Faith, Work

Listening

Yesterday, as I was wrapping up my work week, I told one of my colleagues I felt like I was crashing through the whole week. The image in my mind was one of stomping through a thick forest, a little bit lost, but sure I would find my way out. In fact, I have been in that situation several times. I live across from a state park, and in some of my walks, I take a short cut — I go off the path because I know I’ll get back home sooner. It never works, of course, because I become quickly disoriented and the way out “over there” is never actually there but “somewhere else.”

I was crashing through my week with God too. I could not slow down enough to hear the soft whisper. Monday was a holiday, Tuesday I was in an all-day meeting, Wednesday I was out having some very minor surgery, Thursday was my dreaded steering committee for a major project I have been leading, and Friday was back to back meetings. This steering committee meeting — the one that governs the technology integration between my company and one we acquired over the summer — has a certain edge in which the members tend to take shots at what we are doing and to criticize even the smallest mistakes. And, of course, I take it personally. And I take everything they say seriously, even if it is a lie (because there is always a hidden agenda).

One of my team members, my operations lead, pulled me aside before the meeting and told me “I had it” and he told me to stay “on point.” As would happen, he reminded me, we would go off on a tangent at some point, and it was my job to bring us back to the decisions that needed to be made. (Did I mention I love team members who give honest, direct and useful feedback?)

And so at minute 35 out of our allotted 90 minutes, we went off track. Someone criticized an approach we were taking to solving a particularly difficult situation with some cost overruns. And the frenzy began. After a minute or so, four things happened. My operations lead gave me a look that I interpreted as “You need to bring us back,” then I remembered his words, “stay on point,” then I faced the real physical feeling in my stomach which I call anxiety, and at last, I prayed, “Lord. I need your help.”

Then the miraculous happened. Words came to my mind, “Thank you for your feedback. It’s important to us. But we need a decision on our staffing issue. And while this other issue is important, it’s not the focus of this meeting.” Simultaneously I took a deep breath, and I let that pit in my stomach go. A great sense of calm came to me, and people agreed to get back on track, and we took action to get back to the other topic in our next meeting.

So here’s the thing. I have been in this type of situation before and muddled through the meeting. This time around, with my desire to be more open to the Holy Spirit this year, I later asked God, “Was that you? Did you guide me?” In my intuition, in my growing openness, He did. I believe the Holy Spirit was right there. And I was listening and allowing Him to give me the words to say and the demeanor to manage this challenging situation.

That afternoon, I had three hallway conversations with people telling me that was a great meeting, and two emails saying the same. A first on both counts and this project is entering the end of its first year.

Listening to the trusted people around me, and listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. What a gift.

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Faith

The Holy Spirit

Of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit is the least talked about among my churchgoing friends. The Holy Spirit is such a profound teaching and is so far outside our experience. It’s a mystery. While Jesus is the perfect Son and by his acts, we are adopted by God as His children; the Holy Spirit resides in our hearts. The Holy Spirit helps create a clearer vision of God’s love for us and helps to develop a closer relationship with both Father and Son. That is easier written than realized.

On some days on my way to work, I get off the train a stop early, and I walk the last mile or so to the office. A few weeks ago, it was 30 degrees and a deep crystal blue sky. As I started walking, I fell into an easy cadence, and in my mind, I began to say, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.” In a short time, even those words left me until I was simply walking and observing the world around me in silence.

Gradually, everything I saw and heard and felt and smelled had an intense focus, and throughout the whole walk, I had an overwhelming thought inside that said, “This is my world…” There were other people walking and I noticed their faces — old and young and happy and sad and empty — there were children walking hand-in-hand with parents, there were dogs playing in a park, there was the fresh smell of coffee and pastries, there were school buses, and taxi cabs, and birds. A whole world filled with God’s creation. “This is my world, and I love it so… do you see?” was the overwhelming sense I had.

I wonder how I am changed with the very reality that something of God abides in me? I think it is this: through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, I become more aware of what God’s world is. I experience it with the senses he has given me—sight, sound, smell, feel and even taste— which unleashes in me a heart that loves more and more as His does, and I come to understand that even the smallest details are known to Him.

“You know Him, because he abides with you.” John 14:17

Making the time to acknowledge Him and by letting His presence be who you are, we open ourselves to loving as He loves. Why is it that we don’t talk only about the Holy Spirit? And why is it we seem to be afraid of people who have a connection and experience with the Holy Spirit as if God were talking to directly to them? I think it’s because, in this day and age, we need and crave certainty. We need clarification on the rules of conduct for our lives and affirmation of our political and social views. The Holy Spirit is not leading me in that way. In fact, I think He is asking me to give up all I know, and to rest in His presence.

“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.” John 14:26

This year, I will be spending more time listening to the Holy Spirit, and allowing Him to cultivate in me the mind and heart He is opening inside of me. It feels natural, but it is way outside my comfort zone.

