Non-Religious Christian Spirituality

being | kingdom

manufactured moments

I got an email last week from a good friend who wrote, “Some days I am worried about the future of our finances, my relationships, my kids, or the health of those I love. Other days I am just content to have a roof over my head and can blissfully clean the garage without a care…” He also wrote about going for a walk that morning with his dogs: “I thought to myself how cool I am going to be out for 30 minutes surrounded by nature, my loving critters…who every time we go for a walk act like it’s the first time and maybe the last time they will ever get to go out–so happy and appreciative–why can’t kids be like that?

He called his walk that morning a manufactured kingdom moment” and wanted to know if I knew what he was talking about, if it made any sense. Felt like the understated question of the year to me. In the midst of a whirlwind of details and deadlines, I’d been clinging to moments like these…manufactured or not.

Is it right at all to think of manufacturing a kingdom moment? A moment when cleaning the garage is bliss, when a walk through the trees on your street carries the intensity of the first time, or the last? Is such a thing even possible? I remembered two moments harvey3from the film Harvey with James Stewart and had to see them again. Besides watching one of our greatest film actors melt into a role, Jimmy Stewart manufactured a kingdom moment, a kingdom character, right before our eyes–and in this scene tells how he never has time anymore because he’s so busy sitting with friends and listening to their big hurts and even bigger dreams and warming himself in all those “golden moments.” Again, from my friend’s email: “I love people and love to share experiences. Some psychologist may say I am insecure or co-dependent–I don’t know and really don’t care. I just feel like if you paint a beautiful picture or make a movie and no one ever sees it, what’s the point?”

What is the point? We fall in love with our film stars because they repeatedly take us where we’ve never gone ourselves or show us where we’ve already been with style and a soundtrack. At their best, speaking the words of equally gifted writers, they open windows to emotions and perspectives and circumstances that we find hard to access on our own. If we can use those golden moments recorded on film or in an email to recognize and embrace our own golden moments when they arrive, that’s a point. And if instead of merely waiting for our golden, kingdom moments to arrive, we learn to move out and meet them, to “manufacture” them to the beat of our own internal soundtrack, that’s an even bigger point. Our moments are up to usWe decide which moments are golden. There is no kingdom moment apart from our decision to make it so. And if we never connect the dots from our life to another–whether real, written, or recorded…there is no point.



Conversations: Presence

Another email thread, another peek behind the curtain to see what may be relevant…

6/2/15, 5:52 AM

DM: Have you ever taken a side street on your journey? I have done so and it is turning out to be quite the cul-de-sac, and it has actually taken me quite a while to get back to the main path. I guess the way to describe my detour up the side street would be discouragement…

6/3/15, 1:34 PM

DB: Yes, I’ve taken many detours. I’m beginning to wonder if our latest project for the non-profit is one of them… Remember, though, that nothing is lost unless we lose it, learn nothing from it. That is, we judge our detours as detours because they don’t take us where we thought we were going, don’t serve our agendas or the outcomes toward which we’re working. But outcomes and agendas are not why we’re here. If we’re here to learn how to connect, how to be one with everyone and everything (as I believe Jesus is showing us), then detours are just as useful and valid as main paths. In fact, from the point of view of connection-as-purpose, a detour is indistinguishable from a main path.

When we find ourselves falling into disconnection, then we need to redirect of course, but we can do that on the detour as well as what we consider the main path without leaving either. I’m working on becoming much more aware of how I judge my moments—remembering that there are no insignificant moments except those as judged by agenda, that all moments are equally sacred once we find connection within them. And though I joke about our latest project, whether it succeeds or fails as judged by our agenda is insignificant against what we learn of connection through the process….


DM: A pastor mentioned in a recorded message that God loves when we knock and sometimes allows us just to keep knocking and knocking. I would describe this as asking God a lot of questions. And sometimes if you ask long enough, and keep at it long enough, you will get some answers back.

DB: I’m thinking more and more how important it is to remember that God never withholds anything. We may experience a perceived lack of response, but God can’t possibly be more present than he is right now and every moment. He literally is the air we breathe and the lungs with which we breathe it. It’s just a matter of us tuning to God’s frequency, which is what knocking really is–not to gain God’s attention–we already and always have that, but to fix our own on him. And to begin to learn that any answers we get will not necessarily be specific to questions as asked, but will most likely break the line of questioning and evoke what is needed to show us that the most important questions in life don’t have answers. Only the experience of asking.


