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

A Monastery. An Incarnation.

Up until I was 14, my family lived outside of Washington, DC. On Christmas Eve, we would go to the midnight mass at the Franciscan Monastery in Washington. It was all of these things — quiet, holy, beautiful, somber, peaceful, uplifting, light, dark, simple, complicated. Full of ritual. Full of yearning. Full of hope. And full of a sense that this baby, Jesus, was someone different than the rest. So as a boy of 8 or 10 I thought of this baby Jesus as strangely the same and yet strangely different and yet supremely important in an intangible way in the midst of middle-class, suburban DC. My parents divorced, I moved away.

The Christmas mass at the monastery was the blending together of heaven and earth. A celebration of the moment the worlds collided and heaven restated its part in the world. The incarnation. Indeed, God becoming man. And so Jesus came to be with us. But why? Because. Because God would not simply be a distant, all-powerful being that would receive the accolades of His people in temples and ritual and priestly orders.

You see, God wishes that no person should be His enemy. Yet in desiring that no person should be His enemy, he became a person so that he could dwell with us, be us, show us, love us in the flesh, and be for us what we could not be ourselves — perfect love. He became us. He became one of the beings who were, in fact, His enemy.

From the beginning, God walked with His people in the Garden. And He would return to dwell with the people he intended all along to be with. And yes, if Christ became Man, it is because He wanted to. Not because He had to.

We ourselves, and all the part of the world we encounter, decide if we can accept this presence, can decide if we will allow it to consecrate our being, and can move among people as if Christ were here. This is the great invitation to each person and for us to contemplate and live out. God with us. We live like this because we want to. Not because we have to.

If we believe in the Incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth — not a single person, not a religious affiliation, not a political view, not a racial identification, not a gender orientation, not an economic class, not a educational background — in whom we are not prepared to see, in deep transformative and holy ways, the mystery, the presence of Christ. We can choose to accept others as part of this created world in which God dwells, or we can choose to ignore the hidden, encompassing beauty of God being with us.

Immanuel.

God with us.

Great joy is in seeing Christ in everyone.

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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

Stop Praying

I recently finished a book called, Wasted Prayer: Know When God Wants You to Stop Praying and Start Doing by Greg Darley (five stars for this book). The basic premise is that we Christians pray a lot, and when confronted with action, we often say something like, “Let me pray to God, and see if He gives me a clear idea as to what I should do.” And that does often sound really good. I mean really, really good. And pious. And devoted.

But so often that is where things stop. In all honesty, I have been praying about a lot of things, and not doing anything about them. For example, re-engaging in this blog has been at the top of my list for a long time. But I have been doing nothing about it, and wanting so much to see what the “big plan” was all about while ignoring the nagging thought, just write once this week.

Darley recounts the story of Peter’s calling. After a miraculous encounter with Jesus, Peter becomes a disciple (Luke 5). As far as we know, there was no clear plan explained to Peter. We modern day people often want that 100% clear plan before we decide anything. So, imagine if we were the modern day Peter, we’d ask Jesus for all the details, and he’d tell us: We’ll do a lot of walking, you’ll see some miracles, we’ll be challenged by the local politicians, you’ll betray me, you’ll try to kill a Roman soldier, but cut off his ear, you’ll make some amazing speeches, convert a lot of people, and eventually you will be crucified because of me. Peter: well, thanks, Jesus, but I think I’ll fish instead.

The point is, our must-know-it-all world stops us in our tracks, and progress is often really, really slow. Instead, Darley’s idea is to respond to little yeses. “This is the beauty of the small yes. I think it’s one of the ways God protects us. The small yes allows us to deepen our trust in the Father and his call. With each yes, we build a little more trust, gaining a little more confidence for what the next call may be. If God isn’t giving you the entire picture, rest in the possibility that this is a grace allowing you to only focus on the step in front of you.”

So there you have it. I don’t know where this blog will go. Or what I will do next week. But if I am going to follow Jesus, I have to begin walking behind him. And I don’t need prayer to do that.

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Faith

Baptism

I have had a lot to think about in the last few months. Or another way to say that is that my emotional capacity has been stretched a lot lately, and I have spent a good deal of time thinking about the implications of what I feel. Or, Being a Normal Christian happens.

In the last six months, there have been great moments of exhilaration, dark periods of concern for friends and family, frustration with events that impact me and others, but that I can’t control. My devotions have been dry from time to time, but then there have been days in which Bible reflection has given me much clarity and hope.

Today was an amazing day. 28 people from my church were baptized (actually two last week who could not be there today). Twenty or so of them were teens from our youth group. As a volunteer in the youth ministry I have been really close to four of the teens, and I have had the privilege of leading a guys small group, preaching the occasional Sunday sermon, and going on missions trips (this past year to Philadelphia).

