Quiet Time Alone

July 24, 2020

All of humanity’s problems stem from the inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

Blaise Pascal

Back when I truly discovered psychology and read everything I could find that Carl Jung wrote, I came across this story of a client.

A man came to Jung with problems. He was full of anxiety and was driven to succeed, but everyone was driven away from him. Jung advised solitude and stillness. “Go to your office at home, close the door, and sit with yourself for an hour a day,” he prescribed.

Next session, Jung asked how he did. The man replied that he could not sit still. He got up and played on his violin. Then looked at books in his library. He could not sit still. [Note, he didn’t have today’s problem of a smart phone and social media.]

Jung noted that the man couldn’t even bear to be with himself. He said, no, you don’t understand. You don’t do anything. You sit with yourself, quietly, and listen.

Pascal wrote in the 16th century. Jung in the 20th. The famous David of the Hebrew Bible wrote 3,000 years ago of the need for stillness in his songs.

Yet, today, how long can you go without checking Facebook or Instagram? How long can you sit and pray? Let alone meditate? Do you need an app even to spend 5 minutes of quiet time almost alone?

Quiet time alone at least once every day will cure many problems. Maybe you’ll really hear yourself. Maybe you’ll really hear God.

Freedom and Justice

July 23, 2020

During the French Resistance against the Nazis, a leader of the resistance was captured. One dawn as the firing squad sounds greeted him, guards took him to the commander.

“Tell us where the leader is and we will set you free. Otherwise, you are next in front of the firing squad,” he said.

The man thought for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders, and told them that if they would go to such-and-such graveyard behind one exactly detailed gravestone, they would find the leader of the French Resistance hiding. They left him back in his cell. They returned a short time later and set him free.

He had made up that entire story. But that is exactly where the leader was.

This is a story by Sartre, if I remember correctly. Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus (al-ber cam-oo) were leading French intellectuals before and after the war. Exponents of a philosophy called existentialism, they wrestled with the sometimes conflicting issues of freedom and justice. I was reminded of this recently by an essay on Big Think blog.

Such was my reading when I was at university. I started graduate school to further read in this, then chucked it all and went back to a career in technology.

What is freedom?

Some very vocal people have the opinion that requiring the wearing of masks to stop the spread of a nasty virus is an infringement of their freedom. People who have wrestled with this problem of freedom intellectually and with their lives would think that opinion taking the concept far too lightly.

Spiritual thinkers, writers, practitioners for millennia have pondered the same problems of freedom. The Apostle Paul wrote his ideas in the letter to the Galatians. Essentially living a life with the spirit is living free.

It’s not an accident of nature like the existentialists imagined. It’s not adolescent rebellion against being told what to do. It is being filled with the spirit and building practices to maintain that filling of spirit that gives us a life of freedom. Try it.

[I’m not putting down the political and activist versions of trying to be free. I just believe it really must start within or it eventually becomes another form of authoritarianism. That was the eventual dispute between Sartre and Camus.]

Gratitude and Generosity

July 22, 2020

Last weekend I was doodling in my notebook and I jotted “gratitude” and “generosity.” Then I paused. And looked. Do these ideas, these attitudes, these ways of living, go together?

Yesterday I thought about generosity adopting a thought from Henri Nouwen’s With Open Hands. Today, I thought of Nouwen again. This time Adam: God’s Beloved.

In the final year before his death in 1996, Henri Nouwen began to write an account of the death of his friend Adam, a severely handicapped young man from the L’Arche Daybreak Community. In the story of Adam he found a way to describe his own understanding of the Gospel message. Adam could not speak or even move without assistance. Gripped by frequent seizures, he spent his life in obscurity. And yet, for Nouwen, he became “my friend, my teacher, and my guide.” It was Adam who led Nouwen to a new understanding of his faith and what it means to be Beloved of God.

It is not a long book. It is not filled with theological jargon, as if Nouwen ever wrote that way. It’s a story.

As I read it, I sensed Nouwen’s gratitude for the gifts that Adam gave him. Here was a famous professor and author living in a community of severely handicapped people. Nouwen moved in. Was introduced to Adam. Adam messed himself. Nouwen asks what to do. The leader said, help him clean up. You are his caregiver. Famous professor to caregiver caring for every little thing.

And yet I read the gratitude Nouwen felt for what Adam gave him.

Can I be grateful for what someone shows me from the most unexpected place? Could I be so generous of my time and energy as to help an Adam?