DM: One of my pet peeves are songs we sing at church. I asked one of the worship leaders if he was ever conflicted that the songs that we sing so boldly are not what we experience for the most part. I don’t think he understood what I was asking and came up with a predictable response. The following Monday or Tuesday night I was driving and put on one of my favorite worship songs, which was asking for God to show up in His glory. As I pulled into my driveway, I felt the Spirit telling me that he would never just show up because we ask in a song, but that his presence would be experienced if people asked for the reality of the songs every day in their morning awakening and in their evening lying down, if throughout the day they kept this desire before them. I really was quite devastated by this because who is telling people these things? …we sing these songs so flippantly without realizing that we could actually experience them…

DB: This relates perfectly to the above bits. God doesn’t really ever “show up.” He’s already and always here, but we aren’t, so God comes in and out of focus. Big distinction to make. I know scripture describes God showing up and leaving, hiding his face, but that’s a typically Hebrew idiomatic and anthropomorphic way of speaking that is important to express as part of our human experience—as long as we remember that our music and our worship and our asking is not an incantation to bring God somewhere he’s not, but an experience to bring ourselves into presence with him: always here, always now. What you experienced in the car was just that: a tuning in that brought you to a new insight within Presence. Beautiful. And you may already know this, but I think it’s an important enough distinction to mention again: God is always here, always now, and always pouring out everything there is to pour…

Changes the way we think and choose if we really know this.

Conversations: Productivity

These days I do a lot of informal counseling and mentoring by email, phone, and even text. We all do, I’m sure. Some of these conversations reach across specific circumstances and personalities to speak to common human experience in such a way that with permission and anonymity, I thought it would be interesting to publish some brief slices, little peeks behind the curtain to see what may be relevant…

9/15/15, 9:24AM

Hey brother Dave.

Watching over a baby this morning, like every other morning, and I’ve already used up most of our nap time with prayer and a little reading. Expect he’ll wake up any minute, and he has croup so I’m being very attentive. In an attempt to get grounded this morning, I read a blog post of yours focused on time and light changes at 5AM…so many of your thoughts and questions seem familiar to me…

I feel lost right now. In the summer, my purpose was to reconnect spiritually and write. I loved it. I had time, time enough to make myself available to serve others, and time enough to serve my desire to get some of my thoughts out on paper. Since I got back in my school year routine, taking care of a grandbaby I adore, time is precious and harder for me to manage.

Here’s where I’m going with this. When you came to the part in the blog when you said that your son’s sticker on your arm was, in effect, proof of life…that cut through the clutter in my head and went straight to heart. I want to believe that there’s meaning in the minutes of my days, but the clutter in my head tells me I’m doing it wrong. It draws attention to the ticking clock, my lack of productivity, lack of clarity, lack in general.

Yet this baby grounds me, to experience, to love, to connection. What’s my problem!? Rhetorical question, and if I were you I would avoid it…


9/15/15, 11:50AM

Hey sis,

Ah, sometimes I just want to hug you like no tomorrow and tell you it’s alright…it’s alright now and will be alright forever. I think I’m getting to the point that I realize there’s no way I can do all this wrong as long as I’m trying to do it right. I suppose the only wrong way to live this life is not to live it at all. To be paralyzed by fear into complete non-connection. Even if we’re misguided, if we’re trying to connect, we’re still moving toward the light—maybe just a bit slower than we otherwise could.

Mostly, the wrongness we perceive is just that: a perception laid against some expectation or standard we carry around in our minds. What is really important in life? Productivity? Creating things that will outlive us? Nothing wrong with that, and those of us who produce well are the ones we know about and recognize as having accomplished something meaningful. But the meaning is not in the thing produced. It’s in the experience of life from which the thing is produced. The meaning is real whether the thing is produced or not. Production feels good; it stokes the part of ourselves begging for attention, and all things being equal, produce as much as you can if that’s what you enjoy. But things are not always equal, and we have to give ourselves permission not to produce when that production gets in the way of the connection that gives us meaning in the first place.

Holding that baby, that proof of life, if you let it, will give you all the meaning you need right now. All the meaning there is. You won’t be holding that baby long. It will be taken from you by time and circumstance. Then there will be some other proof of life for you to hold. But it all points to the same center. I suppose the ultimate productivity is recognizing the meaning in that center and doing whatever it is that connects us to it.

All this has to do with letting go of the image we have of ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. We see others doing and producing the things we think we should be doing and producing, and it makes us restless and unsettled and no longer present to the baby in our arms. But if we can let go of all that even just for the moment we’re holding the baby, then we can find the meaning that may produce something sometime later on–a product, a thing that someone else can hold in their hands and recognize as pointing to meaning. Or not. Doesn’t really matter, because in the end, nothing survives but the connections we made with the babies we held–of whatever age or species.

