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."
What are obstacles you’re facing right now? What might be standing in your way of fulfilling what matters most to you, tempting you with intimidation, striking fear and insecurity in your heart? What is challenging and eroding your sense of identity, impeding your calling, purpose, and mission in your life? Or what challenges are you facing in your pursuit of your Calling that may feel big and difficult? Let me suggest some ways to reframe these obstacles that will give you direction on how to face them with more courage, wisdom, and effectiveness.
INTRODUCTION Bar-headed geese are some of the most remarkable birds in nature. It’s estimated that at least 50,000 of them winter in India. And when summer nears, they undertake the two month 5000 mile migration back to their home in Central Asia. What makes this trip remarkable is that the route they choose to take every year is the world’s steepest migratory flight—they fly over the highest mountain in the world, Mount Everest in the Himalayas.
Amazingly, this route is where the air is thinnest and oxygen level lowest. What’s more, the thinner air means that less lift is generated when the birds flap their wings, thereby increasing the energy costs of flying by around 30 per cent. And yet they still fly the same route over the highest place on earth.
Scientists now find that these geese do not make use of tailwinds or updrafts that could give them a boost up the mountain. They choose instead to rely on several other remarkable resources:
(1) Muscle power—these geese have a denser network of capillaries that reach oxygen-carrying blood to the cells. So their blood is capable of binding and transporting more oxygen to where it’s needed most, their wing muscles.
(2) Large lungs—they also have larger lungs for their size and breathe more heavily than other waterfowl. Unlike humans, bar-headed geese can breathe in and out very rapidly without getting dizzy or passing out. By hyperventilating, they increase the net quantity of oxygen that they get into their blood and therefore into their muscles.
(3) Team work—geese are famous for utilizing in flight the V-formation which helps reduce individual energy consumption by up to 30%. The whole flock gets over 70% better mileage than if each bird flew solo. When the lead bird gets weary, it drops back and a new one takes the lead. As the birds vigorously flap their wings, it creates lift for the bird behind. These geese actually choose to fly over Mt. Everest at one time rather than breaking up the trip, typically a grueling eight hour marathon. And in addition, if one of the geese gets too tired or gets injured or sick, two of the other geese shepherd the weaker one back down to the ground and stay with it until it either gets stronger or dies. Then they rejoin the group or find another group to fly with to complete their migration.
(4) External conditions—many scientists had thought the geese were taking advantage of daytime winds that blow up and over mountaintops. But recent research showed the birds forgo the winds and choose to fly at night, when conditions tend to be relatively calmer. They're potentially avoiding higher winds in the afternoon, which might make flights more uncomfortable or more risky. The birds could potentially head east or west and fly around, rather than over, the mountain range, but this would add several days to their trip and would actually use up more energy. So they go straight over the highest point on earth in an attempt to manage their energy as efficiently as possible. It’s counter-intuitive.
So what can we learn from these geese about how to develop a strong, sustainable, enduring spirituality—the kind that can face great risks and obstacles and complete the journey well? What does it take to enjoy spiritual sustainability?
THREE LESSONS FROM GEESE ABOUT DEVELOPING SPIRITUAL SUSTAINABILITY
Lesson One, Maximize your spiritual oxygen—breathe deeply. Like the geese, we all have the inner capacities to develop spiritual sustainability—we have good muscles and good lungs. But for those to be maximized, we have to breathe deeply to get the most amount of oxygen possible to our spiritual muscles.
These geese have the lung capacity to be able to hyperventilate when they need it for Mt. Everest. When they’re at home, they certainly don’t spend all of their time hyperventilating. But when they need it the most, facing their arduous migration, they’ve developed the capacity for it.
So how can you and I increase our lung capacity to breathe deeply and get life-giving oxygen to our spiritual muscles? This is what spiritual practices are all about—engaging regularly in activities that involve spiritual breathing, breathing deeply of the divine Spirit, accessing the power that is greater than ourselves—Prayer, meditation, scripture/inspirational reading, journaling [for example, the direct method of communication with your Trusted Source—based upon Carl Jung’s model of active imagination], spiritual conversations, sacred rituals, sacred objects, building altars of remembrances, nature immersion. This is about engaging in ways to “wake up” to God’s presence in you and all around you, ways to “pay attention” to That which is greater than your self, ways to “breathe in” the divine spirit.