I am still perplexed by a lot of things in faith. Like, for example, does prayer really work? Some of my friends hold that the future is exhaustively settled, and everything is pre-determined including salvation. I should mention, that this past summer I have read a book on Calvinism (everything is settled) and a book on Open Theism (only some things are settled), both of which, in my opinion, have compelling arguments for each of their positions.

So, today, were 28 people pre-ordained to be saved or did they make free choices to follow God? Honestly, I don’t know. However it happened, 28 people went into the water and came out different people.

But here is the thing I want to share. On one of the last nights on the missions trip this summer (there were 60 teens and 20 adults) we were worshipping and praying after a long day of work. It was a highly emotional and spiritually uplifting moment. One teen, I’ll call him David, was off by himself.   I knew he had a lot of issues in his life, but his name was suddenly on my heart in a big way. And so I started to pray for him, and I beseeched the Lord to comfort him and to show him His mercy and Grace. For probably an hour I kept praying for David, and at one point I went over to him, put my hand on his shoulder and I simply prayed, “Lord, save him now.”

Never stop praying for God’s mercy. I don’t know my role in this whole thing, but I am convinced that my prayers a month ago and the events of today are immensely connected.

Today, David was baptized.

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Faith

Optimism part 3

As I have mentioned before, I often take good ideas and improve upon them for better, practical application.  This is very true with the idea of Learned Optimism.

At first this simple way of thinking about life’s situations made a lot of difference in how I saw my own situation.  More and more often I have found myself talking myself out of a negative belief with negative consequences.  At the very least, I was able to come to clear, reasonable conclusions about situations, which then allowed me opportunities to make better choices.

After practicing Learned Optimism for a while, it dawned on me that during the Dispute step, I found myself praying for God’s guidance.  I would pray, “Father, what is really going on here?  Is there anything you want me to know?  Or to do?”

This was my practical, personal application moment.  In the A-B-C-D-E model, Adversity-Belief-Consequences-Disputation-Energy, I began to see that the disputing step was more about seeking divine guidance, or better yet, to understand the Devine Desire for that moment in time.

So. A-B-C-D-E became Adversity-Belief-Consequences-Divine Desire-Energy.  Adversity, then, would almost always lead to prayer, especially when there were negative consequences.  In fact, over time, practicing this has led me to a place where I seek to pray first when there is adversity.  There are times when I don’t even get to my beliefs or the consequences. I simply turn to God.

And that is really the whole message of optimism.  Letting God, our Father, guide us, and to give Him all our burdens.

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Faith

Pessimism Part 2 / Optimism Part 1

Summer comes. Summer goes.  But one thing about summer, it can be more busy than other times of the year.  So this Pessimism Part 2 / Optimism Part 1 has been sitting on the shelf for a while.  Since my last post, I’ve spent a week at the beach with family, started a new role at work, read a lot, reconnected with a bunch of people, gone for a lot of bike rides, and relaxed in some of the nicest weather we’ve had in a long while.  I also reached and crossed over the half century mark.  🙂

So that one little prayer, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner” caused me a lot of angst.  But two things happened that freed me from constantly beating myself up, and being a (almost completely) negative thinker.  This post describes the first step.

I heard someone (I’ll call him Ted) mention Philippians 4:13, “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” Ted said that every time he recited this verse, amazing things happened.  And when he didn’t, or when he didn’t pray it sincerely, things didn’t go as well.   He told me that when he played football this prayer gave him the strength to be a hard hitting, aggressive linebacker, and his team would usually win.

So I asked Ted what happened when other people on the opposing teams prayed this verse as well? Or if he applied it to taking tests?  Or driving in hazardous weather?  Or…?  He admitted that he mostly prayed Philippians 4:13 when he played sports.   Especially in games. Ted’s answers were vague on the outcomes related to insincerity or intensity of the prayer.

A lot of people have used this verse as a personal best, and so I had to admit, this little prayer seemed to be exactly what I needed. So I tried it in place of the sinner’s prayer…  and my results were at best inconclusive.  It just didn’t seem to work.  Or make sense.  And if this was the formula to success, wouldn’t it be explicitly stated somewhere in the Bible?  And then it dawned on me, “Had I read the scripture?” (the answer was no, I had not… a little lesson to explore another time).

So some exegesis (that’s studying God’s word in context) revealed something to me very different from they way I had heard Ted and many others use this verse.  In fact, Paul’s context here was that he was telling the Philippians that he had been through some bad times and some good times, he’d been hungry and full, he had nothing and everything.  And through it all, Christ sustained him.  It was not about what would happen, but about what had happened.  And what would continue to happen.

This started the change in my thinking.  I saw that Christ was with me in good times and bad time, in plenty and need, in up and down.  And through it all, Christ sustained me.   It wasn’t about what I was achieving, but who was sustaining me. Who was with me. In all of my circumstances.  A subtle, yet very, very important shift in praying happened…

“Lord Jesus, through whom all things were created, sustain me.“

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