It’s a challenge for us all to consider.

Generosity

July 21, 2020

Henri J.M. Nouwen opens his marvelous little book on prayer, With Open Hands, telling a story of an elderly woman who had collapsed in her apartment. When the EMTs arrived to treat her, and eventually transport her to the hospital, they noticed she was clutching something in her hand so tightly they couldn’t pry it open. At the hospital the staff was able to open her hand. She was clutching a coin, as if it were the last and most important of her possessions that would save her.

It was an appropriate story to discuss prayer as opening our hands (and hearts) to God.

Is it a metaphor for the way we live? For our orientation to life?

Many (most? all?) Gen X and Millennial generation look at our Boomer generation and that would be what they think. How would I know? In my professional work those are the generations I interact with often. I listen. I observe. (After all, I’m true to my Enneagram 5 part.) My generation is seen as a generation all about themselves.

Of course, that is not 100% true.

But it is worth pausing to consider—just what is my stance toward generosity?

The next time I come into some “extra” money, what is my first impulse? More important, what is my reflection on my first impulse?

Will I help someone with some or all of that money? Will I satisfy a desire of my own with that money? Build up someone, or build up my own ego?

The existentialists of the 20th century and old-fashioned Baptists had one thing in common that is true for all of us, in all times, in all situations—we decide what we will do, we decide how we will react, we decide in life-changing situations.

What is your decision (and mine) toward opening our hands and hearts with generosity?

We Need Deep People

July 20, 2020

Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.

Richard J. Foster wrote this 42 years ago in Celebration of Discipline. Unfortunately, it is still true. And amplified by social media.

We can so easily spout off an opinion on some topic without so much as a thought. We see something that appeals to our emotions and hit “share” or “like” without ever stopping to check on the “facts” or statistics. Without even a thought of how we’re being manipulated—by Russian or Chinese trolls, or cynical politicians, or people just intent on spreading hate and discontent.

A woman posted a catchy little video on Twitter last week about what it means to be a woman on the internet. I scanned the thread for a bit out of curiosity. I could not believe what so many men called her (the irony being they were all called out on the video). The least offensive was “whiny”.

I hope these morons didn’t call their daughters these things and bring up a generation of emotionally disturbed women.

Taking a moment to pause, reflect, absorb the message, perhaps they could eventually develop that character trait known as empathy.

Therefore, the reason Foster wrote his book (which I read perhaps 20 years ago when I discovered it, and from which I have taught, and I am still influenced by his thinking). The spiritual disciplines, otherwise known as intentional spiritual practices, lead one deeper.

And we need more, many more, of those deep people.

God’s Will

July 17, 2020

Meister Eckhart said, We deafen God day and night with our words, “Lord, thy will be done.” But then when God’s will does happen, we are furious and don’t like it a bit. When our will becomes God’s will, that is certainly good; but how much better it would be if God’s will were to become our will.

Sometimes we use that phrase “thy will be done” as a way out just in case the things we ask for in prayer don’t happen. Jesus taught us to pray with intention. Don’t be weak in prayer. Be strong. Of course, sometimes the things we hope for don’t happen. That’s life.

Sometimes we aren’t sure what our next step is. Should we change jobs? Attend another church? Join a study group? Marry that person?

We ask God for guidance. What is your will, God?

Then we fail to listen for the answer. And our choice doesn’t work out. And we know whom to blame…and it’s not ourselves.

Or, perhaps we get an answer. But it isn’t the answer we were hoping for. It’s the hard path, not the easy one.

But when our spirit aligns with God’s and we are living the with-God life, as Eckhart taught, that would be much better.

Character

July 16, 2020

Ryan Holiday, author of The Daily Stoic and several books on Stoicism referred to the recent commencement address by Arnold Schwarzenegger, “If you want to endure and overcome obstacles, it’s not about what you are in life, but who.What he’s talking about is the primacy of character and virtue over recognition and position. Are you going to identify with your stuff or with your abilities? Holiday also referred to Marcus Aurelius’ “epithets for self”: Upright. Modest. Straightforward. Sane. Cooperative.

I read this not long after I had been thinking and writing yesterday about the mess John Ortberg and his board have made of things following a very poor decision on sexual ethics.

But that can happen to us all. We make a bad decision. We don’t seek counsel. When someone inevitably finds out and points to our failure or shortcoming, we rush to cover up as much as possible. We don’t acknowledge, repent, seek forgiveness, make things right, change our ways.

