What does it take to be a great leader in an era when the winds of global and local change are blowing in gale force, where the world is so interconnected that when you make a decision someone on the other side of the world is affected? Leadership has never been easy. There have always been challenges. But these days, the difficulties seem to be uniquely immense. Which means leadership isn't for the faint of heart. It's not just about competence and intelligence.
In my last post, I introduced the concept about rivers being viewed by spiritual and religious traditions as metaphors and symbols for the spiritual life. I described the basic journey of the river, beginning in the mountains and ultimately emptying into the sea. Rivers and Spiritual Growth
So what does the river’s journey tell us about spiritual growth? Let me suggest four secrets.
First, The Source of life is Sacred, which makes all of life Sacred. The flow of life is Sacred. There is a holy purpose to our lives, to our journey. Everything we have done and do has a Sacred dimension to it.
That’s why for so many spiritual traditions the process of spirituality is awakening, paying attention to life as Sacred, learning how to encounter and embrace the Divine in every experience of life. St. Augustine once wrote, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Life is about connecting, reconnecting with—acknowledging, honoring—our Sacred Source.
Second, All individuals are from the same Source, which makes everyone Sacred. A River is a combining of individual streams into one flow. So if the Source is Sacred, then every individual is Sacred, too. Which means that healthy spirituality is about recognizing the Sacredness of every person we encounter.
That’s what giving the Blessing is all about—remember we’ve talked about that spiritual practice before? Giving the Blessing to another is acknowledging the divine goodness in that person, no matter who he or she is, and calling it out of that person by affirming it and honoring it. That’s what the Hindu greeting “Namaste” means—“The divine goodness in me honors and greets the divine goodness in you.”
Spirituality cannot be healthy and grow without this significant recognition and embrace. That’s why healthy spirituality must involve an outward focus, not just an inward one. We have the divine joy of looking at others and calling out, honoring their Sacredness. Life is about helping others embrace their own divine goodness. Imagine what the world would be like if everyone looked at others in this light, instead of constantly judging or criticizing or labeling or condemning.
That’s why the Bible ends with the beautiful picture of one God, one City, one River that nourishes one People—everyone being vitalized and revitalized by the same Source forever!
Third, Spirituality is not a straight line, it has twists and turns. It’s amazing how often we label the twists and turns of our lives as bad, harmful, negative, detours, even “not God’s will.” Right?
The reality is that no river runs straight. Every river has twists and turns. And here’s what really impresses me: according to the experts, “The twists and turns are Nature's way of keeping Her life-giving Waters healthy: they create the eddies that aerate the Water which is so vital to the nourishment and preservation of all the people, animals and vegetation which rely on the River for sustenance.”
The very things that we think damage us and therefore should be avoided at all costs in fact can keep us healthy—they aerate our lives—bring more oxygen into our system which actually revitalizes us.
What would it be like to approach what you consider to be a “twist and turn” in your life and ask yourself, “How can this experience aerate—that is, bring more life into—my spirituality? What can I learn about myself through this? How will I allow this to expand my life rather than diminish it?”
It’s interesting when it comes to rivers—there are those enthusiasts, like kayakers and rafters, who live for the mad and bellowing, raging rapids. I took a trip years ago, a rafting trip, right through the famed Hells Canyon on the Snake River. Wow, I gotta tell you—I certainly wouldn’t have considered myself anywhere close to a hard-core rafter—but that trip was high adrenaline and amazingly enlivening, to put it mildly. We went through one chute, our guide manning the rudder or back end of our raft, all of us paddling for our lives, and slammed head on into a huge boulder. One of the guys in the raft got thrown out. I about had a heart attack! But we finally got through and ultimately to quieter water. The guy who had been spit out of the dragon’s mouth beat us to the finish line, fortunately unhurt but emerging from the water shaking from head to toe.
There are people who love that stuff and go for class 6 whitewater rapids all the time! The twists and turns and rapids have a way of focusing you pretty quickly. You emerge on an adrenaline high from sheer gratitude that you made it! Colors look a lot deeper.
I read this statement recently from Gregg Levoy’s book Callings. He’s quoting philosopher and psychotherapist Karlfried Graf Durkheim. “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over again to annihilation can that which is indestructible arise within us. In this lies the dignity of daring. We must have the courage to face life, to encounter all that is most perilous in the world.” (p. 258)
Every myth or legend has a hero or heroine who ends up facing some kind of a dragon or monster that represents what they deeply fear. They have to face it and fight it before they can fulfill their destiny. The fight is always brutal and fierce. They don’t know if they’ll come out victorious but they fight on. We wouldn’t watch movies or read books if the stories didn’t have these twists and plots, right?
The author is referring to the importance of facing our fears and risks associated with following our purpose in life. When you are able to face your fear, which often involves a fear of failing or, as the philosopher put it, the feeling like you’re going to be “annihilated"--the fear of losing yourself and being forgotten--you allow the courage inside you to emerge. You find out that you are in fact bold. You can face life and encounter what you didn’t think you had it in you to survive. That’s not only focusing, it’s empowering! Not only does facing this fear cause you to not lose yourself, you actually end up finding your true self.
