All posts by thestrietzels@hotmail.com

My story, I am learning, is more and more common. I was raised in a conservative/evangelical Christian tradition and began to see things differently. Christianity, I believe, is more about a way of life than right or correct beliefs or doctrines. This means the spiritual life is messy and full of adventure, not a neatly packaged set of ideas one buys into. One can be a deeply committed Christian, can attend church every Sunday, pray and read Scripture daily, and can remain more or less unchanged where their ego's are still in control. The way of Jesus is a way of death and resurrection - death to our ego or false self, and life to our true self. This is the journey I am on.

A prayer

Spirit, I long for your sweet presence, for you beauty and love.

I long to experience your touch as I have before.

Yet, I feel and sense nothing.

Through the deep longing that is not satisfied, I feel pain. Why, oh God, do you not answer my cry?

I have sensed your touch, your leading, and your guidance many times in my life, but struggle to sense those things now.

I am tempted to manipulate my emotions, to fabricate an experience. As I realize this, I recognize I have probably done this many times in the past.

I don’t want a fabrication, I don’t want a cheap experience, I want the real, authentic work and I am willing to wait for it.

Yes, I may be willing, but for how long? I hear nothing. I see nothing.

I have been more consistent than ever before. I have followed your leading and it has led me to this place. It’s not darkness, but loneliness. It’s not depression, but absence. It’s more subtle.

I am reminded of an old song, drawn from the following Psalm:

Psalm 42

As a deer longs for flowing streams,
    so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
    for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
    the face of God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

These things I remember,
    as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
    and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
    a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

My soul is cast down within me;
    therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
    from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
    have gone over me.
By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
    and at night his song is with me,
    a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God, my rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
    because the enemy oppresses me?”
10 As with a deadly wound in my body,
    my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
    “Where is your God?”

11 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
    and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
    my help and my God.

Amen.

Social transformation requires a journey inward

One of the things I have become most interested in is what I would call the “inner journey.” I don’t claim to be able to articulate completely what this journey requires because I am still very much on this journey, but I have learned a few things that I believe are absolutely essential to the future of our world.

Ask the average person if they know what an “inner journey” is and you are bound to receive a confused look. The disturbing thing is if you asked the average Christian, you are bound to receive the exact same look!

I am encouraged by so many people today who are advocates and activists who seek to bring about external change in our society. Yet, I fear we are missing an essential piece. If we seek to bring about change in our world without taking a journey inward, we are guaranteed to bring about our own agendas, fears, biases, and ego’s into our work – that latter one is the most disturbing.

The inner journey is the slow process of uncovering our false self (when we identify who we are with what we do, what we have, or what others think) and walking into our true self. The inner journey exposes our ego. The inner journey shines light on our shadows (those areas of our life they we consciously or unconsciously ignore because we don’t like that part of who we are) and forces us to deal with them. This is all hard work. It is much easier to focus entirely on the external, and even feel really good about it, which can easily feed our ego if we haven’t gone inward.

The most important part of our life is our breath. If we stop breathing we will die within minutes. While water, food, and sleep are all important, we can go for days without them, though not with some serious side affects. In order to survive on a minute to minute basis, we need to both inhale and exhale. Living a life without taking the journey inward is like trying to live without inhaling.

If we want to bring about social transformation or lasting change in our families, friendships, and communities, we must be intentional about the inner journey. The inner journey is far more difficult and far more important than the outer journey. It can fell like a waste of time, resources, and mental energy to many, but the results are more than worth the effort.

I believe the spiritual journey is a journey that leads us inward, toward inner transformation, that then leads us outward, toward social transformation. Both the inner and outer journey are absolutely necessary. You cannot have one without the other.

I am willing to bet that most people who have brought about great social change were people who also took the journey inward. They were self aware, compassionate, and had faced their own shadows and were thus able to bring about change.

Here are some tools I have found helpful along the inner journey:

  • Spiritual Direction
  • Contemplative practices (e.g., centering prayer)
  • Journaling
  • The Enneagram
  • Spiritual Guides (for me this has primarily been in the form of books from people like Richard Rohr, Ken Wilber, Basil Pennington, Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgeault, Jim Marion, and others.)

