"I take responsibility for the power of my mind today."
I read that statement during my wife's and my spiritual growth time this week. My first response was, "Uhuh. Tell me something new. This is pretty obvious."
Do you ever doubt yourself and your ability to live out your purpose successfully? Do you ever compare yourself to other people and come up short in your estimation? Do you ever wonder what difference you can possibly make in the world when there are so many others doing it better than you? Are you ever tempted to simply crawl back in your hole and let life pass you by because you’re not noticed by anyone anyway?
Whom among us has never felt these doubts and feelings? It’s a part of our tender humanity.
The older I get the more I realize how significant it is to learn how to say No to some things in order to say Yes to others. And especially to learn which are the more important things to push back against and push forward toward. Here are two strategies for doing this well.
Distinguishing between all the roles you fill in your life from the personal Calling that you feel compelled toward fulfilling in your life is one of the most strategic discoveries you can make. Here are some ways to make sure you’re making the right distinction.
So, without defining the word "faith" in that sentence in any kind of religious or spiritual sense, what does the statement mean to you? Why might it be important to your life?
Some of us, like me who has the strength of Futuristic--the ability and drive to paint a clear picture/vision of a preferred future in a way that is compelling and inspiring--are inclined to dream a lot, and spend time defining the dream, outlining it, specifying it, clarifying it, painting it in as great detail as possible. Our temptation is to stay in that mode of thinking to the exclusion of doing the work of taking steps to get that vision. It's the tendency to live in the clouds of dreams and vision without ever getting back to earth where the actual steps have to be taken. We want to make sure we have all our ducks lined up in a row lest we jump "too quickly."
So King's statement is a powerful nudge. Faith is first about taking a step toward the dream. Moving forward, even by one step. Faith is fundamentally a willingness to move ahead rather than sitting still to wait for more complete information.
Reflection: Are there any places in your life where you find yourself stuck, sitting still rather than moving forward? Can you determine why you're not moving ahead? Are you waiting for something? What? More information? A more complete picture of where you think you're going? Are you afraid of taking a step? Why? What's keeping you from forward momentum?
Notice the second dimension of faith in King's statement. Faith moves ahead even when the whole picture isn't clear yet. You don't have to see the whole staircase in order to take the step. There's an emphasis in this definition of faith away from the future back to the present.
The January 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler highlighted an unusual cultural exchange between a 30-year-old Maasai warrior from the Serengeti and high school students, led by 55-year-old librarian Paula Busey, in Littleton, Colorado. The kids raised money to bring this Maasai warrior to their community where he taught them about his culture and his people's wordview. Our core value, he said, is to work at preserving communities and traditions. And then he gave a significant observation:
"American kids are obsessed with becoming adults, with finishing university and starting to work. I understand they have anxieties. But I tell them the Maasai don't think about tomorrow. We just try to make today excellent. And if today is excellent, tomorrow will come."
Imagine living life more like that--refusing to constantly be thinking about the "tomorrows" in everything we do. Imagine learning the art of living in the moment. Experts call this Mindfulness (I think MLK was using the word "faith" for the same concept)--being fully present in the moment--savoring your one step--choosing not to allow the constant mental chatter and obsession with what's next or what's coming up or how am I doing with all of my "stuff," to affect this present moment--to discover and savor the beauty of this moment, this little step.
Reflection: One of the great mantras for this mindfulness practice is, "In this moment, I have everything I need." Say that to yourself a few times. What does it feel like? Does it feel foolish to you? Why or why not? Try making this a regular saying you repeat at different moments throughout the day. See what that does to your attitude and presence.
It's not to say that the future isn't important. We all have to plan ahead. But our human tendency, especially in our culture, is to obsess on the future and it's every known detail. And then to worry about the details we're sure must be important but we just can't seem to see or anticipate yet. Either way, we're losing out--because we're not appreciating what is here right now, in this moment. We've consigned ourselves to living in worry and anxiety over things that haven't even happened yet.
But here's the reality: Yesterday is gone forever; tomorrow hasn't even happened yet; the present is all we have. Why ruin it?
You don't have to see the whole staircase to take your first step.
Remember Indiana Jones in the scene from The Last Crusade where he brings his group to the edge of the precipice? They have to get to the other side but the chasm that separates them is wide and deep. Impossible to bridge.
Indiana Jones pulls out his notebook which contains the map and instructions, finds their current location, and suddenly realizes that there's an unseen bridge that actually spans the chasm. But it will only appear once you take the first step. Would you take that step, even if you couldn't see the whole bridge?
