The Heady Strangeness of God’s Calling

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. —From the Christian scriptures, John 3:8

 

Last year, with no warning, my writing changed.

For the previous decade it had looked like this post: straightforward, accessible prose that explored insights in contemplative spirituality. I wrote about dialogue, Donald Trump, the frenzied pace of American life, you name it, all through a spiritual lens. Each title described what was in the article (good strategy for search engines). People could read the content and glean something from it in 10 minutes.

Then last January, for no apparent reason, I started writing what’s called “creative nonfiction”—intense personal essays with titles like “Nudge” and “Outside/Inside” and “What My Hair Keeps Trying to Tell Me.” Here’s one example, and here’s another.

Even weirder, these essays are all I write nowadays, and I can’t stop writing them. Halfway through one essay I’m struck with a brainstorm for another. The words come from a deeper place in my heart than ever before. The writing is bliss. The articles I used to write, the process for writing them, now feel dry as dust.

I can’t even imagine why this is happening. If there’s a grand divine purpose at work, it’s hopelessly obscure, even more so than usual. What the hell is going on?

Maybe the answer—or as close as I’ll get to an answer—lies in Jesus’ cryptic saying about the wind. It tells me that if I keep my heart open to hearing and following God’s gentle nudge, I will have no clue where it’ll land me next. Moreover, wherever I do land, it probably won’t look like contemporary images of success, influence, or power. It may not even look sane.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one on this path, not even close. M. Scott Peck, the spiritual author and psychiatrist, once said that “the voice of the Holy Spirit is always crazy.” In one of his best-loved prayers, Thomas Merton wrote, “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.” History is full of eccentrics like Charles de Foucauld, who felt called to the remotest corner of the Algerian desert so he could introduce locals to Christ. In 20 years he did not convert a single soul.

So why follow such strange callings?

I think it’s because of another voice from the Christian scriptures: that attributed to St. Peter. After a particularly hard teaching, says the Gospel of John, many disciples abandoned Jesus. In a poignant moment he asked the few who remained, “Do you also want to go away?” And Peter said, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Eternal life. Maybe that means living forever, but I think it also refers to life boundless, overflowing, compassionate, levitating us to live as we were created to live, drawing us ever closer to the Source of all things. That is joy, that is ecstasy, beside which the world’s traditional paths and goals are a pale imitation. That’s why I keep treading this weird, weird path.

When Your Church (or Hobby, or Club, or Country) Leaves You

This is a lament.

Four years ago, Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA) ran a story of mine called “When Your Church Leaves You.” The story reflected on situations—like the one in my own church at the time—when staying put in the midst of conflict might be the best choice.

I should have known better. All too often, what I write comes back to bite me. So it is now, when my two primary sources of community—the same church and a hobby whose members I have loved and trusted for years—are enduring massive upheaval.

The church may suffer irreparably from the looming showdown in our Episcopal diocese, whose bishop is defying a mandate for marriage equality from the U.S. Episcopal Church. The hobby is more personal. A deep clash of personalities, set alight by controversy and accusations and Facebook posts that would set your hair on fire, has severely damaged the sense of family we have long enjoyed.

I wonder if this is what divorce feels like, especially for children. The constant sadness. The loss of something cherished. The sense of betrayal. The deep grief you’d expect in such circumstances, and the bitterness that sometimes accompanies grief.

I know that members of my church and my hobby are experiencing similar things. So are millions of other people. Many Americans (me included) look at the events of the past two years and see a homeland they do not recognize. They feel their whole country has left them. I believe the toxin in our public discourse has infected many corners of our life together.

The ESA article, as I mentioned, included some helpful insights, some ways to make sense of the disasters around us and move forward. This time round, I’ve got nothing.  Just sorrow. Just bitterness.

So I’m stuck with lament. Which may be the best thing I could be stuck with.

Lament—at least the way I’m understanding it—is not about blaming or shaming or even whining. It’s not another missile in the war of words. It does give voice to hard, honest things from the core of our being. It provides space to grieve without trying to fix. It gazes unblinkingly at the mess before us.

From what I’ve read, lament can lead to happier things, like hope and dialogue and a turning away from wrongdoing. The big challenge is to let lament do its work. It’s easy to jump to reconciliation or proposed solutions, and those are wonderful things. But sometimes the sorrow is deep enough, and the situation grave enough, that the happy stuff is out of our reach.