Personal reflections on Thomas Merton

I have been deeply influenced by Thomas Merton, thus my spirituality reflects, in large part, his spirituality. My spirituality begins with the assumption that God exists and desires to reveal Godself to all. Along with that assumption is the belief that God is revealing Godself in all places and at all times, the only major differences between people is our amount of awareness. Some people are more conscious of, or aware of God’s presence, goodness, love, and beauty, while most of us remain unaware the majority of the time. (And this has nothing to do with how religious a person is.)

Similar to Merton, I believe that an awareness of Gods presence and love is a gift given from God. We don’t do anything to earn it. God doesn’t withhold from some until they have put in a certain number of hours in prayer or contemplation. Yet (I suspect Merton would agree here), I think that contemplation allows us to be more receptive to this gift, or as Merton would say, to our true self. I want to be cautious here because while I do not think there is a direct link to the number of hours one spends in prayer or contemplation, I do believe that spending time in prayer or contemplation opens a person up in greater ways to more easily receive this gift. While I do believe that gift can also be received through numerous other ways, I have found contemplative practices to be the most beneficial for me on my spiritual journey. I find silence and stillness allows my true self to emerge. The noise, stress, and busyness of western life is one of greatest, if not the greatest major struggle for spirituality today. I also believe this is one of the reason why so many struggle with a lack of meaning, purpose, and contentment in life. We are all running around so busy and stressed, just skimming the surface of life, and living mostly unaware of the sacredness of every moment.

Contemplative practices allow one to find stillness in the midst of the chaos and allows a safe place for the true self to emerge.

It is clear that the goal of the Christian life is love. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he said it was to love God, others, and self. Jesus also said that people would be able to tell who his followers were by the love they had for each other. Like Merton, I do not believe that our love increases just by sheer will power, though it does take work. Spirituality then, leads us toward a greater connection with God, others, and self and thus increases our compassion for all. A spiritually mature person is a person with a great amount of compassion for self and others.

I believe that the primary way we grow in love is through experiencing Love.

Contemplative prayer – wordless prayer accompanied by stillness where one beholds God/the sacred – is the best way I have found to open oneself up to this Love. Merton would say this allows our true self to emerge – our self in union with God’s loving presence. I agree, and though I may use different words I believe we are conveying the same thing. Merton’s spirituality is perhaps even more relevant today than ever before. We cultivate compassion not by trying harder, but by finding stillness and allowing our self to be transformed by God’s loving embrace. The more aware we become of this Love, the more compassion we have for ourselves and others. The spiritual journey is paradoxically both external and internal.

It is through the journey inward that we are better equipped to extend compassion outward.

Thomas Merton’s Spirituality – part 3 of 3

Last week I wrote about Merton’s view of salvation. If salvation is a gift from God, what does the role of prayer play if any?

Concerning this Merton writes:

The inner self is precisely that self which cannot be tricked or manipulated by anyone, even by the devil. He is like a very shy wild animal that never appears at all whenever an alien presence is at hand and comes out only when all is perfectly peaceful, in silence, when he is untroubled and alone. He cannot be lured out by anyone or anything.

For Merton, prayer is sitting in stillness to allow the true self to emerge. Merton compares the true self to a “shy wild animal,” and suggests that one must become silent and still and wait patiently for the true self to emerge. Prayer is not primarily something to be “accomplished,” but rather is something one does to wait for the “accomplishing,” which is always done by God.[1]

All that we can do with any spiritual discipline is produce within ourselves something of the silence, the humility, the detachment, the purity of heart and the indifference which are required if the inner self is to make some shy, unpredictable manifestation of his Presence.[2]

For Merton, there is no formula or outline in the discovery of the true self.[3] Discovery of the true self is a gift, given by God. However, one can help this process by quieting their soul to allow this gift to emerge. Contemplative prayer then, is the act of quieting oneself and waiting patiently. Contemplation is simple, but extremely difficult, especially in today’s busy world!