He holds out one foot over the dark abyss. Then he lowers that foot down into what looks like pure air and space ... and leans into it. Suddenly, his foot touches something and immediately the entire bridge materializes into view. And the group inches its way across the divide to the other side.
Faith is taking the first step even when you can't see the whole staircase.
Reflection: What would it be like for you to follow the Maasai tradition of not thinking about tomorrow but just trying to make today excellent? How would that attitude and intention impact the quality of your present moment? What faith do you have that will embolden you to stick your foot out over what feels like an empty abyss and set it down even when you can't see clearly ahead? What is one even small step you are being nudged to take right now, in this moment, that you need to take?
There's a reason why all religious traditions refer to mindfulness as a spiritual practice. It's a discipline that has to be developed. It takes practice. Serious intention and choice. Over and over and over again.
Think of all the great social and spiritual movements in this world that would never have materialized had this concept of faith not been acted upon. Martin Luther King, Jr., who made this statement, was one of the greatest visionaries in the world. His "I Have A Dream" speech painted a powerful vision of a future he longed for. But he never completely knew the future, in every detail. There were outcomes he never anticipated. There were moments he even doubted the reality or possibility of this Dream of equality and justice for all people. But he still took the first step every day. He acted in a courageous and intentional way each new day. He refused to let himself become paralyzed into inaction or to allow lack of clarity about the future to impede his forward momentum each day. One step at a time. But one step.
Every life transformation begins with the faith / courage to take the first step forward. Don't worry about having to know everything about the future. Just take the first step forward. And then the next step will become more clear. And then when you take that step, the next step will become clear. Act on what you do know--take one step.
[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:
So here are some personal questions for your reflection:
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] In August of 2007 the New York Times reported that in her collection of letters, Come Be My Light, Mother Teresa (1910-97) confessed that for years she had harbored deep, troubling doubts about the existence of God, even as she worked tirelessly to relieve the pain and suffering of the sick and dying in Calcutta.
In one of her journal entries, she cried out, "Where is my Faith - even deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness - My God - how painful is this unknown pain - I have no Faith - I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart - & make me suffer untold agony. When I try to raise my thoughts to Heaven - there is such convicting emptiness that those very thoughts return like sharp knives & hurt my very soul. - I am told God loves me - and yet the reality of darkness & coldness & emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul. Did I make a mistake in surrendering blindly to the Call of the Sacred Heart?"
Her honest confession evoked a wave of criticism. Was she a hypocrite? Had she been faking it all along? Or was she, as atheists are now claiming triumphantly, simply a self-deluded person trying to have a faith in something that obviously doesn't exist?
But in the flood of public comments that followed the publishing of her diaries, a student named Krista E. Hughes made the most telling comment in a letter to the editor. "Mother Teresa's life," she wrote, "exemplifies the living aspect of faith, something sorely needed in a society where Christian identity is most often defined in terms of what a person believes rather than how he or she lives. Shouldn't it be the other way around?"
Krista Hughes speaks truth, and Mother Teresa illustrates that truth: faith is not just about what you believe, whether you give mental assent to a propositional statement about what Reality is or isn't; faith isn't simply believing that God exists. Faith is, as Harvey Cox (emeritus professor at Harvard Divinity School) in his book The Future of Faith puts it, "more a matter of embodiment than of axioms ... a way of life, a guiding compass ... the experience OF the divine displacing theories ABOUT it." And sometimes the experience of the divine is more an action in harmony with the Presence than a feeling of Presence (as Mother Teresa showed).
There were times Mother Teresa wasn't even sure God existed, at least for her. But she continued living the Way of Love to the suffering and dying poor in Calcutta. She continued the practice of compassion regardless of her doubts because of her love for Jesus not just her experience of Jesus.
That's why Jesus called himself "The way, the truth, and the life." And to illustrate an experience of Jesus in this reality, his disciples were called followers of The Way. Following Jesus meant walking the path of Jesus, the path of self-denial and unconditional compassion and justice. Spiritual practices and disciplines emerged to help empower followers to walk this Way of Jesus. Following that was known as a life of faith – a way of the heart, not just the head.
SO IN THIS SERIES, we've been taking a look at three 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. So far, we’ve looked at FAITH AS fiducia – trust, relaxed confidence, fidelitas – faithfulness, loyalty, allegiance. The third word is visio.