It seems to me you’re exactly in the center of the right place at the right time. But when circumstances shift, you’ll be in the center of a different right place and time. It’s up to us to make the circumstances right simply by abandoning ourselves to them, immersing in what they can show us of the center of that meaning. Right now, the baby is everything. Let it be everything, and you’ll start to get that sense of how everything is alright and will always be alright, if you allow.

I have to remind myself of all this daily. Or put another way, my good days are the days when I do remind myself…


a perfect song

Some songs are pretty much perfect.

Melody, lyric, arrangement, tempo, voice and instruments merge: no element drawing attention to itself, creating an immersion, an environment for an experience…an experience that writer, composer, and performer all grasped intimately enough to convey to each other first and us eventually. Driving home today, a song just like that comes on again for the first time since the last time quite a while ago, and it takes me where it always does…turn down the lights, turn down the bed, turn down these voices inside my head…smiling through the windshield at half-remembered pain, toothless now, as her voice rises…I can’t make you love me if you don’t; you can’t make your heart feel something it won’t

How do love relationships ever even get a chance? How among the thousands of faces you see every day, do you find one you realize you can love, which also among those thousands of faces, finds yours and Music-Grunge-1221372sees it in the same way? At the same time? In the same timezone? Seems odds are hopelessly against, and life bears out that we will often find faces we can love but never ourselves reflected there…here in the dark, in these final hours, I will lay down my heart, and I’ll feel the power, but you won’t

There’s a wail that comes up, silently at first, when the final cut comes, the full realization that this face is not yours to love…morning will come, and I’ll do what’s right, just give me till then to give up this fight… We all know this pain—it’s as close as the next song, muted only as much as time and healing allow. And if we know it…does God know it too? Is that even possible? I’ve come to understand that this pain is a necessary part of life—that love from another is only as valuable as it is freely chosen. That if it can be bought or in any way coerced, it is a transaction and no longer love.

And so I’m thinking this perfect song, passionately about unrequited romantic love, could as easily be sung by God to each one of us. Our relationship with God has always been portrayed in intimately human terms by those who know him best. Does that metaphor extend to God as well? Did God personally risk anything by creating us with the capacity to refuse? Can his heart break like ours when he doesn’t see the relationship he wants in the face he loves? Maybe God could make us love him, but maybe he won’t, because if he did, we would no longer be us, and love would no longer be love: deprived of the one thing both need to be what they are…a choice freely made.

I can’t know if God feels the pain of unrequited love, but I’m convinced he knows that for love to be real, it first has to set the beloved free. Like a perfect song: love, loss, hope, rejection, pain, fulfillment merging, none drawing attention to itself, creating an immersion, an environment for an experience…the reason we are all here singing.

Hear the song.
Related message delivered @ theeffect, 7/20/14. Here for audio message. Full message archive.

expressing the inexpressible

Last Sunday after our gathering, as we were all milling about afterglowing, our little guy Brennan discovered the joys of a live microphone and began doing what he does best–talking. But what came out–just audible above the recorded music–silenced the knots of conversation around the room as we were all drawn one by one to that little voice. It didn’t make sense in the normal sense of that word…it wasn’t logical or sequential or even grammatical, but it created its own logic as it went along. And we could all read between the lines of a four year old mind struggling to put internal knowings into newfound language: “Love…I have my family, that’s for real…I have all my friends and that’s how I have my conversation…you are all, and thank you for that…living for Jesus…and now that you are all alive, that’s how the cross is going to…and that’s how you know it’s good to have love–Jesus.” At that point he walked off the stage, but then came running back a few seconds later to say, “Amen.”smiling-childrena

When our children speak, we smile and nod and think “how cute” or “how touching,” even as we remain separated from and untouched by them–as if they’re little aliens having nothing in common with our world of adults. Yet Jesus quotes the psalmist to tell us that “out of the mouth of infants and nursing babes you have perfected praise.” Brennan’s prayer was an unfiltered look at the deepest experiences of his life. He knows what’s important; he knows what brings him life and safety, but he barely has language enough to express them. He opens his mouth and out come words he’s been taught…love, family, friends, Jesus…and he strings them together with…real, conversation, alive, thank you, and amen. He knows these sounds point to something central, but doesn’t know enough to think through grammar and syntax and logic. He just opens his mouth in a room full of people and unselfconsciously speaks, and in that speaking, praise is perfected, made complete. We think it’s cute, but of course much more is expected of us as adults–that we have to make sense, have to truly articulate our faith and our praise to make them real.