PERSONAL APPLICATION: What do you currently do spiritually to breathe deeply? What sacred rituals do you intentionally engage in? What kind of plan do you have for regular spiritual breathing?
Lesson Two, Exercise your spiritual muscles—act on faith. I love this definition of faith: “Faith is daring the soul to go beyond what the eyes can see.” William Newton Clark
Spiritual teachers remind us that faith is the language of the soul. And the soul is what both holds our life purpose and catapults us towards it. Our egos care most about happiness, security, safety, success, status. The soul cares about aliveness, courage, purpose, effectiveness, faith. And faith is the language of the soul.
So, when you act on faith, when you intentionally choose to take a step forward in your spiritual quest, when you say “yes” to faith, your spiritual muscles strengthen, and new resources become available.
That’s why, in the story of the Hebrews needing to cross the flooded Jordan River in order to get over to the Promised Land, God gave instructions for the priests carrying the ark of the covenant to lead the way into the river. And it wasn’t until they stepped into the river that the waters parted all the way across. Those first steps were steps of faith—choices to follow God’s instructions even when their eyes couldn’t see the way.
Indiana Jones, in the movie “Temple of Doom,” had to step out in faith, putting his foot out into the nothingness, the chasm of the abyss, in order for the bridge to appear so they could cross it to the other side where the coveted Holy Grail was hidden.
The way many people live is by playing it safe, or shrinking from difficulty, or refusing to act unless all the ducks are lined up in a row or the future can be clearly seen. It’s true, we need to be smart when we’re faced with choices. But sometimes, the counter-intuitive smart choice is to act even when you can’t see the end. Our paralysis of fear atrophies our spiritual muscles. What you don’t use gets lost. Muscles get flabby and lose their resilience and strength.
We can breathe deeply all we want, we can learn to hyperventilate and get rich oxygen to our muscles effectively all we want. But if we never use those oxygenated muscles, none of that makes a difference.
When you act in faith, taking a step forward, new resources become available. And that courageous act strengthens the spiritual muscles, empowering you to take the next step. Faith is acting on the belief that you have what you need, like the geese, the necessary equipment and inner capacity, to fly over the Mt. Everests of life. So use it!
I can honestly tell you that when I look back on the crises I’ve gone through and see where I am today, I am in awe of the inner resources I was able to call out of myself that I didn’t even know I had. That awareness has helped me to learn not to be afraid of or to avoid the Mt. Everests because it’s only in flying over them that we can see what our spiritual muscles are truly capable of.
PERSONAL APPLICATION: So what steps of faith are you being called to take these days? How is your soul being dared to go beyond what your eyes can see? What is one step forward you can take right now to exercise your spiritual muscles?
Lesson Three, Leverage the support of others—ask for help. The genius of the geese’s V-formation flying style is the way it leverages the power of team effort. Getting over Mt. Everest is almost impossible solo. Drafting with others maximizes energy and productivity.
Richard Bolles is the author of history’s best-selling book about job hunting and career change, What Color Is Your Parachute. He was interviewed once about the subject of being self-employed. He said that self employed people can hire out just about any skill, even, to some degree, discipline; you can get someone to call you every week to help keep you on track. But, he said, the only trait you cannot hire out and without which you’ll “die on the vine” is the willingness to ask for help.
Trying to go it alone in life is, as one author described it, like “stringing beads without tying a knot at the end.” Without having the help of other people to secure the end, we simply keep slipping away.
Spiritual sustainability, the power to endure in the long run, requires asking for the support of others—inviting trusted people into our lives for accountability, vision, wisdom, encouragement, strength. We have to be willing to ask for what we need and want.
I remember when I first moved here to San Francisco all by myself—after having gone through a huge personal crisis that shattered my self confidence and sent me into what I was tempted to see as a fatal tailspin—I called up three guys who had been my friends for years—they all lived in different parts of the country—and I asked each of them if they would “fly the V-formation” with me for a long while—“Would you be willing to call me every week and talk with me, encourage me, support me, and let me draft you.” That was one of the most spiritually strategic steps of faith I could have taken during that Mt. Everest time for me. I had to summon enough courage and initiative to ask for help.
Percy Ross authors a column called “Thanks A Million” that is syndicated in more than seven hundred newspapers around the country. This Minneapolis millionaire is trying to dispose of the fortune it took him nearly 60 years to accumulate by working to redistribute his wealth among people who write to him with their stories of need and sometimes greed. He gets 2000 letters a day. Those that touch him he responds to with a check.