Levoy says that “Fear is a signal that you’re close to something vital and that your calling is worthy of you.” (p. 257)
The twists and turns and rapids of life produce fear which informs us of what’s truly important to us. And they give us opportunity to do something about what’s important to us—to act on what is vital to us.
Healthy spirituality is about being willing to embrace every stage of and section of our Life River—to learn more deeply about ourselves and the nature of life from the quiet times, from the broad, open expanses like lakes, as well as from the twists and turns and swirling eddies. Spirituality involves all of those sections and times and stages. Just like with rivers, life without all these diverse experiences keep our spirituality from stagnating (as opposed to the river ending in a pond with no outlet). Our health demands all this diversity for growth.
And four, Spirituality is learning the art of effective change management. Have you ever stood on a bridge over a river and looked down at the flowing water? It’s almost mesmerizing, isn’t it. Has a kind of hypnotic effect. One thing you can’t help but notice is that you never see the same water twice. That’s where we get the euphemism from: “It’s all water under the bridge.” In other words, everything changes so let it go.
Heraclitus of Ephesus, the 5th century BC Greek philosopher, famous for his doctrine of change being central to the Universe, wrote: "You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you."
Change is inherent in life and spirituality. Healthy spirituality is about learning how to steward change effectively. It involves two vital choices. One, letting the old go. And two, embracing the new. Just like we do when we watch a river—we see water go, and we see new water come. We really don’t have any control over that flow. We simply accept what it is and choose our response to it.
This is why many of the effective spiritual practitioners tell their adherents to do their spiritual practices by the river—so they can observe this flow and learn the art of acceptance. Like we have to do with our thoughts during meditation—we observe them and then let them go, without paying undue attention by focusing on them and obsessing on them. Letting them go peacefully and respectfully. It’s all water under the bridge; nothing you can do about it; let it go.
Isn't this what the Serenity Prayer is all about? Those in recovery have learned to repeat this prayer regularly, sometimes even hourly and even minute by minute to stay focused: "God grant me the SERENITY to accept the things I cannot change; COURAGE to change the things I can; and WISDOM to know the difference.”
So to build a healthy, vital, growing spirituality, we learn to ask ourselves some very important questions:
- What do I learn about myself through my responses to the different ups and downs of my life?
- What are the stories I tell myself about loss and grief and pain that end up shaping my responses to them?
- What does my fear tell me about what in that situation is important to me?
- How can I allow these “whitewater rapids” to produce greater spiritual health in me, to aerate my life?
I would invite you to spend some alone time, reflecting on these questions. Perhaps even journal your responses. It helps to bring thoughtful intentionality to your spiritual path.
I love the story in the Hebrew Bible of Namaan, the commander of the Syrian army. Israel and Syria are bitter enemies, both fighting to exterminate the threat of the other. Both fighting to prove their God is the stronger god. Life in those days is all about the battle of the Gods.
Namaan ends up getting leprosy, a horrible skin disease with no cure. He’s horrified and ashamed and fearful. The little servant girl in his home is and Israelite girl who sees his condition and tells her mistress that Namaan should go see her prophet Elisha who could heal him.
So he swallows his pride and ends up going. The Hebrew prophet tells him to go to the Jordan River and wash himself seven times and he would be healed. Namaan is infuriated! “What?? Who does this Jew think he is, asking me to go to the Jew’s sacred river, a dirty river at that, when we have our own more beautiful, more sacred rivers than theirs!!! “I don’t care if he is a holy man! Forget this business! I’m going home!”
But his officers reason with him, saying, “Come on, sir, how hard can it be to do this simple thing? If the prophet had asked you do a great thing, you’d have happily done it. You should go to the Jordan River!”
So Namaan again swallows his pride and goes. He stands there watching the dirty water flow by. He’s angry inside. His ego is strong. He says, “This is not the water I want! But it’s what I have. Here I am. So I will step into the flow of this river, trusting in the Sacred Invitation, this Sacred moment right here, right now, and immerse myself in it, and then I’ll leave.”
“So Naaman went down to the Jordan River and dipped himself seven times, as the man of God has instructed him. And his flesh became as healthy as a young child’s, and he was healed!” (2 Kings 5:14)
The very thing that Namaan was repulsed by, the very thing that represented something he didn’t want any part of, something he thought would humiliate him, that which seemed the most humbling thing for him to do, was the instrument of healing and transformation for him. The Sacred River of life.
The River of Spirituality is about laying down our egos, embracing that which often we cannot understand or have a difficulty accepting, and with courage choosing to step into Its flow and immerse ourselves in that Water. Who knows what kind of healing and transformation might result? Acknowledge the Sacredness of life, honor the Sacred in all others, accept the twists and turns as tools for growth, and choose to step into the flow of Now with peace, courage, wisdom, and hope.
What do you think?
[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.] Critics and scholars have acknowledged Wendell Berry as a master of many literary genres, but whether he is writing poetry, fiction, or essays, his message they observe is essentially the same: humans must learn to live in harmony with the natural rhythms of the earth or perish. I'm thankful that I came across one of Berry's poems this week, especially at this time of year when Spring reminds me of the promise of renewed life. I find myself needing hope these days for a variety of reasons, but particularly in my work as I struggle with a sense of the lack of meaningful accomplishment. Mr. Berry is writing to me. So here's the poem, "The Peace of Wild Things."