Faith As Vision
The third Latin word for faith is visio which literally means “likeness, face, visage." It's our English word for “vision.” This is faith as a way of seeing – a way of seeing “what is,” of seeing the whole. The Christian New Testament often connects faith with seeing a certain way. H. Richard Niebuhr, a mid-twentieth century theologian, in his book The Responsible Self, speaks of the central importance of how we see the whole of what is, for how we see the whole will affect how we respond to life. He describes three contrasting ways of seeing life and reality. Notice the corresponding attitudes and responses to life with each life vision.
REALITY 1: Life is hostile and Threatening. Corresponding attitudes: Paranoia; “None of us gets out of here alive”; Life is filled with threats to our existence. Response to life is: Defensive; Seek to build systems of security and self-protection to fend off hostile powers; God is our Judge - God is going to get us – unless we do the right things to secure His favor.
REALITY 2: Life is indifferent. Corresponding attitudes: “What is” is simply indifferent to human purposes and ends and meanings; Universe is neither hostile to nor supportive of our lives and dreams. Response to life is: Less anxious and paranoid than the first vision; But still likely to be defensive and precautionary; We build up what security we can in the midst of an indifferent universe; Though we may enjoy times of rich aesthetic to life, ultimately, we are likely to be concerned primarily for ourselves and those who are most important to us.
REALITY 3: Life is life-giving and nourishing. Corresponding attitudes: Sees reality as gracious; It has brought us and everything that is into existence; It is filled with wonder and beauty, even if sometimes a terrible beauty; Jesus’ theology: God feeds the birds and lilies, clothes them; God sends rain on the just and unjust; God is generous. Response to life is: Faith as a radical trust in God; Frees us from the anxiety, self-preoccupation, and concern to protect the self with systems of security that mark the first two viewpoints; Leads to a “self-forgetfulness of faith and thus to the ability to love and to be present to the moment”; Generates a “willingness to spend and be spent” for the sake of a vision that goes beyond ourselves; St. Paul: leads to a life of freedom, joy, peace, and love.
Niebuhr's point is that the way we see the whole radically impacts the way we live life. Vision makes a transforming difference. And since faith is about vision, how we see, the quality of one's faith directly affects the quality of one's life. This is why Albert Einstein made the provocative observation, "The most important question you'll ever ask yourself is, Is the universe friendly?" With all his scientific knowledge, along with his growing spiritual awareness, he began to put the two "worlds" together and realized that one's perspective on the universe and the cosmos and the Force behind and in it all was a hugely important issue. Is Life, is God, is the Universe friendly or not? That starting point affects everything.
But to develop a vision of reality as life-giving and nourishing is not to be naive or to turn a blind eye to the darker side of life. Here's the way Marcus Borg summarized it: “Niebuhr was no Pollyanna. He knew about the Holocaust and all the terrible things that we are capable of doing to each other. The point is not that reality is simply ‘nice,’ or that one can demonstrate that it is gracious. Rather, the point is that how we see reality matters, for how we see ‘what is’ profoundly affects how we experience and live our lives.” Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 36
Faith then is a choice for how you want to see, what lens you want to look at life through. As quantum physicists are saying these days, your perspective helps to create and shape your reality. You end up seeing what you choose to see. The depth and quality of your spirituality and faith is a lot about making choices about vision and sight and a view of reality. And what you decide impacts what you experience.
So of the three realities Niebuhr describes, which do you tend to live in the most? How has that impacted your life experience? Do you see yourself as being able to change visions and lens? Or are you simply stuck where you're at? Are you living out of an expansive and liberating life view or a constricted and confining view? Are you caught up in your own little world (preoccupied with self survival) or are you living life with a clear vision of the whole, an ability to live beyond yourself in loving response to others? Or like many people, perhaps you're somewhere in the middle between those two poles, leaning toward one side or the other depending on your current life circumstances?
I'm amazed at Mother Teresa's honest recounting of her often painful spiritual journey. But I'm also comforted. I can relate to pieces of her journey. Faith isn't about never doubting God or about never questioning or about having all the right answers. Faith is about staying on the journey even in the midst of uncertainty, about hanging on even when you can't sense the divine. And that comes from a certain vision, a way of choosing to look at life and what's most important. Mother Teresa, though not feeling God's direct comforting presence, chose to hang on, continually addressed her journal to her Jesus, expressed honestly her doubt and pain, and kept on working for the poor and suffering in the world anyway. She chose to live compassionately as her highest value. Which of the above 3 Realities was she choosing to see and live from?
In my next blog post, we'll look at an intriguing story from ancient scripture showing how these contrasting views of reality impact life experiences and how this Latin word for faith (visio) plays out. Maybe you'll see your current faith journey illustrated somewhere in the story. Stay tuned.