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Faith

Losing Faith

Imagine your nature is such that all you are designed to do is to love God. Everything that you are and everything that you can be is simply transcended by this idea. Then imagine finding that this completely eludes you and that everything you hope for is completely misaligned with this idea, and you find your own existences is still the fulfillment of your own desires and cravings. In The New Seeds of Contemplation, this is essentially what Thomas Merton calls compunction, a feeling of guilt followed by an unhealthy behavior that leads us into more alienating behaviors and takes us away from faith.

I have seen it happen a lot. People have an emotional connection with God, we extol this experiences, and encourage the believer to extend the divine encounter with bible reading, small groups, acts of service, and evangelizing. But the emotional divine connection is elusive, and often believers are left wondering how to obtain it again. And so the church encourages the same activities… Bible reading, evangelizing, small groups. The believer may recover a sense of connection, but many times these methods lead to a complacency and abandonment of the initial hope of a changed life.

When people stop “believing” most times they say it is because they don’t “feel it” anymore. And it is usually followed by a sense that music has become boring, the sermons irrelevant, the service projects a chore and church friends distant. In or words, spiritual loneliness. But so often, this is the experience right on the cusp of something better, and these activities that are unfulfilling are human endeavors to keep you engaged. What God is asking is you abandon your whole self, including your church self, to His will, and to enter into a one-of-a-kind relationship with Him. A relationship exactly suited to who you are created to be.

Having experienced this myself (and continue to experience), this is the path we must go through to arrive at a deep, abounding faith. But many times the church, especially us evangelicals, fail to recognize this critical juncture. Instead of acknowledging that the journey to tranquility goes through the desert, we direct more of the same activities that are leaving so many without a path to a truer experience of God. Is it any wonder churches don’t grow when the constant barrage of “let’s feel good” wears thin?

The truth is, friends, if you are at the point where you want to walk away because you no longer “feel” it, this is the place where God wants you to be, and this is the place where God is asking you to abandon all your conceptions of what church and faith has been, and to walk with Him into the next phase of your relationship.

Your spiritual path must be simplified and redirected. Yes, by all means continue to go to church and engage in His word, but as spiritual seekers, sometimes — and often for long periods of time — the barrenness of faith is real, and His love for us is not built on the gimmicks of lights, sounds, sermons, service and experience. True love, true peace, true engagement is found by those who acknowledge that faith cannot rely on what others have made for us to experience. Faith is my sole and direct engagement with Him.

It is in great praise and thankfulness that I accept this emptiness. The vast love of God’s hope for us when is where we stand at the edge. It is a gift. And any gift from God is better than my own dim understanding of how to experience Him. When the sermons or the music stop resonating, it’s because He is saying, “That is not me. I am something better. I am something richer. Come, let me show you.”

I know, right? It sounds really, really crazy that when so much of Church becomes empty He is actually asking us to walk more closely with Him. He is asking us to abandon a false sense of who He is and to enter into a deeper, genuine relationship with His divine self. Not somebody else’s music or somebody else’s words or somebody else’s service project, but our own concerning Him.

So do this first every day, and be committed to just this. Tell God, in your own voice, that you are seeking Him. Tell Him honestly what your faith feels like. Tell Him honestly where you are struggling. And wait. I can’t tell you for how long. But I assure you He is there with you. And you will not look back on this time as anything other than a great transformation and a great gift to a deeper awareness of His presence.

 

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Faith

American Blessing

I have been thinking about this idea of the US being blessed for the last few months. Being blessed implies that there is a way to assign goodness to an action or result of one’s standing. Did God bless me with good health? Or did I just make some good choices? When I get sick, did God make me sick, or did I get sick because I made some bad choices? (Is that an anti-blessing?) Did God bless me with my good job, and what was my role versus what God gave me? Or did I respond to the circumstances in a way that led to good outcomes? I simply don’t know what is a blessing and what is a result of my personal choices. But what I do know is I can be grateful either way.

Now on the national scale, we have many incredible things to be grateful for, but I think we fall into a trap. We ascribe our blessings to some special favor God has given us. And when we don’t have that special favor, we say America is losing its greatness and on the verge of losing its God-given blessings because of a long list of rationales including our insufficient virtue. In other words, we’re rich and powerful because God blessed us due to our ways of living (and to be ignored, slavery, the systematic annihilation of Native Americas, but extolled our wealth and freedom). Somehow some people just know this American blessing to be true. It is a power packed sentiment, and I have to admit, it is alluring to think we are special in the Creator’s eyes.