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I don't know if you ever feel a sense of despair over parts of your life or the lives of those you care for. I do ... especially lately. Maybe it's the stage of life I'm in, roaring into my second half with lots of dreams and hopes, when at the same time having to come face to face with a more honest acceptance of mortality and that all my dreams might not end up being fulfilled and that many of them could've been a tad unrealistic anyway. Maybe it's a wrestling with what success is and isn't - the difficult task of having to redefine it in more congruent ways - and yet still deal with a deep passion to have my life count for something significant. Maybe it's also seeing my parents reaching their sunset years and struggling with health and mortality, realizing that I'm the next generation in line to take their place, having to pay more attention to my own health needs as time goes on.
We all face a sense of despair in various ways and for various reasons. Sometimes it steals our sleep. Often it steals our peace. Too often it robs us of joy. We lose hope. What then? Pop the pills? Swallow the antidepressants? Escape or run away? Stay in bed? Smother the ones we're worried about with our presence? Hang on for dear life just because we're afraid of losing?
Here's where I'm moved by Wendell Berry's perspective. Notice his process of dealing with his despair. "I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief." Berry has discovered that nature's ability to exist in peace is directly related to it not "taxing their lives with forethought of grief." One of our homo sapien challenges is that because we have the ability to ponder, reflect, and evaluate everything, we are tempted to live in the past or in the future, with regret or fear, rather than in the moment. We consequently tax our lives with "forethought of grief." And wow, it is a tax burden, isn't it! We're making payments from our emotional bank accounts all the time because of that tendency. Grief is the result - a constant feeling of loss (loss of hope, loss of reputation, loss of significance, loss of meaning or fulfillment, loss of purpose, loss of love, and the list of grief from losses goes on and on).
Berry noticed that the wood drake ducks and the great herons seemed to exist differently. He watched them sit quietly in the still waters, and patiently pick food out of the waters, and stand in the shallow water simply being in that place and in that moment. It was a scene of peace to him. So he intentionally placed himself there from time to time - and discovered that during those times, he was able to mirror that peace. His mind and heart became still like the pond water. He entered as fully as possible into those moments, letting go of his worry, fear, grief, and losses.
Looking up into the sky, he knew the stars were there behind the lighted firmament even though he couldn't see them at that time of day. They were "waiting with their light," knowing that the time would soon come when after setting sun their light would be seen again. Berry felt a sense of hope for his own life return. Nature has its cycles, its seasons - times of fruitfulness and times of fallowness. Nature seems to know this and it empowers its peace and persistence. Day-blind stars will shine in the evening. The barrenness of winter gives way to spring's new life.
I'm thankful for this reminder today. Just reading this poem takes me to a place of more hope and peace inside. Visualizing the wood drake floating quietly in the still waters, seeing the great heron now standing, now feeding, a bite here, a bite there - neither one obsessing or worrying or "taxing their lives with forethought of grief" - simply being and doing what they always do. Can I allow myself to be in that place, too? If even for a moment?
Berry ends his poem with, for me anyway, a helpful reminder: "For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free." For a time. We can't always live in this kind of secluded peace. Life happens, the good and the ugly, with its joy alongside despair and grief, and we often can't predict it. But I need more times to "rest in the grace of the world." I need to carve out moments of grace, where simply being is enough, where I am all I need to be right then, and I am loved and embraced there, period. Maybe that's what the Hebrew poet had in mind when he wrote about the Creator God, "Be still, and know that I am God." In life's stillness and quietness, I feel the divine, the Sacred, and I embrace my enough in the mirror of the true Enough. Resting in the grace of the world. Does it sound as inviting to you as it does to me?
[Thanks for SHARING this blog with people who might be interested! Hit the button on the right to subscribe or to share the post] We've been talking in this series about the nature of faith and spirituality - how faith is something more than simply believing doctrinal statements about Reality, God, and life - it's about the heart, an experience that goes deeper than the mind and thoughts and impacts the deepest part of our selves and works itself out in acts of compassion and love and unselfish service. We've seen that the original words for faith describe more than reason and propositional beliefs (read the last several blog posts to see the whole picture here). Fiducia is about a relaxed, worry-free trust and confidence in God. Fidelitas emphasizes a deep loyalty, allegiance, and faithfulness in heart, soul, mind, and body to God - a desire and choice to stay on the journey no matter what. And Visio is vision, a way of seeing – a way of seeing “what is,” of seeing the whole - a choice to see Reality, God, the Sacred as life-giving and nourishing (as opposed to hostile and threatening or indifferent). So let's unpack Visio a bit more and notice how vision (how you see the whole) impacts personal faith and spirituality.