So it is here. And so I will leave it here.

If You Ever Wished You Could Quit the Human Race…

…join the crowd.

I’d be happy to take a long hiatus from the current version of homo sapiens, because we’re a hot mess. The rage and hatred in the public square are becoming unbearable. As if that weren’t bad enough, I see this same spirit infecting other parts of our life together. Even in my beloved hobby, whose members are family to me, the charges and countercharges, white-hot social media fury, choosing up sides and fighting are on full display.

Now, with the news of the past couple of weeks—pipe bombs in the mail, lives lost at a Pittsburgh synagogue—all of this has shaded into a new level of violence. As it had to. Spew enough words, create enough rage, and weapons often follow.

Bottom line, we’ve done a lot of damage in the past two years. We’ve wreaked a lot of havoc. The damage will take time and space and work to heal. And until we heal, we’ll be very vulnerable to further pain. No wonder people are hiding out, keeping to themselves, refusing to converse, bowling alone.

With all my heart I want to join them. Two things give me pause, and they both came up in silent prayer recently–where so many things come up, courtesy (I believe) of the Spirit.

Thing 1: notice the pronouns two paragraphs above. We’ve done a lot of damage. We’ve wreaked a lot of havoc. Like it or not, I’m one of them—one of us—which means I have to own my own inner dross. It’s true that I make a point of not spewing rage and drama. But the seeds of it live in my heart too, just like they live in most everyone’s heart.

In short, I’m stuck with us. We’re stuck with us.

Thing 2 comes from my orientation as a Christian. Just by our species’ status as still alive and walking around, it’s evident to me that God has not given up on the human race. Quite the opposite when you consider Christianity’s central story: that God, in the person of Jesus, became every bit as human as you and me. That he drank the human experience to its dregs, right down to a humiliating public execution. God is quoted as saying, “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” and the Christ story proves it.

If God’s sticking with us, and I have to imitate God (Ephesians 5:1 from the Christian scriptures), that obliges me to stick with us too.

Do I have enthusiasm for this? Oh hell no. Sometimes, though—especially in the chaos that rage and hatred inevitably cause—it’s good to throw a stake in the ground and say, “I have to stand here. I cannot do otherwise.” Then, with that stake keeping me tethered to the good and true, I can do the inner work to figure out how on earth I’m going to follow God’s call with a whole heart.

 

Can Love Cast Out Fear?

Last week in this space, I suggested that most of us Americans—conservative and liberal, coastal and middle America, urban and rural—share a weird type of common ground: fear. We fear the white-hot public square, in which anything we do or say might incur wrath. We fear our leaders, our institutions, and our systems, often with good reason. This came up in conversation with a good friend of mine, a conservative Christian and reluctant Trump supporter.

Another of my friends might have an answer to the fear crisis.

She is one of the wisest women I’ve ever known. I’m tempted to call her a mystic and a prophet, but even that doesn’t capture the depths at which she lives every day in her tough urban neighborhood.

Right now she’s focused on two desires. She wants everything in her life to be a prayer, a continual communication through a continually open channel to God. And she wants to be so full of divine love and light that it just floods out from her and suffuses every person in her wake.

Skeptics might scoff at her. But I don’t think they understand the true nature of love. It’s not what passes for love in our culture: romance, or flirtatious fancy, or concern only for family or tribe. Rather, it’s a commitment to seeing every last human as having surpassing worth and dignity—a commitment to tend to their needs as diligently as we tend to our own.

The fourth chapter of 1 John, a book in the Christian scriptures, makes a bold claim about this kind of love. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment.

That feeds right into our crisis of fear. What are so many people fearing? Judgment, shaming, disparagement—all forms of what that verse calls punishment. If we made the effort to flood our adversaries with God’s love, to listen openheartedly, to gain their trust, would their fear melt away in time? Would they someday be able to trust the love they receive from us and respond in kind? Then could we talk and listen and respect one another?

This sort of thing is easily dismissed as “holding hands and singing Kumbaya.” It is nothing of the sort. It is hard, excruciating work that involves vulnerability, pain, the shame of looking squarely at how we’ve been wounded and how we’ve wounded others.

