I do a lot of work with organizations and individuals around the importance of knowing your Why. When you can boil down the most basic purpose for something you're wanting to do, it helps bring clarity to the Hows that get you to where you want to go. The Hows are negotiable and dynamic. The Why is solid. And it's the Why that inspires us the most. I realized last week that this same principle should be applied to the spiritual life, too.
There's a fascinating story in the Hebrew scriptures about the Jews during their wandering in the desert. They've just been freed from slavery in Egypt. God is taking them to the Promised Land where they will "set up shop" in a land they will call their own, learning how to live out their identity as children of God. On this journey through the wilderness God engages them with numerous ways to learn the art of trust and faith. They must lean into a new identity, from slaves to free people. In the middle of the desert, they cry out to God for food. God ends up feeding them with what comes to be called "manna," bread from heaven. It falls on the camp every morning for the people to gather and enjoy.
Significantly, God tells them about a unique quality of this manna that will forever engage them in an act of faith and trust--the manna will last only for one day. "Gather of it, each one of you, as much as you can eat." But no one is to leave any of it till the next morning. No one is to try to stockpile it for future days. Whoever tries to keep it overnight will discover that by the morning it will breed worms and become spoiled. There will be enough for each day, but one day at a time. Every morning, the people will need to go out and gather as much as they want for that day.
This is a genius system that God is reinforcing with these newly liberated people. God is emphasizing the necessity and significance of daily sustenance. God gives enough for each day. Which means that each new day requires intentional "gathering" and "eating." You can't live on yesterday's sustenance!
This has led spiritual traditions to emphasize the development of daily, regular spiritual practices that nourish the soul, heart, mind, and body.
My wife and I have found indispensable our daily morning spiritual practice of sacred readings, reflections, and prayer. We have found spiritual transformation is taking place in rich, deep, and grounding ways from that daily foundation.
Most people would never consider that eating one meal would fill them up so that they never have to eat another meal again. In fact, eating food is actually a daily habit for most of us! Our bodies are designed to need this regular routine. And what's more, we enjoy eating!
Why is it that when it comes to the spiritual life so many people allow themselves to go for long periods of time without "eating" and receiving nourishment? This explains why there is so much spiritual malnourishment in our culture--people are so hungry they can't see straight (the ability to see spiritual reality and truth is hugely diminished in our culture); they feel weak often; and sometimes they even collapse when some exertion is called for. They simply need to eat more, and especially eat nourishing meals.
There's something quite powerful about acknowledging hunger and doing something about it to fill that need. There's a kind of humility that comes from a recognition of our need. Try as hard as you might with as much will power as you can muster, you simply can't go forever without food. Death results if you try.
We are dependent upon nourishment. And when we accept this reality, it builds a kind of trust and faith in the process of life. We take responsibility for what we can in our lives and then trust the rest to the providence of Life.
God required daily manna-gathering to establish a daily discipline/habit of trust and faith in God's providence. The spiritual cycle was: God provides, the people gather and enjoy, the day ends; then God provides again, the people gather and enjoy enough for the day, the day ends; then God provides again with enough for that day, and the people gather and enjoy.
The whole point of a daily spiritual practice is to help reinforce both our sense of dependence as well as our reliance upon spiritual nourishment to fully and deeply live life for each day. The cycle of faith and trust in the Providence of Life is this: every day has just what we need for that day--so gather it, eat it, enjoy it, and live it.
How is your practice of daily spiritual eating?
"Today, I have everything I need. I will choose not to be obsessed about yesterday or tomorrow but just about today. I have enough from God to provide me with everything I need for this day. Tomorrow's a new day. So I will take God's manna to me today and live this day as fully, as passionately, and as purposefully as I have the strength to. I will enjoy God's grace that comes just for this day. Tomorrow will bring a fresh supply. And I'll enjoy that, too! Thank you, God, for your daily manna."
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!
I live in San Francisco which is a city primarily accessible from the north and east by bridges (the Golden Gate and the Bay Bridge). You can reach the City from the south by land. Only boats reach us from the west emerging from the Pacific Ocean into our Bay. Bridges are quite fascinating spiritual metaphors. Take our Golden Gate bridge, for instance. It's the ninth longest suspension span in the world (1.7 miles). And believe me, my body has felt the pain of every inch of that span, having run in the SF marathon which crosses the bridge and back along the total route (about 8-9 miles in), with the bridge curving uphill from both ends to the center of the span! It was brutal, especially with heavy fog and light mist in our typical July weather!
