Monday, October 10, 2016

The Best Things in Life are Fleeting

Wisdom tells us to pursue what is lasting, to center our attention around what will endure, to anchor ourselves in longevity. But maybe what is fleeting in this lifetime gets a bad rap. Maybe the truest, most real experiences in this life are fleeting.

Take falling in love. Every day you breeze past hundreds of people who are of little consequence to you, but then in a moment one person becomes everything to you. Your life was perfectly full before you met her, but somehow now you have a cavernous void at the center of your body that can only be filled by her presence. Once you had life dreams about what, but now you have dreams about who. It's like the the universe has whispered a tightly guarded secret to you, and you are now in possession of the knowledge that this is the most excruciatingly beautiful woman the world has ever known. You can't figure out why the entire world isn't knocking on her door, why everyone can't see what you see, why she's not on the cover of every fashion magazine, why scientists aren't clamoring to study her brain and heart, why her emails aren't winning the Pulitzer every year.

Yes, those intoxicating feelings become more sober over time, but what if the experience of being in love is a glimpse into the true reality of who that person is? What if it's about more than brain chemicals that swirl in your brain when she's near or an evolutionary tactic to preserve the species? What if in those smitten days you have been given a revelation from On High about who this person, at her core, truly is? She is an image-bearer of God, a beloved daughter, a breathtaking unity of body, soul, mind, and spirit tenderly shaped by the Creator, apple of the Father's eye, and therefore stunningly, heart-piercingly, life-changingly beautiful. What if what you have experienced is a truth about a person that is more true than all the lies she has been told about herself are false?

Perhaps the experience of falling in love is not unlike the transfiguration. When Jesus went up the mountain and was transfigured before the disciples, it wasn't a stage trick. What Peter, James, and John saw was the true glory of the Son. In his face sparkling in the sun, they beheld Jesus for who he truly is. They learned his true identity, one that will become fully clear when we meet him face to face, when his countenance will never cease to glow. Perhaps when you fall in love, the other person is transfigured before you, and for a brief time, you see and experience and love who she truly is. She is not the only one who is changed.

The problem with the transfiguration is that the disciples Jesus took with him couldn't handle it. Peter tried to control the situation. Maybe if I build a few tabernacles up here, he thought, I can find a place to put all this Glory. That's what we do in the fleeting moments, when we encounter something, or someone, that makes us feel small, powerless, or overwhelmed. We try to regain control. We make a tent to stick Jesus in, or we distance ourselves from the feelings, or we dismiss or judge the in-love feelings of others. I even have a suspicion that we invent rules for how women should dress and act so that men will not feel so overpowered by the dizzying splendor of a woman.

I did a similar thing every time I visited wine country for a couple of years. I would experience those fleeting moments where I was so pierced by the sheer beauty of the place, so moved by the pattern of the vineyards stretching across the hills toward the ocean, so inspired by the buds breaking on the vines that would one day be crushed to fill my empty glass, and I would have absolutely know idea how to absorb them. So I ate and drank. And I over-ate and over-drank. I literally tried to take the beauty of the land into my body, and I discovered that my body did not nearly have the space to contain it. Others try to contain natural beauty by taking hundreds of pictures, but they find that even the most wide-angle shot does not compare to the inexhaustible panorama of the place, and they may even find that the camera in front of their face shields them from the wonder before them.

You know what else is fleeting? Emotion. So we have been taught not to trust our emotions, because they are capricious and therefore unreal. We tell people in pain to get over things. We point out their emotional contradictions and try to fix them and make them "consistent." We tell them to ignore their feelings and trust the eternal Word of God, even though the Word is full of emotional people, not to mention a few fruit of the Spirit that sound strangely emotional. Scripture would seem to tell us that when feelings like peace and joy surface in our hearts, they are indications of God's presence with us, and there is nothing more real than that.