Love doesn’t mean we’ll agree on everything. It does provide a way to live and work together in a way that benefits our species and our planet. It is certainly better than what we’re doing now.

I think it’s worth a try. You?

The Weirdest Common Ground Ever

Many people are bemoaning America’s vicious public square. Few are discussing the weird common ground that most of us share—and what might be the best way to address it.

Two recent conversations brought this into focus for me. The first—with a conservative Christian friend who reluctantly supported Donald Trump—fulfilled a longing I’ve had since the 2016 election: to talk with people like her and understand their thinking. Over the past two years, I’ve asked my Trump-supporting friends for a conversation, but almost none of them would engage with me.

I thought I knew why, and my friend confirmed it: they’re scared to death. They’ve been disparaged and harassed and even attacked by some people on the left, or they’ve heard reports of such abuse, and they don’t want to get hurt.

If you’ve listened to progressives, you know they’re scared to death too. Their fear (from what I’ve heard) seems to focus more on the damage Mr. Trump might wreak on our rights, our system of government, and our world. I’m sure some of them also fear being attacked by members of the right.

It’s not a big stretch to say, in the colorful language of my father, that we’re all scared shitless. Fear is a weird common ground, but common ground it is.

Yes, we can argue that one group or another has a lot more to be scared about, or has endured more decades of disparagement and harassment. In many cases, those claims deserve careful reflection and appropriate action. But what if we also focused—in a separate context, or just for a while—on our common terror? What if we admitted that the person on the other side who makes our blood boil is likely as fearful as we are?

Have you ever noticed what happens to your heart when a child tells you she’s scared? Mine melts. I want to hold her and let her know she’s safe. My love for her overflows. Could the same happen when an adversary says she’s scared?

That leads me to the second conversation, which contains a weird idea for addressing this fear. I’ll post about it next week.

The Other Reason “Spotlight” Is Still Relevant Today

Every year my wife goes off on vacation, and I use the time to catch up on Oscar-winning movies from years past. This summer I saw maybe a half dozen, all of which were superbly made, one of which stood out: Spotlight.

In case you haven’t seen it, Spotlight chronicles The Boston Globe’s investigation of sexual abuse and its cover-up in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. It can be painful to watch, as we viewers get to relive the horror of the successive revelations—starting with a handful of priests and blossoming into a worldwide scandal.

Horribly, that scandal is with us even today, which makes Spotlight still relevant. But it’s still relevant for another reason too: its in-depth look at investigative journalism. The sources I’ve read (in The Atlantic and The Washington Post, to name two) attest to the movie’s accurate portrayal of the drudgery, doggedness, and gems of discovery that make for good investigative journalism.

If anything, that portrayal is more relevant in 2018 than in 2015, when the movie hit theaters. It carries two lessons that we desperately need to hear nowadays, long and loud and often.

First lesson: we need good journalism. None of us have the time, means, or energy to gather the full picture on all the news stories that impact our lives one way or another. That’s why we have journalists: to find those stories, explore them in depth, and report them to us.

In another era, this assertion would be dismissed as obvious. It’s not so obvious anymore, thanks to our post-truth culture, and that carries ramifications for all of us. Journalists must prioritize accuracy and thoroughness and fairness in their reporting (as, I think, the vast majority of them do now). Those who would pervert good journalism—the purveyors of deliberate misinformation masquerading as news—need to get their slimy fingerprints off the internet, NOW.

The rest of us get the second lesson: we must stop denigrating good journalists. If they are our source for the stories that impact our lives, and we have trained ourselves never to trust them—worse, to consider them the “enemy of the people”—who else do we have? The default, nowadays, is to revert to the sources who agree with our current beliefs. It’s as if we think, “All media are the enemy, except my media.”

Can anyone else see the absurdity of that?

Is there bias in the media? Sure. The media are comprised of humans—from corporate owners right down to reporters— and humans have biases. Should that prevent us from listening to them? Not at all. We can listen skeptically, pay attention to several sources from different perspectives, read international media as well as that in our own country, suss out who provides the greatest depth and balance. By doing so, we can get as close to a full, accurate picture of the issue as it’s possible to get.

This process is time-consuming. But it’s doable. It may also be essential for the health of our world.

