Non-Religious Christian Spirituality

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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.
[05.22.09]

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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?

[05.15.09]

preacher teacher

The purpose of a preacher is to persuade.
The purpose of a teacher is to make students ready to engage.

I’m a teacher.

Ultimately, I don’t care what you believe. But I care deeply how your beliefs affect your behavior and the quality of your relationships–that is, the quality of your life and every life you touch.

Belief is overrated; it’s only idea, the representation of reality small enough to survive the filter of your worldview. But what your beliefs allow you to do consistently is what we call faith–not what you think, but how you act–and how you act repeatedly over time creates the repeated experience we call trust.

Belief is idea. Faith is action. Trust is experience. Belief is only as important as the faith it makes possible and faith only as important as the trust it makes possible. Because trust is what makes relationship possible.

Always approximate, no one has a completely accurate belief system. No one. Yet we preach and persuade, denigrate and excommunicate over thoughts we can’t even know for certain are true. And all the while, what is concrete and inescapably real are the choices and actions we absolutely know are true or false by their ability to connect or divide our relationships.

It’s not my job to tell anyone what to believe. Belief merely received is untested, and untested belief is untrusted, has no ability to connect…but can certainly divide. What I teach is what I’ve become convinced of, what I’ve tested for years in the laboratory of my life, risked my choices and actions on and proved to myself whether it has power to bind relationship. But reduced to words, these convictions become belief again, idea again in the student’s mind. Untested. Untrusted.

All I can tell you is what I am convinced of. Go become convinced of what you are convinced of.

Because persuasion is overrated too. The only person we will ever convince of anything is ourselves, living the truth we believe we believe until we experience its truth in the nature of our relationships. And if the way you express your truth is different than the way I express mine, no matter. It’s not important that we see eye to eye, only that we can stand shoulder to shoulder, connected to each other and everyone we meet along the way.

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. Read the rest of this page »

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?

lighthousewave1

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.

[04.30.09]

if you want your dog…

A friend called and asked if I would speak to a friend of hers–a cancer patient who was staring down a hard road of chemotherapy and radiation. I didn’t know him or his family, but my friend said she thought he could really use a chance to talk through some spiritual issues with which she knew he was struggling.

I said if he was willing, I sure was, and our first two conversations got all the basics out of the way: I learned about his condition, how rare it was and how difficult to treat. How he was only 38, a construction supervisor who had been let go after several months of inability to work, having to move his family into his mother-in-law’s home because finances were so tight. I learned about his wife and two small boys and how they were dealing with his illness–wife pushing through with busyness, boys young enough to be oblivious… And little by little I began to hear about him, about all that had to be going on inside. But with each little personal glimpse, he’d smile and take a sip from the water bottle he always had near and quickly say that he just had to push through, fight on no matter what.

Then I got a call from his wife saying that the chemo had worn a hole in his esophagus, which couldn’t be closed with surgery without too much risk, which now meant he couldn’t do radiation anymore, or perhaps the other way round… But like the moment on a chessboard when you can see two or three moves ahead that you’re just checkmated no matter where you move, there was no more that could be done. She said he was too weak to come to our offices now and would I come to their home, and on the way over, acutely aware of the significance of the moment, I began to plan the conversation as I often find myself doing, then forced myself to stop. To just show up and respond to what he actually had to say instead of any of my best imaginings was all I could do. What could I possibly say of value to someone in checkmate that didn’t come out of our moment together? What could I possibly bring in from the outside that could be relevant…other than myself?

He met me at the door and already looked older and thinner. Moving slowly, he took me out to the back patio where we sat under a slatted cover in bright sunlight, only the water bottle between us. The smile was gone, but he led the conversation with his fight on attitude until I asked him pointedly how he was really feeling. He simply said, “tough.” That the hardest part was the thought of leaving his family—his wife, the boys. Then he stopped and stared for a couple beats and out of the blue asked, “Do you believe in guardian angels?” And his voice broke, and his curtain parted, and I saw that everything he was, all emotion and hope and everything he was fighting for lay in that one question. Would his family be protected, guarded, guided without him here? Would he, could he possibly be assigned to that task? What would be his role, his purpose, his identity after checkmate? The sum of all fears in a single, seeming non-sequitur.

I said yes I do believe, though I don’t know how it works. No one can know how it works, but I believe in a God who protects and guides and guards whether through angels or us or anything in between. And then, out of the blue, I remembered a moment in first grade Catholic school when a girl in the row next to me asked the nun if she would have her dog in heaven, and I wondered if I should share my own non-sequitur with him, if what was coming to me out of our moment was of any real value or relevance. I told him the nun simply responded, “If you want your dog, you’ll have your dog.” See, that’s it. We don’t know how it works, but in God’s presence there is no felt need. In God’s presence the sum of all our fears has no meaning. If you want your dog, you’ll have your dog. If you want your family protected and guided, they will be–in ways we just can’t know right now.