Faith As Vision (Seeing What Is)
There's an ancient story about Jesus and a blind man that illustrates the nature of faith as Visio and how that impacts life:
35-37Jesus came to the outskirts of Jericho. A blind man was sitting beside the road asking for handouts. When he heard the rustle of the crowd, he asked what was going on. They told him, "Jesus the Nazarene is going by." 38He yelled, "Jesus! Son of David! Mercy, have mercy on me!"
39Those ahead of Jesus told the man to shut up, but he only yelled all the louder, "Son of David! Mercy, have mercy on me!"
40Jesus stopped and ordered him to be brought over. When he had come near, Jesus asked, "What do you want from me?" 41He said, "Master, I want to see again." 42-43Jesus said, "Go ahead—see again! Your faith has saved and healed you!" The healing was instant: He looked up, seeing—and then followed Jesus, glorifying God. Everyone in the street joined in, shouting praise to God. (Luke 18)
Notice the contrasting visions of Reality, God, and life between the crowd and the blind man. Placed in the context of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr's description of the 3 ways of seeing "the Whole" - Reality and Life (as I described in my last blog post) - it's interesting to see how those differing "visions" play out in this story.
|THE CROWD||THE BLIND MAN|
|Who Jesus is: the Nazarene – a local religious dignitary at best; so he's being seen as too busy to help a blind man; plus this view says that blindness is a punishment from God so why would a religious leader help? The blind man is under divine judgment.||Who Jesus is: Son of David – a designation for Messiah, chosen of God; Jesus is God's representative.|
|How Jesus will respond: don’t bother him – he’s too busy, too important||How Jesus will respond: if I can just be noticed or make myself heard, Jesus will listen and do something for me; God is on the side of sinners|
|The Universe: conditional; you get only what you deserve, and you deserve only what you put it; different “layers” or stratas in life based upon worthiness, value||The Universe: capable of giving mercy; responsive to need|
|Life Response: structured and ordered – must follow by the rules of those structures – must act appropriately (keep yourself in your designated place)||Life Response: courageous; break the rules at times when the need is greater than the system; some confidence of being heard; live life with passion and desire; express it|
There are some significant implications of these contrasting visions for our faith journey:
- Notice how Jesus connects the issue of faith with “seeing” in the blind man’s experience. In contrast to the crowd who “sees” Jesus in a very limited way (a local man, albeit a religious dignitary), this blind man, even before he’s healed of his physical blindness, in fact already “sees” – Jesus affirms to him, “You’re actually 'seeing' more than these other people who have their eyesight.” The man’s faith in Jesus as the Chosen of God (the anointed Messiah who comes to deliver captives and bring wholeness to the broken of Israel) reveals his "enlightenment" and ability to "see." This man’s “vision” of Jesus is as one from God who will bring him healing or at the very least is interested in his well-being and state in life. If nothing else, Jesus will at least give him some alms for his next meal. His view of God’s Kingdom is one of well-being, being nourished and sustained – the God of this Kingdom is gracious. And this kind of faith empowers the man with courage, with boldness, with persistence and tenacity in the face of obstacles and social rejection. The point illustrated here is, how you “see” the whole impacts your experience!
- Jesus says to him, “Your faith has saved you and healed you!” Those are the words for wholeness and salvation and completeness – before he has received his physical eyesight. Seeing – vision – this kind of faith – is a matter of the heart, the perspective – a choice you make about how you want to look at life, the world, the universe, God. You may not be able to prove it all, but you choose to live with a paradigm of grace, confidence, compassion, and self-forgetfulness – a belief in God as a gracious, supportive, compassionate, faithful Force in your life that empowers you to not live in fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and insecurity. One whom you’re willing to follow even when you might not feel all the reality of it. It’s still truth to you and you shape your life around it. As Neibuhr said, How we see the whole radically affects how we respond to life!
So here are some personal questions for your reflection:
- Where are you in the three differing views of Reality Niebuhr describes (see my last blog post) with your VISION for Life and Faith? Which “reality” tends to be what you SEE? Why?
- What do you tend to do to cultivate that VISION?
- In this series, we’ve talked about FAITH as confident trust, faithfulness/loyalty, and vision of a gracious God. Which of those words for faith do you relate to the most (tends to be your "normal" faith experience)? Which one would you like to possess the most?
Remember Mother Teresa and how her diary reveals the deep doubts and frequent sense of abandonment by God she experienced in her life? And yet, in the midst of all this darkness, she continued living her life, following the Way of Jesus of self-forgetfulness and abandonment to God, by giving herself tireless and compassionately to the forsaken ones in Calcutta. In reality, she was empowered to live this powerful life because she made a choice to “see” all of Life, including her faith in God and her view of others, in the context of goodness and graciousness. She made a commitment to that Vision.
In an undated diary entry written to Jesus, she wrote, “If this brings You glory — if souls are brought to you [because of my struggling with personal darkness and pain from not feeling your Presence] — with joy I accept all to the end of my life.”
TIME magazine, in August 2007, did a cover story titled, “Mother Teresa’s Crisis of Faith,” after her diary was published. They told the story about her encounter in 1968 with the British writer-turned-filmmaker Malcolm Muggeridge who visited Teresa. Muggeridge had been an outspoken agnostic, but by the time he arrived with a film crew in Calcutta he was in full spiritual-search mode. Beyond impressing him with her work and her holiness, she wrote a letter to him in 1970 that addressed his doubts full-bore. It was almost like she was talking to herself and describing her own journey of faith.