Where Convictions and Friendship Collide

You’re talking with an old friend over coffee. At one point in the conversation, she uses a word that sets off every alarm bell in your head. Clearly she believes something you don’t believe at all. What do you do?

Bill and I have been discussing God for decades. He is a Calvinist, a deep and brilliant thinker, and takes the Bible literally (more or less). We see most things very differently from each other. I love him like a brother, but even more like a role model, because I have watched God’s grace flood his life for many years.

The other day we got to talking about the existence of truth, and as part of that conversation he brought up the idea of certainty. Is it possible to be certain about things in this life—certain about God, about what you read in sacred texts, about anything?

Now I do not like certainty. Not one little bit. Back in my teens and early twenties, I was certain about my beliefs; it wreaked havoc on my emotional life and separated me from people I love. I’ve seen this happen to others as well. From my perspective, less certainty—and more willingness to say, “I don’t know”—would make the world a better place.

So when Bill brought up the word, I had lots of good reasons to laser in on it and proclaim the dangers of certainty.

I didn’t do it.

Here’s why. Bill and I are getting on in years. Our worldviews are well established, and they’ve borne much fruit in our lives. If I start spouting about certainty, I’m doing so from my worldview. That likely won’t be any use to him.

On the other hand, I had no idea what he meant by certainty. So I asked him.

His answer surprised me. He spoke of that inner peace when life seems so good and everything just feels right. Paradoxically, what he meant by certainty was subjective.

Yes, here too I could have gone off on him: certainty can’t be subjective! It’s a logical contradiction! Instead, I took in his meaning and turned it over in my mind, grateful for having learned a little more about the issue at hand, and a little more about what makes Bill tick.

You might say I gave up on truth, or at least intellectual rigor, for relationship. You may be right. That’s what fascinates me. At this point in our friendship, this stage of our lives, this cycle of the universe, it seemed more fruitful to deepen a friendship (and to address the whole conversation) than to rant about a truth or, rather, a truth as I saw it.

What do you think of this choice? Would you have made the same decision? Why or why not? Are there other situations where you’d have chosen the other way? (There are for me.) Feel free to share here or on Facebook.

Summertime, and the Livin’ Ain’t Easy

Every single summer I do this.

Most summers in my part of the world, the heat and humidity build up sometime in June and then just hang in the air until early September. Soon after the onset, I am journaling about my sense of lethargy, of drift, of wondering what I’m missing and where my life took a wrong turn.

I know I do this because I ran a search through my journal today, looking for summer and then humidity. You could almost cut and paste my complaints from 2007 into today’s entry. I am drop-dead consistent in my (relative) summer indolence.

If you’re a better person than I, you’re probably thinking, so what? Let it go. Summer was made for kicking back. You can’t be productive all the time.

You’d be right about that. In fact, it’s the punchline for this article. But I have a problem getting there, and so do we—especially we Americans.

I don’t have to tell you it’s become a 24/7 world. So many Americans, at least, run through their days at a frenzied pace. As a client of mine once admitted to me 30 years ago—in a relatively slower era—“I’m trying to stuff in as much as I can.”

Why do we do this? I can only speak for myself with any authority. Like many Americans, I’ve inhaled a culture that puts the highest priority on productivity at every step. Stay busy, the culture says, make every moment count.

And when I fall prey to that, I lose sight of some things.

I lose sight of the millions of Earth’s inhabitants who don’t live that way. They take siestas because it’s stiflingly hot at midday and working in stifling heat (when you don’t have to, and you’re not built for it) is stupid. They cherish work-life balance with an emphasis on life. If they can be OK with sluggishness and downtime, so can I.

I also lose sight of what I’ve learned from faith and spirit. My Christian tradition tells me that even God rested after creating the world. That’s not the sort of example you want to ignore. A key insight from the same faith tells me that whoever I am is good enough, owing to God’s extravagant and boundless love. My zazen practice has opened my eyes to an immense, impermanent cosmos that will continue to expand and change whatever I do.

Every year I get twitchy about my “indolence” during summer. Every year I have to remind myself that it’s OK—OK in the context of summer’s heat, OK in many parts of the world, OK with God. Do you have to do this too? If so, how do you get yourself to a place of OKness with it all?

The Second Step Toward Dialogue Is a Doozy

People ask me what my book is about. I tell them it’s about how to change from the inside out so you can talk with people who drive you nuts.