The Celtic Christian tradition heralds "thin places" - those locations on earth where the clouds that would separate us from the awareness of God break and we are surrounded by Presence. I also like to think of "thin moments" - those brief windows of time when the veils of our hearts are peeled back and we experience Reality as fully we are able. Nothing is more fleeting than time, and yet that does not make this moment any less real. Perhaps in the thin moments, we dance in step to the music of the future, echoing backwards for a few songs. It doesn't mean that the rest of life isn't real, but maybe in the fleeting experiences of falling in love, of being captured by beauty, of swooning in deep emotion, we are moving to a deeper rhythm, a heavenly soundtrack that will have its grand climax at the renewal of all things.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Listen to Your Life

In chapter 8 of my new book, I throw out the crazy theory that if we want to hear God's voice and receive his guidance, maybe we don't need to ascend to the heights of heaven, into ethereal and abstract realms, and seek all the hidden gnosis. Maybe we can start by listening to our lives.

It starts with this: what takes place in you matters and has meaning. Your thoughts, emotions, impulses, desires, values, passions, dreams, recurring questions, and bodily responses are significant, are trying to teach you, and are all interconnected. It sounds simple, but some will resist. Occasionally I hear Christians say that the path to spiritual maturity involves “forgetting myself” and directing all my attention toward God, making little of me and much of him. While we aim to glorify God in all we do, the way of following Jesus is not self-abdication. Yes, we set aside what is passing away – the old ways, the old life, the old self – and then we become fully alive by taking on our new creation life, our truest and deepest self. We do not forget ourselves; we become fully ourselves. As St. Iranaeus in the 2nd century said, “The glory of God is a human fully alive.” We are not fully alive until we love God with all our mind, heart, soul, and strength, and we cannot love God with all of ourselves unless we are well acquainted with our minds, hearts, souls, and bodies. I believe that Christians should be leading the way in self-knowledge, because as John Calvin instructs us, “without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.”

The internal voices are telling you what your life is like. The voices that you choose to listen to are shaping what kind of person you are becoming. You can try to ignore them or avoid them, but if you do, you will be acting out of them unawares, sleepwalking to the step of your unconscious internal world. The realities that operate beneath the surface always hold the most sway. Instead, let’s wake up to what is taking place inside of us, to listen to it, honor it, and let it shape us into whom we wish to be. As Parker Palmer has said so well, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am.” If we are going to take the doctrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit seriously, we must be open to the idea that God is speaking within us, not only from places and words without us.

Deep things are stirring inside of us. Will we listen? 

And we can take this in another listening direction as well. I believe that good listening starts at home. How you listen to yourself will determine how you listen to others. Do you dismiss your own emotions? Then there is a good chance you will make a regular habit of dismissing the emotions of others. Those who are able to discern their own emotions will be most responsive to the emotions of others. Those who are unable to reflect on their own behaviors, patterns, processes, and belief systems will be unable to get sufficient emotional separation from others to listen well. They will devote too much conversational energy to defending themselves and trying to persuade others to live and think like they do. They will project their own experiences, anxiety, and beliefs onto others. Self-discovery is not the ultimate end of listening to your life; love is. If we want to listen to others with compassion, gentleness, and attentiveness, then we must learn to listen to ourselves with those same qualities. If we do the work in the quiet spaces, our compulsions will come out less when it’s loud.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Praying with the Waves

I have always been a mountain kind of guy. Not in the catch-salmon-in-your-teeth-for-dinner sort of way, which I've only done like 4 or 5 times, but in the relish-the-dry-and-bracing air sort of way. I like pine trees more than palm trees, chipmunks more than crabs, skis more than speedos, and martinis more than margaritas. The problem with mountains is that they have no rhythm. They just can't dance like waves can. And it's the rhythm of the ocean that has become the center of my newest prayer style.

My friend Lara is drawn to the ocean. She took up surfing a few years ago, and it has become an act of worship for her. As she puts it, "When you are in the ocean you quickly realize that you cannot conquer it. It’s too powerful. If you fight it, you will lose. But if you are skilled enough, what you can do is move in rhythm with it. It’s just like God. You will never overpower God, no matter how hard you fight, but you can learn to move in harmony with him."