She wrote: "Your longing for God is so deep and yet He keeps Himself away from you," she wrote. "He must be forcing Himself to do so — because he loves you so much — the personal love Christ has for you is infinite — The Small difficulty you have re His Church is finite — Overcome the finite with the infinite."
Muggeridge apparently did. He became an outspoken Christian apologist and converted to Catholicism in 1982. His 1969 film, Something Beautiful for God, supported by a 1971 book of the same title, made Teresa an international sensation. And Mother Teresa apparently heeded her own advice - she walked through the darkness by overcoming the finite with the infinite. She chose to maintain her faith in the God of her Beloved Jesus even when she couldn't feel the love. She chose to give the Love anyway, in acts of profound self-forgetfulness and compassion, to those who needed it.
Faith as vision chooses to see the Whole of life in a very profound way – that Life is nourishing and life-giving, that God is gracious, even in the midst of not experiencing it that way all the time. Because in the end, that vision is the most empowering for a life of compassion, giving, and unselfish serving and blessing to the world. Faith isn’t just a matter of the head – believing certain propositional statements about God – faith is a matter of the heart – a deliberate choosing to allow your heart to trust, to have confidence, to be faithful and loyal to the best in Life – and yes, to believe (which before modern times literally meant to belove) – to believe that God is gracious – to belove God and to belove what God beloves. That’s the kind of faith that produces an empowering and sustaining spiritual life!
So how’s your vision today? How about joining me in the following personal prayer.
MY PRAYER: “If Jesus were here in front of me today and asked me what I wanted, like the blind man, I would say, ‘Master, I want to see again!’ I confess there are times when I look at life through the lens of fear, anxiety, self-preoccupation and lack of confidence. But today I choose to see the Universe as life-giving and nourishing. I choose to see beauty and feel wonder and awe and gratitude for life. I choose, God, to see you as gracious and compassionate. I choose to be willing to live beyond myself, to spend and be spent for the sake of others. I choose to live in freedom, joy, peace, and love. O God, I want to see! Amen.”
[Please SHARE this blog with people who might be interested! Hit the button on the right to subscribe or to share the post] The word "faith," especially to Westernized Christians, has come to be seen as a primarily notional experience - having to do with what you think about God. It tends to mean holding a certain set of "beliefs," believing a set of statements to be true, whether cast as biblical teachings or doctrines or dogma. Your faith is judged by how much you believe and how accurate your beliefs are. If you possess this "right" kind of faith, you're 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, too often with disastrous results by heartless, nonloving "believers."
But significantly, that was not the central meaning and usage of the word "faith" in the history of human religion (including early Christianity). As Karen Armstrong, in her powerful book The Case For God, states, "Religion was not primarily something that people thought but something they did ... Religion [from its very inception in human history] was always a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart."
It was a way of being and living, not simply a way of thinking. The stories and sacred scriptures of every religion emphasized the journey of heart and spirit in learning the sacred art of self-forgetfulness and compassion. As a result, religions developed powerful rituals and practices that, if followed and wholeheartedly engaged in, would enable adherents to step "outside" their egos and experience the Sacred and Divine, empowering them to live more compassionately and unselfishly toward others.
For example, as Armstrong points out, the early Chinese Daoists (over 300 years before Jesus and the early Christian followers) saw religion as a "knack" primarily acquired by constant practice. They, like the earlier Buddha and even Confucius, refused to spend lots of time speculating about the many metaphysical conundrums concerning the divine (as Buddha once said to a follower who constantly pestered with those kind of questions: "You are like a man who has been shot with a poisoned arrow and refuses medical treatment until you have discovered the name of your assailant and what village he came from. You would die before you got this perfectly useless information!").
Zhuangzi (c. 370-311 BCE), one of the most important figures in the spiritual history of China, explained that it was no good trying to analyze religious teachings logically. He then cited the carpenter Bian: "When I work on a wheel, if I hit too softly, pleasant as this is, it doesn't make for a good wheel. If I hit it furiously, I get tired and the thing doesn't work! So not too soft, not too vigorous. I grasp it in my hand and hold it in my heart. I cannot express this by word of mouth, I just know it."
Like the Chinese hunchback who trapped cicadas in the forest with a sticky pole and never missed a single one. He had so perfected his powers of concentration that he lost himself in the task, and his hands seemed to move by themselves. He had no idea how he did it exactly, but he knew only that he had acquired the knack after months of practice. This "self-forgetfulness," Zhuangzi explained, was a "stepping outside" the prism of ego and experience of the sacred. (from Armstrong, The Case For God, pp. xii-xiii, 23.)
No wonder Jesus, centuries later, reiterated this paradigm of spirituality and religious experience when he called his followers to "take up your cross and follow me." He's not simply talking about believing in your head the right doctrines and the core truths. He's talking about a "way" of living. Referring to his own experience as the example for his followers, he said, "I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who is willing to give up his life in this world will keep it forever." John 12:24-25
Genuine faith is not just about your head, it's about your heart, it's about your journey, it's about life transformation that comes from self-forgetfulness and an experience with God the Sacred and the Divine.