They say, “Boy, do I know someone who could use your book.”

That response always makes me laugh. So I’m reluctant to admit there’s a problem with it.

I’ve seen the problem repeatedly over the past two years—ever since the 2016 presidential election changed so much about the way we talk (or rather, don’t talk) and live with one another in the U.S.

Over and over again, on social media and at family gatherings and after church and who knows where else, I hear people bemoan the state of America’s public square. We are so polarized, they say. No one talks anymore. Everyone shouts at each other. The world is filled with outrage. If only we’d listen.

This recognition of our parlous state is, I think, the first wobbly step toward dialogue. You have to know there’s a problem before you can start to resolve it, right?

The dead end comes in the (usual) second step.

Right after no one talks anymore etc., many people follow up with some version of it’s the other side’s fault.

I heard it again at a gathering of relatives recently. One person, a brilliant and ardent conservative, noted the lack of dialogue and proceeded to lay the blame on the political left. At my (liberal) church, the talk shifts from “how bad it is” to bemoaning the right’s contribution.

By the way, these folks have a point. People at the ends of the political spectrum especially, left and right, are contributing to this climate. But while the faultfinding is correct, it’s not useful. It’s a second step that takes us nowhere.

These days I’m pondering a different second step—a step my book alludes to. It asks, how am I contributing to the problem? Or, even better: how can I change so that my contribution inspires harmony rather than hostility?

Let’s be honest. This second step is a doozy. It asks people to look inside themselves, and that’s not always a pleasant view. I know because I’ve done it.

I think a framework of faith and spirit can help here. At their best and fullest, many of our faith traditions encourage us to “examine ourselves” in an effort to become better versions of ourselves. Ideally the process is gentle—not about guilt and judgment, but rather about self-discovery, a flowering of one’s deepest self in a way that makes a difference in the world.

That can be a magnificent adventure. I know because I’ve done it.

If people could take this useful second step, it might change things. But how do you take it? And how can those of us who’ve gone down that road support others as they take that step?

Those are the questions that challenge me right now. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Do You Have Trouble Forgiving?

So do I. Maybe it’s because of the toxic family script I inhaled as a child: “Backmans never forgive.” Or maybe, being hypersensitive in general, I’m hypersensitive to “the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” In other words, I get hurt and it sticks.

I do know that forgiveness is required of me as a Christian. One part of the Lord’s Prayer—“forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”—implies that if we don’t forgive, it’ll cost us.

And yet getting to forgiveness seems well-nigh impossible.

All this came to mind when an article in Tricycle, a Buddhist journal, caught my eye. Author Gina Sharpe ruminates on the general landscape of forgiveness before describing three practices that can foster it. Here’s part of that landscape:

Forgiveness does not gloss over what has happened in a superficial way…. It’s not a misguided effort to suppress our pain or to ignore it. If you’ve suffered a great injustice, coming to forgiveness may include a long process of grief and outrage and sadness and loss and pain. Forgiveness is a deep process, which is repeated over and over and over again in our hearts. It honors the grief and it honors the betrayal. And in its own time, it ripens into the freedom to truly forgive.

Sharpe’s forgiveness practice grows from the same ground:

As you do the following forgiveness practices, let yourself feel whatever small or large release there is in your heart. Or if there is no release, notice that too. And if you are not ready to forgive, that’s all right. Sometimes the process of forgiveness takes a lifetime, and that’s perfectly fine. You can unfold in your own time and in your own way….  Forgiveness is an attitude of welcoming and inviting and spaciousness rather than some emotion that we pump up in our bodies and minds and hearts.

I read all this and thought, This is something I can do. It acknowledges the sheer difficulty of forgiveness. It describes forgiveness as I’ve experienced it: time-consuming, slow, requiring attention and effort. Most of all, it gives me permission to take my time, to do only what I can, as long as my heart stays pointed in the general direction of forgiveness.

I offer this to you in case it helps with your own struggle. But I’m also noticing something else here. For all their emphasis on forgiveness and its importance, the Christian scriptures don’t really describe how to go about it. For me Sharpe’s article, with its Buddhist framework, is yet another example of how different faiths can feed off and illuminate each other when they’re allowed to play in the same sandbox. Have you experienced this too?