For me the meaning of contemplation has evolved over time, but it continues to be a vital part of my spirituality – perhaps the central part. I have heard that contemplation is a form of wordless prayer where one beholds the essence of God, particularly God’s love and goodness. Through contemplation we find stillness and silence – it is here that we find God in the deepest sense. Like stilling water, contemplation allows us to still the chaos of life so we are better able to see clearly. One author writes that, “contemplative practice nurtures interior silence, teaches us the art of letting go, and helps us experience our struggles with greater clarity and balance.”[4] I have experienced this to be true in my own life. Contemplative practices, such as centering prayer, have become the most important aspect of my spirituality because it opens me up to become more conscious of God’s loving presence in all things.

The result of the discovery of the true self for Merton is love. Merton writes:

All through the Verba Seniorum we find a repeated insistence on the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life: over knowledge, gnosis, asceticism, contemplation, solitude, prayer. Love in fact is the spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions.[5]

Love must always be the end, for it is the spiritual goal. For Merton, greater love cannot be obtain by sheer willpower or demands, which is why the path of the spiritual life runs through self-transformation.[6] One becomes more loving not by trying to be more loving, but by coming to a greater awareness that one is loved.[7] The true test of a maturity is if a person extends compassion to others, for Merton writes, “contemplation is out of the question for anyone who does not try to cultivate compassion for other men.”[8]

In summary, Merton’s spirituality suggests that the goal of the spiritual life is the transformation of the self, which happens when a person is awakened to their true self. Contemplative practices allow a safe and quiet place for the true self to emerge as a gift from God. The result of a person walking into their true self is greater love or compassion for others.

[1] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 296.

[2] Ibid., 298.

[3] Ibid., 297.

[4] Laird, Into the Silent Land, 5.

[5] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 275.

[6] Ibid., 274.

[7] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 75.

[8] Ibid., 77.

Thomas Merton’s Spirituality – part 2 of 3

Sin & Salvation

Last post I introduced Thomas Merton and his spirituality. Today we will explore the role of sin and salvation from the perspective of Merton.

Sin, for Merton, is that which conceals our true self. “To say that I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. I was born in a mask.”[1] Because Merton associates sin with the mask of the false self, salvation is exposing the false self and an allowing the true self to emerge. “To be ‘saved’ is to return to one’s inviolate and eternal reality and to live in God.”[2] Merton understands salvation to be a returning to the true self, here we experience union with God. Merton writes, “I shall find myself. I shall be ‘saved.’”[3] While salvation for many within western Christianity has become primarily about the afterlife, for Merton salvation involves realizing that you are beloved of God – you are already loved and accepted as you are – this realization will lead us to union with God in the present (this idea has most likely shaped my personal spirituality in more ways than anything else!).

In other words, salvation is a reality to be experienced in the here and now as we become aware that we are already inside of God’s love.

It may seem that Merton is suggesting that salvation is obtained through human effort, but this is actually a gift one receives. Merton writes:

And so the contemplation of which I speak is a religious and transcendent gift. It is not something to which we can attain alone, by intellectual effort, by perfecting our natural powers…It is not the fruit of our own efforts. It is the gift of God, Who, in His mercy, completes the hidden and mysterious work of creation in us by enlightening our minds and hearts by awakening in us the awareness that we are words spoken in His One Word, and that Creating Spirit dwells in us, and we in Him. That we are “in Christ” and that Christ lives in us.[4]

For many salvation is obtained by “believing the right things,” but for Merton, salvation is obtained by a growing awareness (or even experience) of reality. Salvation, a realization of our true self, is a gift given by God when God “enlightens our minds and hearts” to recognize that “we are in Christ.” For Merton, there is no massive gulf that needs to be bridged, there is no sacrifice to appease an angry God, there is no hoop’s you need to jump through. Salvation is resting in God’s loving presence as this love exposes our false self.