Personally, I have an irrationally intense fear of jellyfish, so I prefer to stay on the beach. The picture above is from the Santa Barbara waterfront, which I have the opportunity to walk to every week.  One of the deficiencies of my spirituality over the years has been a sharp divide between my spirit and my body. My spirit I have consider the realm of God and my body the realm of physical necessity. I have not paid much attention to my body except perhaps when I felt pain or hunger. I am working to change that. I am slowly accepting the embodiment of my life and learning that I am not a mind and soul with a temporary physical housing, but a unity of spirit, mind, soul, and yes, body. I am learning to love the Lord my God with all my body. I am learning to taste and see that the Lord is good with the literal tongue and eyes that he has given me.

I have let go of prayers that issue from a disembodied spiritual realm, and I am learning to pray with my body. No setting has helped me to embrace a new embodied prayerfulness like the ocean. I have taken to sitting on the beach at sunset, and yes I realize I am privileged to live in California with its never-ending coastline, and pray with the waves. There is nothing original or novel about this in our great Tradition. Many have "prayed with the elements" over the centuries, particularly my Irish ancestors, the Celts.

My own adaptation of this tradition borrows from Ignatian spirituality. I sit on the sand at dusk and I pray the consolations and desolations of God as the waves dance. As the waves crash, I inhale and receive the Lord's consolations, his goodness, mercy, and presence. As the waves flee, I exhale and I release the desolations, the places where God does not seem present and the parts of my interior life that I do not want. It goes a little like this:

The tide waxes. Inhale. Breathe in the love God.
The tide wanes. Exhale. Release the hurt.
Wax. Breathe in the Presence.
Wane. Breathe out the regret.
Crash. Inhale his tenderness.
Flee. Exhale the heartbreak and grief.
Approach. Take in the fresh air of grace and new creation.
Depart. Surrender the black cloud of sin and guilt. 

I will sit for 10-15 minutes letting the ocean shape the rhythm of my prayer and the rhythm of my body.

The ocean is healing my prayer life, and helping me to listen to my body.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

A Matter of Motivation

The defining feature of introversion is where you find your energy; introverts, even though we may enjoy social interaction, even though we may really like people and be socially confident and skilled, lose energy in the outside world. We retreat into solitude in order to be restored.

But as I have continued to learn more about introversion, I have also come to see that there is a motivation factor for many of us. Introverts have rich inner lives and we can spend hours in our worlds of impressions, thoughts, reflections, and in the other dimensions of our inner life. From a neurological point of view, introverts have more brain activity and brain blood flow than extroverts, and we have less tolerance for the dopamine that is released from social interactions and activity. So in many cases it actually may be more pleasurable - in terms of the good feelings released in the brain - for us to be alone or at home than it is for us to be at a party or a church activity. In other words, we are more motivated to be alone than to be in a crowd. It's not that we don't like people or are anti-social or standoffish, it's that it actually feels better for us to be alone sometimes.  Reading a book on a Friday night may feel better than a night out with friends, especially when we have spent the week in a socially charged atmosphere at work. In that case, it's not that we are choosing out of something, it's that we are choosing, joyfully and purposely, another activity. 

Often, in Christian circles, we idealize those people that have a "passion" for community.  Those people who constantly want to be around other people and who love organizing and mobilizing social events are often considered those people who have the most "love" for people, and by derivation, God.  And, let's be clear, those people are absolutely indispensable for the formation of relationships in a community.  Those churches that don't have those people suffer because of it.  At the same time, let's also acknowledge that there is more than "love for people" that is happening here. For those social galvanizers, it feels good to be around people and to see people connect with one another. They are thriving on the dopamine that is released in their brain from those experiences.  And that's how God intended it for them.

Love for God's people does not have to look for everyone like an overt, uncontainable passion for being with others. Love, as we know from the scriptures, is self-sacrificial, in which we lay down our rights and place the good of others ahead of our own. Thus, it can be a great display of love for those of us who relish our inner worlds, to lay those things down sometimes and be present with others, when we might otherwise prefer to be alone.