SO IN THIS SERIES, we're taking a look at the four words that are translated as "faith." We're unpacking each word and exploring 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 defines ourselves and produces a rich and deeper experience of both God and Life. It's a return to the core of what religion was always meant to facilitate but has too often lost along the way: a transformation of the heart. In my last blog, we explored the 1st word for faith, “fiducia,” from which we get our English word "fiduciary" (a person in whom we place our trust to protect our finances and estate). So “trust," is the central definition, which in the realm of faith then conveys a profound kind of relaxed, solid, worry-free confidence in God as a power that can be trusted and relied upon to have our best interests in mind.
Today's word for faith is "fidelitas," which is the Latin word for "fidelity." It literally means loyalty, faithfulness – originally referring to a vassal's loyalty to his Lord; a steadfast and devoted attachment that is not easily turned aside; constancy, steadfastness. Faith as fidelity means loyalty, allegiance, the commitment of the self at its deepest level, the commitment of the “heart” to the experience of God not simply to statements about God. A radical centering in God from your heart and soul not just your mind. So what does that look like in real life terms?
There are two metaphors that the sacred scriptures use in describing our faith relationship with God that I'll unpack in my next blog post. These metaphors describe what "fidelity" is NOT and so help to increase our understanding of what genuine faith as fidelity and loyalty is. Stay tuned!
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Don't you just love seeing rainbows? There's something both ethereal and inspiring about them. People get so excited when they see one in the sky, telling whomever's around, "Look! There's a rainbow! Over there, over there! See it?" And everyone strains their necks to get a glimpse of those spectacular colors in the sky. It's almost as though seeing a rainbow brings some kind of unique gift to the observer (kind of like the proverbial treasure at the end of the rainbow). And if you're really lucky, you might see a double rainbow sometime - double the luck or blessing. Rainbows have been centrally portrayed in art, literature, music, and sacred scriptures for millenniums. For example, in John Everett Millais' 1856 oil painting he titled, "The Blind Girl," he used the rainbow - one of the beauties of nature that the blind girl cannot experience - to underline the pathos of her condition. Notice how she sits there, totally incapable of seeing this double wonder of nature that the little girl in her lap is craning her neck to see and enjoy. A rainbow is so powerfully evocative of life and hope, if you can't see one, you've missed a profound human experience.
In most religious cultures, the rainbow is a symbol of the divine presence, the bow of God, the brilliant light display of glory around God's throne. So the rainbow evoked a kind of deep spiritual fervor and hope for a divinely blessed life.
And here's where this beautiful symbol and metaphor takes on expanded meaning. Experts tell us that there are 7 basic colors to the light spectrum we see in the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. But in reality, as they point out, there are infinitely many wavelengths between 380 and 740 nanometers - the visible spectrum of light. That doesn't even count the different tints and shades obtained by mixing in white, black, etc. So, in truth, there is an infinite number of colors, if you look at it that way.
"The actual estimate for how many different colors the human eye can distinguish varies between one and ten million, depending on the reference which you consult. However, the perception of color varies from one person to another, so there can be no single number that is true for everyone. The number of different colors that you, as an individual, can distinguish also varies dramatically according to the conditions; it drops to zero in low light conditions, in which only the rod cells of the retina can function, as the cone cells of the retina are required for color vision." (Paula E. Burch, Ph.D.)
In other words, the whole color experience and reality of the light spectrum is about diversity, differences, innumerable options and shades and perceptions. No one person sees it the same way. And there's infinite variety in what can be seen.
So here's what we have with the rainbow: a powerful universal symbol of Hope, of the divine presence and blessing, and of the amazingly rich diversity in the human experience. Amazing, isn't it? That which has always been a symbol for God is also a picture of infinite diversity.
Like sometimes happens when we end up missing the opportunity to see a rainbow because we're perhaps looking somewhere else or distracted by something else or simply not looking for one, could it be that we too often miss experiencing a profound divine blessing because we don't appreciate the rich diversity of life? We don't see God in the midst of life's variety and infinite spectrum of life because we've boxed God inside boundaries that are in fact too limiting to the infinite God of life - boundaries of belief, boundaries of faith, boundaries of the way we think people should be like. We allow ourselves to have such narrow expectations of ourselves, others, life, and even God and end up shrinking our souls a bit more and more as time goes by. If spirituality involves the experience of the Sacred and Divine in all of life, then our spirituality is diminished by refusing to let God encounter us in the midst of the rich diversity and variety and differences inherent in the fabric of life all around us. To experience diversity is to experience God.
So why would any one of us think we had the conclusive picture of reality and life? Why would any one of us think that there's only one way to look at God, or there's any one religion or organization that speaks exclusively for God, or there's only a few ways to be human, or there's only one perspective on an issue, or that some people are better than others? It's too much of a tendency for me to put people in boxes or to place my expectations on others, thinking they need to be more like me. It's too easy for me to sometimes feel threatened by someone else's views or contributions or life, thinking that if they get away with their perspective, I'm diminished in some way - rather than embracing the truth that all of us are strengthened and deepened if we each are given the freedom and encouragement to be ourselves. The very nature of life, as the rainbow so beautifully portrays, is the beauty and divinity of diversity.