Note: think about the life of Jesus. Every single time he encountered someone who felt they were a “sinner,” or felt unworthy or ashamed, Jesus extended love, compassion, and grace. My greatest critique for the majority of the church in the west, is that it often seems to think that it is through shaming, then one will be “saved.” The only people Jesus consistently struggled with were those who tried to create extra barriers and hurtles along the spiritual journey.

I think it is through an encounter with love, compassion, forgiveness and grace that we are transformed. What else could the story of the prodigal son mean?

I think it is important to note here that salvation is an ongoing process, not an instantaneous act where one becomes enlightened and then remains in that state from then on. It is more accurate to state that Merton believed it was a progressive movement by which a person becomes increasingly aware of their true self.

Next post I will conclude with Merton’s teaching on the role of contemplation in the process of spiritual formation.

 

 

 

[1] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 33.

[2] Ibid., 38.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Ibid., 4-5.

Thomas Merton’s Spirituality – part 1 of 3

Thomas Merton has deeply influenced my spiritual journey. Since I think many who are seeking a different, more authentic way of being Christian today will find him compelling, I thought I would write a little about the spirituality of Thomas Merton as an introduction.

Thomas Merton was one of the greatest Catholic spiritual leaders of the twentieth century, and is one of the most well known authors of the contemplative life. While his life led him to become a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, he was a writer by nature and has authored over sixty books and hundreds of articles and poems. One writer once introduced him as “a monk by vocation, a theologian by conviction, and a writer by instinct.”[1] While he may have been all of these things, he is best known as a spiritual guide, a mystic, and a contemplative. His writings have inspired many who continue to find them relevant and insightful for their own spiritual journeys. In following  posts, I will explore Merton’s spirituality, his view of the goal of the Christian life, sin, and salvation.

Transformation of Self

Merton’s spirituality is fascinating. While his view of God, the world, and creation are not all that different from the Easter Christian tradition, his views are new for many in the West which tends to emphasize doctrine and theology over experience. For Merton, the goal of the Christian life is not an accumulation of information or correct doctrines, which is often the case for western Christianity. Reflecting upon Merton, one author writes, “He understood the interior transformation as the meaning and goal of the monastic life and of its solitude and contemplation.”[2] Concerning the inner journey Merton writes, “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.”[3] Clearly the transformation of the self, or as Merton states this “inner voyage” is central to his view of spiritual formation.

Merton often contrasted what he called the “true self” with the “false self.” For Merton, exposing the false self and walking into the true self (or realizing one’s true self) is what leads to transformation. Merton defines the false self in the following way:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him…My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life.[4]

The false self is an illusion, it is not who we actually are. I think what Merton is saying here is that people put on masks and then mistakenly identify themselves with that mask. Merton writes, “The creative and mysterious inner self must be delivered from the wasteful, hedonistic and destructive ego that seeks only to cover itself with disguises.”[5] The major problem is that this mask tells us we are outside of God’s reach, that we are not loved, valued, and accepted as we are. (Notice many forms of religion will capitalize on the feelings of shame and unworthiness that is brought on by the false self.)

If the false self is an illusory mask, the true self is “the true, secret self in which the Believer and Christ were ‘one Spirit.’”[6] It is precisely in realizing our true self that we experience union with God. According to Merton, our true self is who we actually are; our true self is our self “hidden in the love and mercy of God.”[7] As we expose the illusion of the false self, it is at this moment where we are receptive to God’s love and presence in our lives. This is available at all times and all places and for all people.

True Self/False Self

My spirituality has been so shaped by the idea of the true self and false self I’m not sure I can explain it any better than Merton. I view the false self as the part of us that feels unworthy of love and is full of shame – something I believe every human experiences (for more on shame explore Brene Brown’s work). Unhealthy religion will capitalize on this by pointing out our sin, separation, and unworthiness – often suggesting we need to believe all the correct things or do all the correct things in order to be loved and accepted by God. Healthy religion will allow us to transcend this shame, because we are already accepted as we are.