The moment we begin to understand that we can never make sense of faith or articulate our praise; that thoughts and words can never do more than point in the general direction of what’s really important; that no matter how old we get, we can never do better than Brennan or any child in expressing the inexpressible…in that moment of just letting out whatever’s in, something happens: our faith and our praise become perfect. Without understanding or making sense, we lose ourselves in a perfect moment.

Here for audio of Brennan’s prayer.

words without edges

When you think about it, the only way we can distinguish something visually is by its edges. We see the edges that outline, define, limit, separate one thing from another. Without edges, how could we say we are seeing anything at all? And when it comes to what we can think about, can mentally conceive, it’s the same: hanging on to edges… Definitions, memories, beliefs, biases, hopes, fears, expectations all form the edges of what we can possibly imagine. We love edges, crave them and cultivate them. They give us something to cling to, a sense of belonging and comfort.

The challenge of living spiritual lives is learning to see the infinite embedded in our finite moments. The infinite has no edges…by definition. An edge limits, and once limited, is no longer infinite. The message of Jesus preserved in the gospels is the good news of an mobius_stripinfinitely loving Father living among our moments. If the message accurately reflects that Father and that love, it must be made of words without edges. Without limit. There is something beautifully disturbing about Jesus’ teaching. Beautiful because it hunkers right down at the fire of an infinite love; disturbing because there are no edges to which we can cling. Neither informing nor defining, it simply calls—and we either freefall into his infinite space or we do not.

Fearing the disturbance, we draw our own edges around Jesus’ words through sheer familiarity or the pretense they’re contained in a book with edges, a book we imagine we understand. But if we let the book fall fully open in our laps, let our eyes relax to softer focus, Jesus’ words escape edges, expanding impossibly to suggest a truth bigger and more radical than we could ever conceive on our own.

The freedom of clinging to nothing that limits—the experience of life and love without edges.

Related message delivered @ theeffect, 3/15/15. Here for audio message. Full message archive.

blessing after

Haven’t been feeling particularly blessed last few days. It happens. Tempted to pray for God’s blessing as always when feeling disconnected, uneasy, overwhelmed. Seems we’re always asking for God’s blessing to change things we don’t like or to stave off things we don’t want. We bless hospitals and houses, babies and midterm exams–we bless our food before we eat it as if to transfer God’s holiness and goodness to something that doesn’t already have it. But Jesus and his followers never understood blessings this way. To ancient Jews, when God made the heavens and earth, he looked and saw that they were good…you can look it up in Genesis 1. Over and over, each and everything he saw was good–couldn’t be otherwise; it was part of him. To Jews, blessings don’t transfer holiness, they are the permission or authority to partake in the abundance, the goodness that is already present all around us. When a Hebrew father gave his eldest son his blessing, it meant he now had the authority to partake of his entire estate.

We bless our food before we eat it. Jews say their blessings after they eat. A superficial difference? Profound. To bless before in order to make something pure or holy as opposed to blessing after as thanks for participation in abundance is as different as night and day. A glass half empty or half full. Is the world a dark and evil place awaiting God’s bulldozers in the last days to come scrape it clean and start over? Or is it a place of light and life and abundance at which right now we are all being called to table? In trying to placate his eldest son, the father of the prodigal says, “You are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” What part of everything don’t we understand? How can we ever get more than the everything, the allness, we already have? All good, all God…all the blessing that’s ever going to be done has already and always been completed from the very beginning.

To find a stump of carrot in an open field is a real blessing. Are we trying to bless it again?
Or simply allowing ourselves the blessing of enjoying the inconceivable blessing already in hand?


the way of descent

If you think about it, there are four ways we typically approach God in our churches today: intellectually, emotionally, liturgically, and legally. All four describe ways of ascent toward God—studying, feeling, reciting, obeying—and all are valuable as parts of a whole. But there is another way, a fifth way, the contemplative way that comes to us from our most ancient Christian traditions and directly from an eastern Jesus before any of those.

Contemplation—understood as simply being present to God’s presence, the practice of a content-free mind directed toward awareness of God as a living reality—points to a stripping away of everything that blocks God’s presence from our moment; it’s a descent that must precede any ascent. Turns out we don’t value the way of descent much today—we don’t even generally recognize it as a viable spiritual formation. Our western churches speak fluently of the spirituality of ascent, but miss the fact that the way of descent complements and completes the other four just as Jesus tried to explain: “If you cling to your life you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it.”