No, we try to make light of our failures and then hide for a while hoping the situation will melt away and we’ll be left with our reputation intact.

I have liked the teaching of some of the mega-church pastors. But events proved that there was little congruence between their words and actions. I’ve learned more about character from “good ol’ boys” working on their cars under a shade tree than from many rich and powerful people.

It’s better to learn from the good examples. Sometimes we need the shock of a bad example to wake us to reality that could be ours. We all have the seeds of sin within. But we can choose to be — Upright; Modest; Straightforward; Sane; Cooperative.

Pride

July 15, 2020

“No matter what the topic of the sermon was,” my friend told me, “the preacher always turned it into a talk on sexual sin. Then one day he left town with the wife of the chairman of the Board of Deacons.”

An acquaintance of mine maintained a constant refrain of “Praise Jesus” and otherwise seemed over the top with verbal spiritual exclamations. Given an opportunity he had an affair and left his wife. Then he was angry when people looked for a sense of repentance feeling he had done nothing wrong.

This week yet another prominent evangelical teacher and church leader felt the sting of a reversal of the publicity that evidently he craved when it was the other way. He showed righteous anger a couple of years ago while condemning his former boss and mentor. Now the flying fickle finger of fate points at him.

At first he and his board of elders tried to finesse the problem away. Give a half-hearted and quick acknowledgement of a “wrong decision” and then just continue on as usual. Except—when you’ve made yourself prominent, people are watching. And secrets eventually come out. I anticipate another quite public forced resignation of a pastor and the board.

The question really isn’t about such leaders. It’s about us. We all harbor some amount of pride. Ancient people knew the destructive power of pride. Yet, even those who teach about it fall by it.

It is worth looking in the metaphorical mirror daily and trying to answer truthfully the question of at what point during the day did I let pride interfere with my humility. It’s not if, but when. And what am I going to do tomorrow to defeat it.

Ambiguity

July 14, 2020

She holds a PhD in Physics and knows as much about black holes in the universe as anyone. Janna Levin described her transition from a philosophy major at university to physics in a recent podcast.

“People would say, ‘this is what Kant meant when he said…’, and then there would be debates. No one says, ‘this is what Einstein meant in the Special Theory of Relativity,’ and the math is there to back it up.”

She has a point. Ambiguity is a pain.

Some people read Paul’s writing contained in the New Testament as if it’s a list to separate the good people (us) from the bad people (them). Others read the same letters and sense the overwhelming feeling of God’s grace and how Paul was deeply affected by God’s faithfulness to his creation.

Check out the debates on what John “meant” in his Revelation. If someone tells you they’ve figured it all out and can tell you exactly what John meant, run the other way.

Wisdom literature, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament, as well as in multitudes of other ancient sources are pretty clear. (Few follow the advice, but it’s there for the reading.)

When one starts to talk about spiritual union with God and “details” of the kingdom of God and describing “heaven” and eternity, well, we have no precise language.

What we have is experience. If we follow the same spiritual practices humans have practiced for millennia, we will experience the presence of God. It is often indescribable. On the other hand, others can see it in the person who has.

I have studied the Bible for most of my life. I’ve read many scholars. I think I’ve attained a decent understanding for someone who refused to be indoctrinated in a graduate program. And this is not in vain.

However, it also isn’t what’s important. What is important is the daily practice of the presence of God. It’s simple, it’s not arguable, it’s the spark of life.

Futility

July 13, 2020

I am sitting on the patio in the early morning sun looking at one of the more futile acts of discipline.

The new brood of Canada geese is now old enough to fly. A great noise of honking geese interrupted the morning calm. I looked toward the pond. The parents in the flock have begun teaching the young how to fly in formation—the famous V shape designed for migration over long distances.

The futility is that theses are “suburban” geese. They will never leave the area. They probably will not fly more than 10 miles in their lives.

Futility is learning something never to be used to empower your own life or benefit others. Pointless and useless as the dictionary tells us.

Unless your spiritual disciplines are bringing you deeper into the spirit and outward into service of what good are they.

  • You don’t read the Bible just to say you’ve read the daily quota
  • You don’t pray just to say you’ve prayed
  • You don’t meditate just to tick off a point on your to-do list

You practice these things and more because they will change your life. People won’t notice that you’ve completed the day’s list. They will notice over time that you have changed into a new you.