The false self is that part of us outside of God’s love because we don’t feel like we deserve God’s love. When we step into our true self, we realize that we are deeply loved by God regardless of whether or not we feel worthy. The spiritual path helps us walk into our true self by exposing the illusion of the false self – that part of us that feels outside of God’s loving union, that says I’m not good enough or worthy enough. In other words, the spiritual path allows us to become more aware of reality – the reality that we are already in loving union with God!

For me, this is everything!

 

 

 

[1] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 32.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 271.

[4] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34.

[5] Ibid., 38.

[6] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 267.

[7] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 35.

Where Christianity Got it Wrong

Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  (John 12v24)

Today is Good Friday, the day Christians remember the death of Jesus on the cross. What does this mean for us today?

Christianity has tended to focus on correct beliefs; if you believe the right things about Jesus or God then you will go to heaven when you die. The more I read about Jesus, the more this seems off, and not just a little off – way off!

During our Lenten series at One Church, we have been exploring the idea of the True Self and False Self. Most of this language comes from a Monk named Thomas Merton, but Richard Rohr has also been influenced by Merton and has written extensively on this topic.

Rohr defines the True Self as the part of you that knows who you are and whose you are, although largely unconscious.[1]

The False Self is who you think you are,[2] and is driven by our ego.[3]

Our True Self/False Self is about our identity. Our False Self can be seen as a mask we wear – usually as a result of our experience with suffering or humiliation. Our False Self isn’t inherently bad, it’s just not accurate – it’s not who you actually are.

Where did Christianity get it wrong?

Actually, it would be more accurate to say that a large part of Christianity got it wrong. There are healthy and unhealthy forms of Christianity, just as there are healthy and unhealthy forms of all religion. Unhealthy religion gets it wrong in that instead of revealing the False Self (our ego), it enhances it!

Rohr argues that our central task as humans is to “consciously discover and become who we already are and what we somehow unconsciously know.”[4] Jesus taught us that our True Self is “a treasure hidden in a field,” and the False Self is “a house built on sand.”[5]

The goal of healthy religion is to reveal the True Self and uncover the False Self, or as Rohr writes, “almost all religions say that you must die before you die.”[6] This, I believe, is what Jesus was getting at in the gospel of John where he talked about how the grain must die in order to bear much fruit.

Christianity, however, has tended to enhanced our False Self – what many call the religious False Self (I often joke that the religious False Self is like the False Self on crack – it’s nasty!). Concerning the religious False Self, Rohr writes:

The religious False Self is the best and most defended self of all. When God has become our personal and group lackey, we can hate, oppress, torture, and kill others with total impunity. The religious False Self can even justify racism, slavery, war, and total denial or deception and feel no guilt whatsoever, because “they think they are doing a holy duty for God” (John 16:2). The ego [False Self] has found its cover, so be quite careful about being religious. If your religion does not transform your consciousness to one of compassion, it is more a part of the problem than any solution.[7]

We can easily see the religious False Self throughout history at it has caused a great amount of pain, suffering, violence etc., all in the name of God. We can see the religious False Self at work in Christianity today in the way that Christians hold their views. When a person believes their way of interpreting, believing, understanding something is the “one and only way” then you can be sure the religious False Self is at work. When a person feels compelled to tell someone else why they are wrong, deceived, or heretical, you can be sure the religious ego is at work.

The religious False Self wants to appear right or correct and will take any differing view as a threat – in reality it is a threat to their ego. (Note: when most people react negatively against religion, I believe they are reacting against the religious False Self. They see through the masks and don’t want any part of it.)

What does all of this have to do with Good Friday?

As I mentioned above, healthy religion invites us to die, but it isn’t a death to our physical bodies, but to our False Self. “Anything less than the death of the False Self is useless religion. The False Self must die for the True Self to live, or as Jesus himself puts it, ‘Unless I go, the Spirit cannot come’ (John 16:7).”[8]

Good Friday reminds us that death precedes resurrection.

Yet, we must also be careful about resurrection, for our beliefs about resurrection can also reflect our False Self.

