Tag Archives: spirituality

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.

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.

It’s so rare

I just came back from a meeting of rare disease patients. These are the people who have few treatment options, and who have few medicines and therapies being pursued on their behalf. It’s an incredibly complicated issue, and sometimes when there is a glimmer of hope that something might work, there’s an insurmountable safety issue or the stability of a compound can’t be achieved. In other words, the drug might have some serious side effects, or it can’t be made consistently.

On the last night of the event, there was an art show of paintings by artists who had captured children living with these diseases. This group of artists exists to bring to the world’s attention the suffering and hope of the estimated 350 million people worldwide who have them. Of the 7,000 known diseases, only about 150 have treatments.

One painting caught my attention so firmly. Colorful, of a boy, standing and laughing. It invited me in. And made me feel the wonder of life from the eyes of someone young and seemingly living his life with a degree of joy captured in hues and texture that must have taken weeks to create.

After walking around in the crowded room, I struck up a conversation with a man looking at another painting, and he observed to me its subtle mystery of hope and whimsy. And we talked about the event, and the challenges of living with these rare diseases, our families, and life in general.

At one point, I asked him if he had seen a picture of a laughing boy, and he said that he had. So I shared my thoughts on this work and talked more about how the painting conveyed so much zest and openness. After a few minutes of talking about this picture, the man said, “Thank you.” I said ‘You’re welcome.” He said, “No, you don’t understand, I am the artist, and the boy is over there.”

But the boy was not walking. And he was having a lot of trouble sitting up. But he was laughing. The artist explained that when he painted the picture about six months ago, the boy could stand, but his disease was slowly killing off his white brain cells, and he was gradually slipping away. At age 6, he would not live beyond 10. There is no cure.

There are only 200 known people in the world with this condition. I had the honor of talking with the man who painted life, and I was also honored to see that the boy was surrounded by a loving family who was playing with him, while he laughed, and clapped his hands, and looked with the deepest, most expressive eyes at the world around him. This family loved him unconditionally. As I listened and watched, there wasn’t regret and sadness. There was life and a real presence that the moment was now. Not tomorrow.

I have been reflecting on the age of the universe. It’s 14 billion years old. Galaxies and solar systems formed, stars came to life, planets found their orbits, and life emerged on at least one of these places, and now this moment with the artist and the boy and his family came and went. It was 14 billion years in the making. And I was there.

What an incredibly blessed day I had. In a crowd of hundreds of people, at the right place and time, I encountered creativity and love coming together.

I have been praying that God would make these moments happen more for me. I want to know that His love is real and that there is a hope that is greater and bigger than anything I know. I want to live life in renewed ways and be open to the mystery of a creator, a redeemer and a sustainer who is as concerned with the forming of a planet as he is with a single life in a single moment. It’s a simple prayer. Give me your eyes and ears.

Cocina

What blog does not end the year reflecting on the last year and looking forward to the next? And try to make some sense of what has happened?

What has happened in this last year? There were the big events with a new incoming US President, David Bowie died, North Korea launched a long-range rocket into space and conducted numbers of nuclear bomb tests, more suicide bombings than we can count, Prince died, Muhammad Ali died, the UK exited the EU, a solar airplane completed an around the world trip, the Olympics were held in Brazil, and the Cubs won the World Series. Both my sons went college, and Tracy and I became part-time empty nesters. My company made a major acquisition, for which I managed the IT transition. When my office moved, my commute went from 45 minutes one-way to 90 minutes one-way. I rode the Pan Mass Challenge. I vacationed. I binge watched a few series. I read 21 books. All in all, on the macro scale, it was a stressful year, but at the personal, at the this-is-where-I-live level, it was a big year. A challenging year. One with a lot of change.

On the spiritual front — what this blog is about — it was a flat year. I struggled through most of the year to experience a sense of growth. After having a few years of feeling like I had ascended the mountains and experienced the amazing view of life from the peaks, this past year felt like a walk into the valley, and into a desert. In fact, In September, Tracy and I went to Napa Valley for a week, visiting with her sister and brother-in-law. And one day I went for a bike ride, crossing the Napa valley into Suisun Valley where I literally rode through a desert in 105-degree weather. And I thought at the time, this is how I have been feeling.

And so, out of water, and a little lost, I was contemplating just exactly how I was going to get back to my starting point, or if I was going to have call someone to come and pick me up. I mean it was hot. And I was parched. And I had 25 miles still to go, across some steep climbs. Then Pedro’s Cocina, seemingly out of nowhere. After riding for the last 40 minutes hardly seeing any cars, a place to get something to eat? Soda, Gatorade. Food. And a friendly proprietor, with some advice on how to get back to Napa, and encouragement to keep going even though I was out in the middle of the day in such heat.

Keep going? I mean, really? I was the one on the bike. I had the work ahead, at least as far as riding was concerned. This was the desert. This was hard.  But his reasoning was easy, “You have come this far, and it’s beautiful out here.”

That was right.  It was beautiful out there. And it still is.

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.

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.

 

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.