His head went up and down as if in agreement or at least understanding, but he took a sip from his water bottle, and I watched the curtain close again. His mother-in-law sent me an email just last week to tell me he had died suddenly in his sleep the day before. I’d like to think that our talks helped. That in his last few weeks, he came to trust things he couldn’t possibly know. I can’t know if I helped, but I do know that now the tables are turned: that he now knows what I can only speculate, that he has whatever dog he wants, and that there are certainly some questions I’d like to ask him. But not yet.

Related message delivered @ theeffect, 8/17/14. Here for audio message. Full message archive.

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. Read the rest of this page »

Jeff Jones, Our Friend

There is little we can say that hasn’t already been said about Jeff over the past twenty four hours.jeffThat he helped so many people over the years, that he was such an institution in our community and such a beloved figure is evident everywhere online and in the constant phone calls and text messages we been receiving. We all know what Jeff has meant to us, and we grieve his loss and the pain we know his family is experiencing right now.What we can say, for those who may not know, is that Jeff is theeffect’s first cause. One of our founders, he was the one of us who got the ball rolling. That may have been Jeff’s greatest gift: getting things rolling, whether in the community at large or in individual hearts. We owe our ministry to Jeff, and we are a part of his legacy as well. Every person we help for as long as we work as a ministry will have Jeff’s spirit attached.

It’s hard for us to imagine a voice and a personality as large as Jeff’s to be silenced, but that is what the process of our grief will teach us: to accept life on its terms, to find meaning and purpose in each moment no matter how painful, and to begin to step into the space left by Jeff–to learn to become first causes ourselves, to get things rolling.

Jeff showed us what it looks like to be active and impetuous, discerning and outrageously overextended, to hold opposing energies in a single embrace. And if Jeff sometimes showed us what it looks like to go a bridge too far, he also showed us we can go further than we may have thought possible.

We will miss our friend as we turn our attention to his family and everyone grieving his loss. And we pray that our grief will not be so great that we can’t be fully present to the grieving person in our path.

Thank you , Jeff.

white bag

I picked up my mother’s ashes from the mortuary today.

Before that I had breakfast with a friend who told me he was diagnosed with skin cancer and had surgery scheduled on Friday. Before that I spoke with another friend still in her hospital room after blacking out, falling, and breaking her arm. The tests have all been negative, so no one knows why she lost consciousness or whether it will happen again. Last night there were calls from a mother whose daughter may lose her children in a court battle the next day and a girl we helped place in a rehab center who I could actually feel shaking through the phone saying she didn’t know if she could keep on with her treatment, that she was ready to run. She always runs…

Twenty-four hours.

I haven’t written here in awhile, but I hadn’t realized how long because sometimes life comes in clumps. Too much too fast to process. Only time enough to breathe and hope to God I helped a little in some way not immediately apparent.

I picked up my mother’s ashes and brought them home in the paper bag the woman at the mortuary gave me. Plain white bag with handles like you’d get at a nice department store. The woman was very sweet. Very calm, very deliberate: called me sir in almost every sentence. I watched her watching me, and I could only imagine the reactions she’s seen from people she’s watched in that room. I gave her my check and walked out with my bag and came home and put the bag next to the hallway door and didn’t touch it all day.

I remember a forgettable movie I saw a long time ago. A man and his wife are involved in a car accident in which the wife is killed, and after the emergency vehicles and lights and frantic work, the sirens and trip to the hospital, the police and questions and statements, he comes through his front door with her blood on his shirt. That’s the part I remember. Coming home alone with blood on his shirt. Because at the end of everything anyone else can do, you just come home with a bloody shirt. Or a white bag.

It seems like there should be more to it. That at least you would get a clean shirt.

Coming up the stairs, my wife gives me a long look and asks me how I’m doing. But after all our years, I know that like a good lawyer, she knows the answer before she asks. Later she makes a good dinner, uses a lot of pots and pans–maybe all of them–while our eight year old buzzes around alternately asking me to pick a card and reading green eggs and ham out loud until I reel him in on the floor, my little human ballast…his fifty pounds or so somehow perfectly balancing all of the last twenty four hours. Down there on the floor he whispers he loves me daddy, and I tell him that’s only fair because I loved him first. I can still make an eight year old laugh. Even today.

What do you do when you come home with a white bag or a bloody shirt? With surgery in four days or court tomorrow or a doctor’s report any minute? Details endlessly vary, but I think you just use every pot and pan you own, eat a good dinner, reel in anyone close and begin the days of balancing whatever’s gone with all that’s left.

I turn out all the lights downstairs and make sure the front door is locked. At the foot of the stairs next to the hallway door I stop, then kneel and take the urn out of the white bag and place it on the shelf next to pictures of our kids and a little African sculpture we bought on an anniversary vacation. I  close the glass door until it clicks. The white bag is empty now. There is still the memorial mass on Friday and then the cemetery, so I will use it once more. But I won’t bring it home again.