Up to now, it has been common, with little skin off anyone’s back, to intellectually argue or religiously believe that Jesus’ physical body could really “resurrect.” That was much easier than to ask whether we could really change or resurrect. It got us off the hook – the hook of growing up, of taking the search for our True Selves seriously.[9]

Unhealthy religious bolsters our False Self (religious False Self) instead of leading to the transformation of our identity (discovery of the True Self).

In order to discover our True Self, we must expose our False Self and allow it to fade. When you have met someone who has allowed their ego (False Self) to fall away and has discovered their True Self, you have found a person who is more open, forgiving, patient, kind, compassionate and who is able to act from a place of peace because they are grounded (they have build their house on a rock – the True Self – and not on the sand – the False Self). Anytime we react to something, we can be sure that it is the False Self. Anytime we take offense, we can be sure that it is the False Self. As we become more aware of this False Self, we can consciously choose not to react or take offense – this is the path to maturity.

Healthy religion leads us on a path toward maturity, toward the transformation of the self. It is much easier to argue about theology or correct beliefs than it is to do the hard inner work of transformation (exposing the False Self). Let’s be honest, it’s a painful process – hence why Paul called all who follow Christ to take up their cross.

 

Questions:

  1. How have you seen the religious False Self at work in the world?
  2. How have you seen the religious False Self at work in yourself?
  3. Are you willing to do the hard work to expose the False Self and allow your True Self to emerge?

 

Remember: this is a long process. As you begin this journey you will become increasingly aware of your False Self (usually seen when you take offense or feel compelled to argue). If your like me, you will see this religious False Self all over the place – know you are not alone! Just remember, God is patient with all of us. Have compassion on yourself and others for this is the path toward transformation.

 

 

[1] Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, vii.

[2] Ibid, viii.

[3] Ibid, xvi.

[4] Ibid, 12.

[5] Matthew 7:26

[6] Ibid, 59.

[7] Ibid, 61.

[8] Ibid, 62.

[9] Ibid, ix.

 

Guest post: The Beautiful Empty

Below is a Lenten devotional written by a good friend of mine, Mark Johnson. Mark, along with a core group of people, will be planting a new church in Scottsdale, AZ and are planning to launch in September of 2017!  (You can learn more here.)

The Beautiful Empty

Life is supposed to be happy, isn’t that what we are told? As Christians that idea is especially true, because Jesus came to give us life, and life MORE abundantly, (John 10:10). Not only are we supposed to be happy, we are to be happier than all those non-believing skeptics in the world out there.

But if the truth be told, there is an unquenchable gnawing in the pit of ourselves that we all feel. No manner of religious duty or thought can seem to remove it. No sporting events, shopping sprees, sexual experiences or eating binges can touch the pulse like reminder of that lost feeling on the inside of us.

For the bulk of my life I ran to some sort of sexual experience, whenever that emptiness was agitated.

In early December of 2007 just months after a colossal crash and burn in my life, I was offered the opportunity to go to a counseling center in the mountains of Colorado where a renowned Christian therapist had a thriving practice and ran group and individual meetings on a daily basis.

I was there for two weeks.

It was beautiful there, also cold and more snow than was believable. I actually saw an Elk walking down the street of the small town of Buena Vista, Colorado as I drove in for my therapy session one morning.

On the third day of my sessions my counselor asked me if I had ever seen the movie A Beautiful Mind, I told him I had, but not since it had come out some six years previous.

He gave me this homework assignment.

“Go back to your room tonight and watch this movie about a crazy genius and as you experience it, do it in the context of where you are in your life right now.”

I did not know if I should be offended, flattered or worried, but nonetheless I took on the challenge. I mean how many times in therapy are you asked to do nothing more than watch a movie?

The film is about John Nash (Played by Russell Crowe) a Nobel Laureate in economics who we see struggling with schizophrenia in his early days at Princeton University. It follows his life forward as he marries, has a child and continues to spiral into his grand delusions.

You do not realize until later in the film, (spoiler alert) that some of the characters in the movie are only figments of John’s imagination, they are friends that only his mind can see.

