the ways he lives those feelings out – are not helping him get what he’s really seeking – autonomy, security, and positive attention. His Gran Torino is a powerful symbol of misguided focus.
Until that prized Gran Torino one night almost gets stolen by who Walt thinks is one of the local gang members – and then finds out that it’s his next door neighbor’s teenage son. Which then catapults Walt kicking and screaming into the whole life of this Asian family who has been to him up to now a foreign enemy. As they respond in humility and kindness and graciousness, mortified over the shame from their boy’s actions, Walt begins to get to know them. In ever so slight ways, he lets his guard down and his heart opens up to this new world around him. He ultimately begins trying to mentor this boy who has no father at home, bringing him into his world as well as going into the boy’s and his sister’s world. Walt begins to see that there’s another way to look at and experience life in this new reality – that there are people who can see him for who he really is – who accept his grumpiness and crudeness as just an exterior he’s gotten use to using that in truth masks a gentle and kind heart, a grandfather’s heart.
Their love and kindness pursue him in spite of his angry attempts to deflect them. Love wears him down. And what he begins to feel, he begins to like. What he sees of himself when he looks through their eyes, he begins to like. He finally finds his true Self evidenced by his final act of selfless giving. True to what Jesus once said, "The one who gives up his life for my sake will find it."
In the end, Walt’s Gran Torino, the very symbol of his insecurity, becomes a symbol of his resurrected life. He gives this prized car to this Laotian boy – the very boy who tried to steal it now gets to use it and then ultimately own it. Walt has gone through the cross of letting his ego be transcended by his truer Self and has experienced a resurrection of love, compassion and kindness. The very Gran Torino he hung on to as his old way of survival and security becomes transformed into a symbol of his expanded life – a sacred portal, a thin place.
QUESTIONS: So where might you see yourself in Walt Kowalski’s story? What are your ego defenses – how do you tend to respond when you don’t get your way or when you feel threatened? What is your Gran Torino that you’re using to protect your ego? What do you tend to hang on to that symbolizes your desire for security, autonomy, attention? Where in your life do you need the resurrection of your true Self? What does the cross look like for you – where does your ego need to die so that your truest Self can be resurrected?
[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.
[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.
There's a profound dynamic to sailing that goes beyond the scale of the boat, the engineering, the rigging, all the equipment that helps the boat go fast and stable, that goes beyond even the condition of the water and even the crew. It is in fact, ironically enough, that which cannot be seen. And without it, there would be no sailing. Figured out what it is? Exactly. Wind. It's the whole force behind sailing. You can't see it. You can only feel it and notice its impact. And believe me, it's quite a force to be reckoned with. I've at times cursed it and hailed it (depending of course how well I'm doing leveraging it). And I've been deathly afraid of it (when my boat appeared to be "going down" in the storm). All of these responses to something you can't even see - but obviously acknowledge is there.
There's an intriguing spiritual dimension to this reality. And of all people to acknowledge it is Christopher Hitchens, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, most known for his self-proclaimed role as one of the New Atheists called to debunk the world of religion and religious thought, as most recently revealed in his manifesto book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. His primary sparring partners tend to be religious conservatives and apologists for fundamentalism.
In a recent interview with a liberal Christian minister he made some surprising philosophical and spiritual observations of sharing a mutual appreciation for "the transcendent" and "the numinous" (which literally means, "surpassing comprehension or understanding; mysterious; filled with or characterized by a sense of a supernatural presence: a numinous place; Spiritually elevated; sublime"): terms that Hitchens himself introduced into the conversation, not vice versa.
When asked about this, he commented:
"It's innate in us to be overawed by certain moments, say, at evening on a mountaintop or sunset on the boundaries of the ocean. Or, in my case, looking through the Hubble telescope at those extraordinary pictures. We have a sense of awe and wonder at something beyond ourselves, and so we should, because our own lives are very transient and insignificant. That's the numinous, and there's enough wonder in the natural world without any resort to the supernatural being required."
And then he surprisingly took it one step further. "Everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there's more to life than just matter." More to life than just what you can see?
This is quite a profound observation from a person who has refused to embrace acceptance of anything supernatural. More to life than just matter? Is Hitchens really saying what he seems to be saying here, that "the numinous" refers to the sense that there's something more to our existence than just the material world?
The ancient Hebrews (in Jewish scripture) had no problem acknowledging this reality. In fact, to them, the scriptures never talked about "spiritual life." Spirituality was NOT simply one of several aspects of life. All of life was Sacred, God-breathed, infused with divine wonder and awe. So they talked about only life. As my friend Samir Selmanovic points out (in his book It's Really All About God), "the Hebrews loved both God and life. Obeying God meant being fully human, with every fiber of one's being alive. One could not experience one without the other...To tune in to human life is to tune in to God. Existence itself is a sacred place."
There's more to life than just matter. There's a Spirit to all life. So embracing life deeply and passionately is a highly spiritual practice. And historically (among spiritual traditions), this practice has been called "worship." Living life with a sense that life is sacred, intentionally giving value to life and the Giver of life, embracing the awe and wonder that there is More than simply our existence, that there is a Life Force that flows all around us and in us and through us. Worship is the spiritual practice of embracing God and showing value to the Divine life.
There's more to life than just matter - worship - embracing "the transcendent" and the "numinous" - giving honor to Life. Renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens acknowledges this reality (in his own way). I definitely concur.
In the spiritual community in San Francisco I'm a part of, Second Wind's "W" core value (in our core values acronymn S.E.C.O.N.D. W.I.N.D.) stands for "W.orship." It's a desire to value living life with a sense of the divine, learning the art of living all of life as sacred, embracing the worldview (as Einstein pointed out) that the Universe is in fact "friendly," that God is the ultimate Force of love and compassion and goodness. So we're trying to find meaningful and intentional ways to live out this value and important paradigm. We think this value will empower us to love extravagantly and serve unselfishly to make this world a better place.
And in the end, isn't there something centering and grounding to sense that there is more to life than just matter? That, as my friends in AA are so wise to regularly affirm, there's a Higher Power beyond myself, greater than myself, that nourishes and sustains and empowers my life toward greater self responsibility leading to wholeness and transformation?
When it comes to sailing, I can tell you that the most effective sailors are those that not only acknowledge the wind but learn how to live with it well, who embrace it and honor it and respect it - who learn the art of leaning into it.
What would it look like in tangible terms for you to embrace this core value, to affirm that there is more to life than matter and what you can see? How would it impact your daily existence, your relationships, your concerns, your hopes and dreams? What are specific ways you tend to show deeper value for Life, to carve out space to acknowledge and pay attention and affirm the Sacred in life? When is the last time you actually thought about there being a Power greater than yourself and expressed respect and honor for It?