The bridge clearance is 220 feet from the high water. It weighs 887,000 tons total. And the two cables that span the bridge's suspension are each composed of 27,572 strands of wire. There are 80,000 miles (129,000 km) of wire in the two main cables, and it took over six months to spin them.
Construction on the bridge began on January 5, 1933, and the first cars drove across on May 28, 1937. The toll was 50 cents one way, $1 round trip and 5 cents surcharge if there were more than 3 passengers. Those were definitely the good 'ole days because the toll now is $6 per vehicle (charged only for southbound traffic). Gotta love inflation! The bridge traffic now averages about 41 million vehicles a year.
One of the most interesting Golden Gate Bridge facts is that only eleven workers died during construction, a new safety record for the time. In the 1930s, bridge builders expected 1 fatality per $1 million in construction costs, and builders expected 35 people to die while building the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the bridge's safety innovations was a net suspended under the floor. This net saved the lives of 19 men during construction, and they are often called the members of the "Half Way to Hell Club."
So why go to all the expensive, difficult, dangerous work to build this bridge? Before the bridge was built, the only practical short route between San Francisco and what is now Marin County to the north was by boat across a section of San Francisco Bay. Ferry service began as early as 1820, with regularly scheduled service beginning in the 1840s for purposes of transporting water to San Francisco. San Francisco was the largest American city still served primarily by ferry boats. Because it didn't have a permanent link with communities around the bay, the city's growth rate was below the national average.
But in spite of the need, the obstacles from opposition were strong. Many experts said that a bridge couldn’t be built across the 6,700 ft (2,042 m) strait. It had strong, swirling tides and currents, with water 500 ft (150 m) in depth at the center of the channel, and frequent strong winds. Experts said that ferocious winds and blinding fogs would prevent construction and operation. It was too costly on every level!
The Department of War was concerned that the bridge would interfere with ship traffic; the navy feared that a ship collision or sabotage to the bridge could block the entrance to one of its main harbors. Unions demanded guarantees that local workers would be favored for construction jobs. Southern Pacific Railroad, one of the most powerful business interests in California, opposed the bridge as competition to its ferry fleet and filed a lawsuit against the project, leading to a mass boycott of the ferry service.
But thankfully, strong vision, lots of courage, and collaboration between many dedicated experts, along with the investment of massive human and financial resources, produced a bridge that today is unarguably one of the most iconic structures in the world.
So what are some of the spiritual applications to this particular bridge metaphor? Notice several. First, the Golden Gate bridge looks like it's simply straight across and level from one side to the other - until you get on it and start traveling across, especially on foot at which time you realize it's actually uphill both directions. A lot like the spiritual journey. There's no such thing as a straight, flat distance. Spirituality is about life and life has ups and downs even though you can't see them at first. So don't get discouraged. Keep running or walking, keep moving forward - you'll eventually get to the downhill side. To get where you want to go, you need to cross the bridge.
Second, to build a strong bridge like the Golden Gate, every task is done with great care and persistence. Look at the two main cables - 80,000 miles of wire, taking over six months to spin. Imagine that - 6 months to do one spinning-the-wires task. But without that attention to that specific project, the finished bridge wouldn't be still standing strong today.
Spirituality involves engaging in sometimes menial tasks - routine - repetitive - over and over and over again. It's easy to take short cuts for the sake of brevity or expediting the process. But healthy and deep spirituality is like a good wine - it takes time, careful and loving attention. And some times you simply have to "sit with" it - let is simmer, percolate, age. Spirituality takes patience and persistence. Spinning the wires again and again. Sometimes it doesn't feel very productive. Our hearts aren't in it. But we still do it. It's a sacred routine that ultimately builds a strong spirituality - a holy bridge from here to there.
That's why the enduring religious traditions of the world have developed what they call spiritual practices - behaviors, activities, that you engage in over and over again - like spinning those wire cables around and around and around, each spin producing a stronger wire. We pray, we meditate, we read, we serve others, we attend services, we practice healthy behaviors, we work on healthy thought patterns - over and over and over again - with each new practice, we're building a stronger, deeper receptivity to the Spirit, and transformation increases.
Look at how long it took to build the Golden Gate bridge - January 1933 to May 1937 - four years. But because the builders took this strategic time and attention to the process 73 years ago, over 40 million vehicles today make it to their destinations safely every year.
Stay tuned to my next post - we'll look at two more ways I see the Golden Gate Bridge as a spiritual metaphor. I'm reminded of these every time I walk or drive where I can see the bridge. It truly is inspiring to me from every angle.
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