When that part of the movie became clear to me, I began to cry, which turned to weeping, and ultimately ended in sobs that sounded like I was harming an animal, of some sort, on my side of the cabin.

 

This deep emotional response came as I realized that there was a reason for John’s “friends” that although they were a result of serious mental illness, they were in fact still helping John cope with a life that he could not deal with. His pain was so intense that he made up another reality to make everything feel better.

In keeping with my assignment, I did as I was asked to do and related this to the situation I found myself in that day.

For the first time in my life I saw that no matter the pain and misery my addiction had caused, in a very real sense, it was a secret friend that had helped me attempt to deal with the realities of my life.

Not in any sort of healthy way mind you, however, when I was beginning to feel worthless, stupid, out of sorts (empty) my old friend helped me steer clear of what was insurmountable pain.

This realization was one of the many crucial truths I embraced that led me towards freedom over my crippling addiction.

This highlights what I call the beautiful empty

There is something within all of us that remains empty no matter our attempts to fill it.

This includes God, work, people, and any and everything else.

I grew up believing that accepting Jesus in my savior was the one thing that would cause me to be completely fulfilled in my life. Unfortunately that is just not true.

The truth is, as Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians, 12 At present we are people looking at puzzling reflections in a mirror. The time will come when we shall see reality whole and face-to-face! At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth.”

We all have questions that are unanswerable, and deep longings that remain unfulfilled, even if we tell ourselves otherwise.

We have an empty place that will never be filled.

There remains an unmentionable sadness in the inner workings of every human being that is mostly ignored, but we get glimpses of it in art and music and poetry, or when tragedy hits us right between the eyes.

I believe that people with extreme addictive issues simply feel the world too deeply, or in other words, try as they might they cannot drown out the voice of that empty place.

So, what in the world would possess me to call that emptiness beautiful?

In my personal experience it is ONLY when we begin to embrace that emptiness, and see it as a beautiful part of our existence, that we can more fully become the people God wants us to be. A people who have less regard for themselves and more for those around them, a people who can and do experience God, not only through the ancient writings but in the faces of the humans they see everyday.

A people, who have swollen, bleeding hearts of compassion for every other person on earth, no matter their station, sexual preference, color or crimes.

It was the musings of the undeniably brilliant Blasé Pascal that gave

C.S. Lewis the quote “We live with a God shaped hole in our hearts” the full quote goes like this:

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII(425)

It appears that the empty feeling is not unique to modern culture.

And though I love the sentiment, I disagree with the notion that God has any desire to fill that infinite abyss within us.

It is the Beautiful Empty that constantly reminds us of our frailty and our equality with the rest of human kind.

If we allow it to, it will keep our prejudice and judgmental attitudes in check. It will fuel our compassion for one another and we can truly be the people of a second and third and fourth chance for others.

This is what happened to me as I reimagined what I considered to be my ugly emptiness and began to see it as a beautiful thing.

If we begin to see that longing as less of a life sucking black hole that we constantly try to ignore, and begin to see it as a beautiful reminder of who we truly are I think we will be of all people, most happy.

Lent, is of course the perfect time to do that. Let the suffering of Christ that is highlighted in this season allow you to embrace that painful, beautiful emptiness, that is the constant of the human condition, and find God there.

Lenten Fast from Facebook

Below is a reflection from Lindsay Fowler who has inspired me by deciding to fast from Facebook during Lent!

Lindsay writes:

Before Lent began I noticed that I was checking my social media pages very frequently and also wasn’t doing things that I had on my self care list as much. I could feel some tension, anger, fear and issues with comparison creeping in. I knew that in order to refocus I needed to eliminate social media. During this time I have focused on a quote from Bob Goff :

We won’t be distracted by comparison if we are captivated with purpose.

I also focused on Col 3:2 “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” I wrote out my prayer lists, kept books and art supplies at my desk and every time I wanted to take a 10 minute break to check social media I took that time to pray, read or do art. I’m half way through my fast now and I feel so much lighter and positive and focused. I realized how easily our minds are distracted and how 10 minutes every hour or two ends up being hours a day that we are watching other people’s high light reels instead of praying or doing things that uplift our spirits.