In an interview, he talked about the importance of asking. He said, “Asking is in my opinion the world’s most powerful—and neglected—secret to success. I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t convinced many, many people to help me along the way. The world is full of genies waiting to grant our wishes. There are plenty of people who will gladly give you a hand.”
Knowing what you want is one thing—a very important thing, to be sure. But that doesn’t really matter in the end unless you learn to ask for it. As Richard Bolles said, the willingness to ask for help is a nonnegotiable component of successful living. Spiritual sustainability and strength require us involving others in our lives in crucial, significant ways. There’s no such thing as a spiritual lone ranger. The mighty Lone Ranger had Tonto. Even Jesus the Son of God had Peter, James & John (and nine others to follow him around).
PERSONAL APPLICATION: Whom do you have in your life to draft with, to fly in V-formation with? Who do you need to ask? What do you want for your life and are you asking clearly and confidently for it, asking for help?
So what does it take to develop spiritual sustainability, a spirituality that endures the long run with strength and vitality? What lessons can we learn from the barheaded geese? First, Maximize your spiritual oxygen—breathe deeply. Second, Exercise your spiritual muscles—act on faith. And third, Leverage the support of others—ask for help.
One of the Old Testament stories that provides a sort of comic relief to the serious messages of the prophets and yet offers a deeply encouraging view of the divine reality swirling around in the midst of our stories—one of the ultimate resources for spiritual endurance--is the legend of Jonah.
God calls him to go to the fierce people of Ninevah—the most feared enemies of his Jewish people—and preach a message of impending divine judgment. Now preaching judgment to anyone is uncomfortable. But to the Ninevahites? Considering that these fierce warriors skinned their enemies alive, I can understand Jonah’s immediate hesitancy to accept this calling. He doesn’t just say No to God, he jumps on a ship that is sailing in the opposite direction from Ninevah to try to outrun both God and his mission.
No one ever promised there would be no risk in following our spiritual destiny. In fact, truth is, there is always fear involved in flying over Mt. Everest. Our temptation is to capitulate and cave in to the paralysis of status quo.
On the way to far away, Jonah falls asleep in the bowels of the boat. A fierce storm comes up. The captain finds Jonah and wakes him up. “Better come on deck with the rest of us—we’re trying to decide our fate.” The sailors cast lots to see who among them is bringing on this wrath of the gods. That’s when Jonah speaks up with his story of fear and failure, saying, “I’m the one at fault here. Throw me over board and that’ll solve your storm problem.”
He’s thinking that he’s not even safe from God and his calling on a ship going in the opposite direction from Ninevah. If he’s thrown overboard, at least he’ll drown and never have to worry again about facing God or the Ninevahites.
But when he’s sinking to the depths of sea, God sends a huge fish to swallow him to keep him alive and save him for his mission. “Thanks, God!” In the belly of the fish, though, Jonah recognizes what God is calling him to do, accepts God’s promise to empower him with courage and strength, and repents of his cowardice and fear. “If this cup cannot pass from me, Your will not mine be done,” he utters.
After three days and three nights, the fish spits him out onto the beach nearest Ninevah, wouldn’t you know it. And he marches into the city and ends up causing a massive revival among those enemy people who end up treating him like a hero who has saved their lives from judgment.
Spiritual sustainability, spiritual strength and endurance, take place not just from us breathing deeply, acting in faith or even in fear, and asking for help from others—but also from a Divine Presence that swirls and blows and moves in the midst of our stories, a Divine Presence that believes in our destiny even more than we do, who believes in us even when we’ve given up. That Sacred Spirit breathes into our lives hope and courage, engaging other players on our behalf, turning failure into fertilizer, redeeming our cowardice for courage, staying with us until we fulfill our holy destiny. It’s the Wind beneath our wings, the Oxygen streaming into our muscles, that empowers us over Mt. Everest safely to our promised land.
Now that’s a Resource to keep holding on to!
"Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive - the risk to be alive and express what we really are." Don Miguel Ruiz I spent some time this morning at the Federal Building for Immigration downtown San Francisco supporting one of my gay friends, a dear colleague in ministry and one of our leaders of Second Wind. He appeared in front of an immigration judge this morning to tell his story in order to apply for legal asylum here in the States. His request is based upon the real dangers of being gay in the religious subculture he lived and worked all of his adult life within in his home country. When he emerged from the court room with his lawyer and we debriefed the experience, I asked him what it felt like to retell his story in great detail. "It was cathartic in many ways but also very painful - remembering all the awful things I encountered when I came out as gay: the ostracization from my church community, the loss of my pastoral occupation and reputation, my marriage, the pain for everyone including my kids who had to put up with ridicule from their friends and others, living with the fear of rejection every day, often experiencing it in painful ways. But I feel good about how clearly and openly I told my story to the judge." His son was there to speak to the judge on behalf of his father, too. "I want for us both to be able to live here in this country and build our lives here," he told me.
Now my friend (along with his long time committed partner) waits for two weeks to hear the immigration judge's verdict. And we wait with them as their friends and spiritual community who love them and are committed to the journey of life together.
And I'm reminded of the great courage and bravery he's manifesting to take the risk to be genuinely alive, the risk to express who he really is in spite of the consequences he's both faced and continues having to put up with even in this country. I admire him for his honesty and his integrity to live with transparency and congruity.
It's not easy choosing to be alive and really live life in alignment and integration. It takes risks. We have to encounter our fears. We have to be willing to fail from time to time but then to pick ourselves up and keep moving forward. It's not easy.
Have you ever asked yourself what your biggest fears are to living the life you feel deep inside you're called to live? What does the cage look like that might tend to keep you from being really alive?
Maybe that's why in my work with people I encounter so many who are simply trying to survive, to make it to death safely, not pushing the edges of their lives, simply maintaining the status quo. It's easier that way - it appears less risky. But notice I say "appears" because in actuality, it's more risky. When you live your life out of alignment, not being who you really, trying to live someone else's life instead of your own, when you're not living your calling and purpose, settling instead for status quo, your inner spirit and physical body pick up on this lack of congruity and create what we call dis-ease - a restlessness inside, a lack of ease. Experts remind us that this condition is a condition of stress. And when you live with this state of stress for a long time it becomes chronic. And chronic stress has been shown to be terribly debilitating to the body, leading to a susceptibility to disease and illness on multiple levels, including depression. Our human systems are designed to experience maximum status when there's complete alignment between our emotions, our feelings, our thoughts, and our behaviors - when we're living within the integrity of our true selves, when we're using how we're wired with boldness and confidence and purpose.
As I listened to my friend's lawyer giving a thumbnail sketch of the process this morning and where it goes from here, I felt deep admiration for her as a professional who is so committed to helping people enjoy the opportunity to live life deeply and freely in this country. I was reminded of the profound statement of mission and purpose Jesus stated when he began his ministry. He quoted from Isaiah 61, applying the mission of God to himself: "God's Spirit has anointed me and chosen me to bring freedom and liberation to the captives, to proclaim this as the year of God's redemption and favor for all."
In my opinion, this powerful and professional lawyer who is helping our friend and all her other clients has stepped into the legacy of the great prophets of old and Jesus himself who came to give all people the joy of freedom and liberation to be alive, really alive.
Filming the event this morning was another of my friends here in the City. He and his wife (both leaders in our Second Wind spiritual community) are producing a documentary about gays who are trying to reconcile their sexual identity with their religious and spiritual orientation. These two courageous people are sacrificing everything they have to travel the country (carrying their 20 month old daughter along) filming stories to highlight this tremendous need. They, too, have stepped into the legacy of Jesus' mission of announcing the freedom and liberation to be alive, really alive, for all people. I admire their persistent passion and boldness.
It takes courage to take the risk to be alive no matter what your orientation - "the risk to be alive and express what we really are." This isn't about sexuality. It's about being human on every level. We all face it. And it's risky business. We have to take intentional steps forward every day, choosing to live deeply and purposefully instead of letting the days go by without any thought or awareness or momentum. It's about choosing to live our God-given life, not someone else's.
But in the end, for those who are willing to take that risk for themselves and on behalf of others, the reward of living in alignment, of living with purpose and mission, of choosing courage and boldness instead of fear and intimidation will far outweigh the risks. There's certainly stress in taking risks. But this kind of stress - eustress - always trumps distress! It's actually good for you.
I love the way George Bernard Shaw describes this kind of life. This is the way I want to live. This kind of life is the highest level of spirituality and it produces the most profound kind of transformation possible (Jesus' life showed this to be true). Here it is:
"This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a might one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
"I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
"I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."
So here's to taking the risk of being alive and expressing what we really are, for our sakes and for others and for Life itself!
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