No wonder William Wordsmith's 1802 poem "My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold the Rainbow" begins:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!…
I love the passion for life he portrays. He feels his heart "leaping up" when he sees the rainbow - he willingly enters into the joy of life, allowing himself to be ushered into the chambers of awe, wonder, mystery, and Spirit. It's so valuable for him to experience this divine reality of life through the rainbow that if he can't have it, he would just as soon die. Why go through life just trying to make it to death safely? That's not living. That's being dead already, even though the heart might be pumping and beating. Wordsworth's reality is that life leaps for joy when it sees the rainbow - the depth and richness of life happen in the midst of variety and diversity and difference.
I want a deep and more joyful life, don't you? So maybe we should open up the box more to include more, to appreciate and value more, to be aware of more, to experience more. Maybe we should let God be more. And then watch ourselves be surprised by the God of the rainbow!
[If you're here at this Blog for the first time, click back and read Part 1 of this topic: "Can Holiness Invade Your Office and Your Kitchen?" It will fill out this post more meaningfully.] As I noted in my last blog post (see "Can Holiness Invade Your Office and Your Kitchen? Part 1"), Dr. Susan Smalley, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, talks about the importance of developing a pervasive spirituality, where the sacred is seen and experienced as inherent to daily life. She has discovered that this kind of spirituality has great impact on minimizing individual self-centeredness and increasing a deeper sense of personal well-being and compassion for others.
I love the way Brian McLaren, in his book Finding Our Way Again, describes the process of developing a pervasive spirituality. He says that rather than simply trying so hard to practice our faith (which ends up only adding to our already over-filled To Do lists), we could be “Faithing our practices” - "embuing our normal [everyday] practices with meaning derived from faith.” It's about learning how to see Holiness in every part of our ordinary days.
The Jews do this with what they call "the blessing." By giving a blessing for everything they encounter during the day, they are reminded of the sacredness of all of life because a Blessing isn't something that embues what is being blessed with goodness or God's presence. A blessing is simply a tangible, intentional act of acknowledging the inherent Sacredness and Goodness in those things as gifts from God. “The purpose of the ancient way and the ancient practices is not to make us more religious. It is to make us more alive to God ... alive to [God’s whole world].” (McLaren)
The Hebrews in scripture also built altars of remembrances out of stones at places where they encountered the Sacred and Divine in meaningful ways. Why put ordinary rocks on top of each other on the side of busy thoroughfares and even in out of the way places? The point was that every time they saw them they could be reminded of God's activity in their lives. They could tell each other the story of their encounter with God and remember that life is sacred and blessed. Stone altars to help holiness pervade ordinary life.
I wear a ring that has a cross on it on the middle finger of my right hand. It was a gift from my wife. It's there as a constant reminder of my calling and life purpose. Throughout the day, I'll feel it and look down and notice the cross and remember: I am loved; I have a divine purpose; my life is a calling to live for God. It's amazing how that thought, generated by a tangible symbol, suddenly transforms that moment into a sacred moment, a divine encounter, an embracing of God's continuing and pervasive presence in my life.
Last Saturday, at my Second Wind spiritual community, in the middle of our discussion on this topic, we engaged in what is called prayerwalking. We all went outside and individually walked around the neighborhood community with the goal of intentionally noticing what captured our attention. We were to do several things: 1) What did we notice? 2) Offer a blessing on it. 3) Consider how it reflected God to us? How was the Sacred revealed to us through it? And 4) pause and be in the moment. Then when we all returned to the room, we tried to capture our experience by jotting thoughts/reflections on paper, staying silent, staying in that Sacred Space.
When we debriefed the experience, it was astounding how much all of us described paying attention to life around us in new and meaningful ways. There was a sense of sacredness we expressed feeling as we each walked around the blocks in such an intentional frame of mind. The activity reminded us how something as simple as walking around with a different intention (an open, more "enlightened," purposeful mind) could contribute to a more meaningful spiritual experience and a greater receptiveness to life around us. When you begin seeing all of life as sacred and spiritual, you look at it all very differently.
What symbols, reminders, tangible ways do you have to remember the Sacred and the Divine all through your day? How are you decompartmentalizing your spirituality so that all of life is experienced as holy and sacred and thus more meaningful and purposeful?