I think we confuse our national prosperity, freedom, and safety with some type of divine blessing. That’s a mistake easy to make. After all, why wouldn’t there be some external factor giving us all these things? But Jesus told us differently. He told us what being blessed is. And he told us how we are to know that we are blessed. It all comes down to our attitudes and our actions. Just after he began his ministry, Jesus sat down with a crowd, and he taught them. And the first thing he taught, according to the Gospel of Matthew, was what it means to be blessed.

Matthew 5:3-12 (NRSV)
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

We Christians have to beware we do often confuse prosperity with what Jesus described as being blessed. Maybe if Jesus had said, “Blessed are the constitutional republicans, for they shall have great wealth and power and righteousness.” Well, then I could be convinced America has great blessings through its form of government (a constitutional republic). But Jesus did not say that. Instead, he talked about the way an individual is supposed to live. He said our blessings would be derived from being poor in spirit, being meek, being merciful, being a peacemaker. And a result, we would know the kingdom, we would inherit the earth, we would receive mercy, and we would be called a child of God.

So is America all these things: poor in spirit, meek, peacemaker? Are we pure in heart as a country? Can we even be pure in heart? Perhaps, as a country, we could. But I think it would be fair to say a lot would have to change. But as a Christian, I know what Jesus taught does not have to be on a national level. It must be personal. That is hard stuff in this day and age, and this idea goes against the current national climate. But blessings are not a direct result of my earthly citizenship. They are a result of my individual choices and the way I live. And in that area alone I — we all — have significant work to do. And that’s the key idea, and one of the more frequently missed points of Jesus’ ministry: work on yourself first, and the rest will follow.

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Faith

Blind but now I see

In John 9, Jesus encountered a man blind from birth, and he gave him his sight.  The Pharisees were incensed that Jesus healed the blind man, and so they interrogated this blind beggar to understand what had really happened. In his own way, the beggar admonished them, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” And this truth greatly angered the Pharisees.

As I read this story, I wondered about something.  What was it like to receive sight after being blind all of one’s life? If the first thing you saw were an apple and an orange, what would you think?  Would you know color? Or shape? If you saw a pair of twins, would you think they were the same person? Would a beautiful sunset inspire a sense of awe? Would a cliff, inches away, make you step back?  Would smoke be a warning?  What would you think of the moon at night? Would you know lion is a danger but kitten is not?

It’s astounding when I stop and think about it.  I have never been blind, but I have worn glasses most of my life.  And being without my glasses for even short periods is very frustrating.  In fact, the first thing I lose is the ability to interpret people’s expressions.  Expressions are too complicated if you can’t seem them clearly.  What would the blind man have seen in the faces of the Pharisees? Anger? Fear? Or did he recognize anything at all?  The blind man did not seem to know Jesus was the Son of Man, and had to be told that it was, in fact, Jesus. What would he have seen in Jesus’ expression during this conversation? Love? Patience? Admonition?

It takes years to be able to interpret expressions, and years to perceive depth, and texture, and danger, and beauty. And yet, the blind man sees.  He sees well enough that Jesus has to go and find him after his encounter with the Pharisees. Find, I think, in the sense that the blind man was moving about. He was seeking out this new world. He did not seem to be clinging in fear to something he could not comprehend or interpret.

And Jesus went on to explain that it is spiritual blindness that was far worse than physical blindness. As astounding as recovered sight is, and as much as we would receive it with a sense of exploration and wonder and awe and even fear, it’s the spiritual seeing Jesus said we have to have.

Faith is the continuing illumination of that which we could not see.  And in a world seen with a spiritual vision, like a person with new sight, where can we not venture?

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Faith

I Toil at Work

“All toil and all skill in a man’s work come from his envy of his neighbor.”  Ecclesiastes 4:4.

I don’t really think that is true.  For some people.  But for a lot of my career and a lot of the careers of others I have seen, a little bit of envy of “something” can go a long way as a motivation factor.  Of course, as Jesus has taught us, our neighbor is everyone.  So there is a lot of opportunity to look at someone else and find something about that person we might desire. Money has not really driven me, but show me a good title, and I just might be all about some role envy.

A simpler way to look at this is to ask, “What motivates me in my work?” I think it is a really important question because our motivations drive our behaviors.  I think if we really ask ourselves this question, we might be surprised at the answers. Is it money?  Or being a great politician?  Or power?   Or being an inspiring teacher?  Or some other motivation?  And what do those motivations lead to in my daily interactions?  Am I little sharp tongued, or too aggressive, or a tad bit dishonest, or completely trustworthy or willing to help others?

Now that I have led you down this path, let me ask this: How is it as Christians we can even ponder that question: what motivates me in my work?  We are either motivated by Christ or we are not.  He’s either at the center of all we do, or he’s not.  Is it even remotely possible that we can separate our work motivation from anything other than following our Savior?

All toil and all skill in a Christian’s work come from surrendering to Jesus Christ as Lord of all.

Seriously, in all that we do as Christians, we do under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  Including work.

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