When I speak of this way of descent, questions arise as people try to get their arms around a tradition that we have largely lost in the modern era. But questions and answers fail here since the contemplative way sidesteps the intellectual, being experiential without being emotional, practical and structured without being ritualistic or legalistic or in any way based in judgmental notions of reward and punishment. This is really hard to explain in words. The best explanation is to simply set out—begin to experience the contemplative descent that eventually infuses and fulfills the ways of ascent.

Twenty five years ago I first encountered this contemplative way, and it was as hard to understand then as it is to explain now. The more I understood, the more I suspected it was the missing ingredient in my life, but it wasn’t a cognitive suspecting or understanding that changed my course, it was a physical doing. Because though contemplation is a way of living all our moments, a basic attitude toward life and spirituality, it is also a discipline that must be practiced, and it wasn’t until I started practicing that I moved from understanding to knowing. (more…)

blissful experience

Ignorance or experience? When you look at an image like this you have to wonder. How does a person stand calmly in a doorway when the end of all things is apparently approaching from behind? Was this a rogue wave of which the lighthouse keeper had no knowledge, or had he weathered dozens of storms and knew exactly the tolerances of his tower? Either way, he probably got really wet in the next frame. Ignorance or experience…it’s said that ignorance is bliss–why not experience?


When Mother Teresa was asked by someone to pray that he would find clarity, she refused. When the questioner asked why, she replied that “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” When he commented that she always seemed to have the clarity for which he longed, she laughed and said, “I have never had clarity, what I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”

From the outside in, trust looks like clarity because someone who really trusts can calmly stand in the doorway of a wave-besieged lighthouse when all others are running and screaming. From the inside out, the person who trusts has no more clarity than we’ve got, but their trust tells them that somehow everything will be just fine–or more to the point: everything is fine. We spend our lives looking for certainty in an uncertain age. But every age is uncertain, because life is uncertain: certainly not what we expect. Until we truly experience the certainty of God, we’ll be forever scanning the horizon for waves and ducking for cover at each swell. Or we’ll move to Idaho and dig a bunker.

Ignorance [unknowing] is better than clarity if at least it gives us bliss.
But trust [experience of the certainty of God] is the only thing that takes us home.


desert’s agenda

Desert House of Prayer—Tucson, AZ
Tuesday, November 12, 2013; 9:29PM

Retreat. Silent. As in no talking. At all.
Three days of centering prayer and meditation in the desert outside Tucson—in the middle of a saguaro forest no less: their arms pointing all directions, towering into the distance over palo verde, mesquite, prickly pear, barrel cactus, agave, cholla, and low scrub I could never name. Or would need to. Seemed like a good idea three months ago when we booked it; now the timing couldn’t be worse with year-end audits, fundraisers, holiday programming… Just cut it off and go. See if three days of silence can somehow balance the other three hundred and sixty two.

A Catholic retreat, of course, [Evangelicals are rarely silent] so there will be Mass and saying the office, stations of the cross. But I saguaroscome experienced, having grown up Catholic with twelve years of Catholic school and many silent retreats under the belt—even a brief stint in a monastic order. Driving up, it’s about what I expect. Gravel paths connecting a loose grouping of prefab-looking buildings all painted green. Who paints anything that color? Inside it all seems familiar. Catholics have a way of decorating that is always so…Catholic. Even smells familiar, comforting somehow.

We get a tour from Ann, a sweet older woman who knows everything about the center, the desert, and the rules: silent meals here, silent dorms there, silent library, chapel: don’t walk here, be on time for silent group prayer—no late arrivals allowed. Then finally, at the edge of where they pushed the desert back, the hermitages. We had booked hermitages. Don’t know what image the word hermitage evokes for you, but think free-standing motel room, and you’ve got it. Prefab. Green.

The farthest two are reserved for us, one for Frank and one for me. First one we’re shown is nice and bright. Great views out both windows, cool-looking air conditioner with remote control. The one down the hill is darker inside; a stand of palo verde trees blocks the eastern window. No air conditioner. It suddenly hits me that I really want the first one…forget Frank…don’t I outrank him or something? I’m a pastor of eleven years, founder of a faith community and recovery ministry here on spiritual retreat, and suddenly I’m ten years old again trying to talk my little sister out of something I really want. The feeling amazes me: that I still haven’t put a stake in the heart of fears I thought I’d killed off ages ago. Trying to be casual, I give Frank the choice, and he takes the first one, of course. I swallow the envy, hoping my secret is safe and dignity preserved, but the desert is just warming up on me. (more…)