I love the way Carrie Newcomer describes this in one of her songs, "Holy As A Day Is Spent":
holy is the dish and the drain the soap and sink, and the cup and plate and the warm wool socks, and the cold white tile showerheads and good dry towels and frying eggs sound like psalms with bits of salt measured in my palm it’s all a part of a sacrament as holy as a day is spent
holy is the busy street and cars that boom with passion’s beat and the check out girl, counting change and the hands that shook my hands today and hymns of geese fly overhead and spread their wings like their parents did blessed by the dog, that runs in her sleep to chase some wild and elusive thing holy is the familiar room and quiet moments in the afternoon and folding sheets like folding hands to pray as only laundry can i’m letting go of all my fear like autumn leaves made of earth and air for the summer came and the summer went as holy as a day is spent
holy is the place i stand to give whatever small good i can and the empty page, and the open book redemption everywhere i look unknowingly we slow our pace in the shade of unexpected grace and with grateful smiles and sad lament as holy as a day is spent
and morning light sings “providence” as holy as a day is spent
Perhaps every day life could be filled with a deeper sense of well-being and meaning if we intentionally saw the holiness in all of it? Maybe we could close the HPI (Happy Planet Index) gap here in the States if we allowed our spirituality to pervade all of life, including our offices, our kitchens, and even the baby's play pen? Want to join me in experimenting with this?
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I read recently about a person who discovered that he should drink 16 glasses of water a day. The next morning he brought to his office a large pitcher filled with water. Throughout the day that pitcher on his desk frequently reminded him of his need, and he'd pour another glass and drink. Overall, it was a positive experience—other than having to go to the bathroom 27 times in a period of eight hours. Remaining hydrated, he learned from that experience, requires intentionality. He had to stop periodically in the midst of his busyness, become aware of his body's need for liquid, and take a few moments to drink a glass of water. It was amazing how helpful having that pitcher of water in front of him all day was to his intention of drinking more water. Intentionality is a huge piece of what makes people effective and successful - setting intentions and then determining a specific course of action to accomplish those intentions. It applies to every area of life, right? We intentionalize what we desire, what we can and what we have control over, and then hold it all with an open hand, recognizing that sometimes the best things that happen do happen as surprises. However, intentionality is an important value. And what helps our intentions become reality are the tangible reminders we put in front of ourselves regularly of what we're trying and wanting to do - finding ways to integrate our intentions with the rest of our lives.
Dr. Susan Smalley, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA, posted an article in the Huffington Post last week in which she tries to understand some of the reasons India ranks so much higher than the United States on the Happiness Index (especially considering the comparative massive economic disparity and rampant poverty in India). The Happy Planet Index (whose most recent compilation came out in July 2009) strips the view of the economy back to its absolute basics: what we put in (resources), and what comes out (human lives of different length and happiness). Its the first ever index "to combine environmental impact with well-being to measure the environmental efficiency with which country by country, people live sustainable, long and happy/meaningful lives." That's the way they define it. The resulting global index of the 143 nations reveals some interesting comparisons.
So after just returning from her first trip to India, she reflects on her experience of its culture and posits a significant observation. First of all, she defines spirituality as "a sense of connection to something larger than oneself." And then, recognizing recent research that shows that spirituality positively impacts health and well-being, she describes her experience in India:
"In India this attention to spirituality is pervasive. It is evident in every aspect of the culture - there is constant integration of reminders that we are part of something larger than the self ... in the shrines present on every street corner, sides of houses, roadside stops, hilltops, alleyways, back of tractor trailers, and beyond. Shrines are big, small, colorful, bland, dedicated to Shiva, Ganesh, Hanuman, or thousands of other manifestations of our shared nature, to Hindus the manifestations of a Oneness or God or an Ultimate Reality. It is evident in the pervasive Namaste - a greeting with hand folded in a prayer position accompanied by a bow that means something like 'I see the Oneness in you.' It is evident in the pervasive 'bindi,' the smudge of color between the eyebrow - a reminder that we are part of something larger than the self - visible by a 'third eye' if you will … I am so impressed with the complete integration of spiritual development into daily life. Being surrounded by constant reminders of our connectedness and dependent nature make emotions and actions stemming from self-centeredness more difficult to come by."
In contrast here in the West, we tend to compartmentalize our time for spiritual practice if we engage in any at all - once a week in spiritual gatherings, or a specific meditation time each day, or at religious Holidays, or prayer at meals. Other than these moments, the rest of our lives is rarely surrounded by spiritual reminders or awareness. Our passion to separate Church from State, our carefulness to maintain distinction and distance between the spiritual and the secular, has led to an overly heightened sense of individuality and independence and self-importance. Our worldviews have gradually narrowed through the decades from cosmos to planet to nation to city to neighborhood to self, with whatever happening to self carrying the ultimate significance and importance.
This reality, suggests Dr. Smalley, helps to explain some of the difference between India and the U.S. on the Happiness Index - it's about how pervasive spirituality is in everyday life.
The point is, the journey of spirituality (and a corresponding sense of well-being and happiness) don't simply happen by chance. It takes intentionality and thought and discipline. It takes structuring our lives around tangible reminders of our connection "to something larger than ourselves." It takes decompartmentalizing our lives and integrating spirituality into the flow of daily existence. It means allowing the divine to incarnate itself into the fiber and fabric of our lives. It means engaging in specific activities, tangible reminders, intentional words, visual - auditory - kinesthetic experiences.
So what would it look like to make spirituality a way of life for me? What intentional ways do I build into my day to be reminded of transcendence? How intentional are I about living life deeply and with greater awareness and enlightenment?
STAY TUNED TO PART 2: What are some tangible ways to facilitate a more pervasive spirituality?
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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?