It has forced me to start actually calling and texting people to check in instead of assuming I know what’s going on in their lives and it has given me a deep peace not focusing on what others are doing. I encourage everyone- even if it’s just for a week to take the time off of social media and use it to refocus your energy and time and priorities.

Some questions that might help you:
1) Do you find yourself comparing your lives to others when you check social media?
2) How often are you on social media each day? Each week?
3) What practices or activities could use more attention in your life? Could you use that time away from social media to pour into those areas?

The experience of love

This past Sunday One Church celebrated our four year anniversary. I am grateful for both the work of those who have gone before me and for the work of those who continue today.

As part of our service (which you can watch here), we listened to several people share a little about their spiritual journeys. Most people find One Church for one of two reasons (or both). Either they are looking for a church that is open and affirming to all LGBTQ persons, or they are looking for a church that is more open and allows space to question, disagree, doubt, or see things differently. As the pastor, I hope everyone feels the freedom to disagree with me at times. I am certain of very few things in life, but one of the things I am certain of is that I surely don’t see Reality, Truth, God, or anything else through a perfect lens.

A consistent theme as people shared at One Church was the idea of unconditional love and acceptance. One Scripture that was shared is the well known John 3:16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

There is a lot here to explore, too much for one short Lenten devotional, but one thing to point out is that when many read this they assume that “eternal life” means “going to heaven when you die,” which is does not. The message translation more accurately describes this by stating, “anyone can have a whole and lasting life.”

Like I mentioned, there is a lot here to unpack, but let’s move to the following verse, which is often overlooked.

17 Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

Or, as the Message translates this:

17 God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.

While Christians are well known for being judgmental and condemning, our Scriptures instruct us to do just the opposite. As this text was shared I couldn’t help but think how important this is for us to reflect upon during Lent. As we journey inward toward greater self awareness, perhaps we should be exploring the following questions:

  1. In what ways am I critical or judgmental of myself? (We tend to treat others the way we treat ourselves. If we are critical of ourselves, this will be reflected toward others.)
  2. Who do I tend to judge? (Let’s be honest, we all struggle with judging others. The question then isn’t do I judge others, but who are those “others” that I judge.)
  3. In what ways do I feel invited or called to partner with God to help put the world right again?

 

Additional thoughts to reflect upon:

I was reading some of Julian of Norwich’s writings this past week. Julian was a Christian mystics who lived in the fourteenth century and wrote the first book written in English by a woman. Thomas Merton called her one of the greatest English theologians!

In Julian’s writings, she refers frequently to God as Mother. While this might be a stretch for some, I find her writings to be refreshing because her focus is on God’s nurturing, motherly love. This is most clearly seen in chapter sixty and sixty-one of the Showings. Below is just a couple of quotes from these chapters:

The kind, loving mother who knows and sees the need of her child guards it very tenderly, as the nature and condition of motherhood will have. (Chapter sixty)

But often when our falling and our wretchedness are shown to us, we are so much afraid and so greatly ashamed of ourselves that we scarcely know where we can put ourselves. But then our courteous Mother does not wish us to flee away, for nothing would be less pleasing to him; but he then wants us to behave like a child. For when it is distressed and frightened, it runs quickly to its mother; and if it can do no more, it calls to the mother for help with all its might. (Julian exchanges the masculine pronouns he/him with Mother to refer to God.)

It seems to me that God is beyond gender, yet I think we should be aware how our words influence our views. I think many people have rejected the masculine, domineering, demanding, Zeus-like-deity, but are still open – and perhaps longing – to receive the kind of nurturing love that Julian experienced and wrote about.

  • Have you experienced this motherly love?

Perhaps this week is an invitation to open yourself up to see God in new ways and experience God’s nurturing love. I believe it is this very experience that forms us and allows us to become less judgmental.

As we experience love, it transforms us and we are better able to extend love toward others.