I Choose Where My Thoughts Dwell

March 19, 2021

Many people are reflecting upon a year ago. Of course, I am one.

A year ago, we signed the papers and I transferred a bunch of money and we became property owners in a different state. While in Illinois signing papers, my hair stylist called from Ohio. The governor was shutting down businesses like hers and she had a spot open. My usual appointment was three days after the shutdown. I told her I was a six-hour drive away and couldn’t make it. I didn’t get a hair cut for fourteen more weeks. Even a former hippie needed a trim by that time.

We had two major changes–facing life in the pandemic and adjusting to the new reality of living in a community where we knew no one with only a superficial knowledge of the area.

I made it a priority to establish a daily discipline much like I had the past 20 years. Just a few adjustments. No gym. No Yoga classes. No soccer. The only thing that slipped for a while was strength training. Eventually I took care of that and the body is getting back into shape.

Had we not moved, two things are likely. We would have caught the virus (I estimate that 90% of the people we knew from where we’re from have had Covid), and we would not have seen our family.

When other thoughts pop into my head–nostalgia, missing something, adjusting to new surroundings, what if this or that–I choose to focus on what matters. I choose not to dwell on any “what might have been” random thoughts.

This advice from the Apostle Paul to the gathering called Philippians applies, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Breathe

March 18, 2021

We forget that we breathe. It just happens. Well, it happens or we die.

I hear or read the word, and I immediately become conscious of my breath. Then I regulate it. Slow down. Become aware of how my chest expands and diaphragm drops as the lungs fill with air. And then the contraction as I exhale.

Ever notice how people talk differently? Some talk with breath support–you’re taught that at speaking school. Some have a lazy diaphragm and lower abdominal muscles and speak in a lazier way lacking some enunciation. It’s breath.

Warriors must learn to regulate breath. As should all of us in stressful situations or when working.

We pay attention to breath while meditating. Slowing down. Filling our lungs.

Some people who study such things report that humans typically only fill their lungs to about 20% capacity. Stop, become aware, fill your lungs completely followed by a slow exhale (all through the nose) several times a day. Take short breaks from the computer or the book you’re reading. Breathe.

In Yoga, we learn pranayama–breathing exercises. I never told my class, “Now, we’ll do pranayama.” Instead, I would begin a class sitting (usually, but sometimes standing or reclining) and lead through some different breath work to get us warm and in the mood to begin exercise.

Breathing is so essential, yet so unconscious that James Nestor researched globally and wrote a book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. I have not read the book, but I heard him interviewed on a podcast. So, this book is on my list.

Pause. Breathe with awareness. Set a timer on your calendar to pause during the day. Breathe. As I breathe with intention, I turn my awareness to God. It’s like a “God break” during the day.

Solving The Puzzle

March 17, 2021

My day has had a bit of a delayed start. I left the house about 6:45 this morning to go obtain my second Covid vaccination. There was perhaps a slight amount of fear and trepidation. I’ve heard a variety of stories ranging from no reaction to being very tired and achy. Sitting in the observation room (unlike YoYo Ma, I didn’t bring my cello (well, guitar) to the room to entertain during the wait), I did begin to feel a little soreness in the area of the shot. But that feeling left. We’ll see how tomorrow goes.

I like historical fiction, but I don’t read much of it. Steven Pressfield wrote a popular work of nonfiction, The War of Art: Break Through The Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, cited by many creatives I follow. I recommend it. Mostly, he writes historical fiction. I decided to buy his latest book, A Man at Arms. I could not put it down. Totally destroyed yesterday’s productivity. The setting is the eastern Mediterranean in 55 AD. A “Man at Arms”, a warrior and mercenary, accepts a job from the Jerusalem-based Roman Authority to track down and capture a man and girl child who have a letter from the Apostle Paul to the Christians in Corinth. Early on, he attracts to him a male youth who follows him. The story is gripping. You can’t guess the end until the next-to-last page.

Note: it is a warrior story, so there are pretty graphic battle scenes as well as scenes of Roman brutality. Pressfield gives you a look at the cultural backdrop of Roman occupation that is only alluded to in the Bible. I think it’s great. It may be one of those few books I’ll read again.

I have been studying again Pope Benedict XVI’s series of talks on the Church Fathers. That volume nestles alongside two books on the Desert Fathers on my shelf.

The Church Fathers portray the struggles of the church from the late 200s to the early 400s (so, mostly the 4th Century) to define itself–both around the many theories attempting to understand who and what Jesus was and around the problems of dealing with politics once the church gained official status from around 325. We continue to struggle to understand Jesus. Many of us say we follow him as disciples, but much about him is difficult to completely understand. And many of us struggle with politics. Some readers of this blog are struggling to survive from politics and some are trying to win at politics and get the government to force “Christian values” upon the population. It was complex 1,700 years ago–and it remains complex today.

But the Desert Fathers are my favorite. They worked at the intersection of the interior human and the Spirit of God. What did it mean to pray without ceasing? How can we identify and overcome the myriad of emotional and psychological forces within us in order to truly live with God? If fact, just how do we live with God? What practices make sense? How do we teach? There’s not a lot of theory with them. It’s how to order one’s life congruent with God. These (mostly) guys were strange. They are my heroes.

When You Work, Work

March 16, 2021

I recently read that phrase in a book meant to help us along the way. What a wonderful concept that we so often miss.

When we work, work.

When we study, study.

When we pray, pray.

When Luke Skywalker said he’d try to do something, Yoda replied, “Do or do not; there is no try.”

How often I go to my desk to study something or write something and I “wake up” to discover my mind is far afield!

How often do we go to work and spend our time talking with (or complaining about) people? If we settled upon a task and actually did it, how successful could we be?

How often do we sit in meditation or prayer and after a period of time awaken to discover we’ve been thinking about dinner?

We are not going to be perfect at this. But we could try a bit of magic called focus. Paying attention to what we are about. What a revolutionary idea.

The Wind Blows Where It Wishes

March 15, 2021

We read in the gospel of John, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

We moved from Ohio to northern Illinois last year. The terrain is similar–mostly flat. But Indiana seemed to suck much of the energy from the winds and storms before they reached Ohio. Up here, there is nothing until the Rocky Mountains that interferes. Yesterday and today we have winds of about 20 mph (32 kmph) with gusts up to 40 mph (64 kph).

The other day the winds were almost this strong, and it was my day to run sprints. For about a mile, I ran short sprints all out followed by a recovery walk for a bit. Running into the wind was difficult. Today, I’m looking out the window of my study and wondering if I should venture out before the snow comes in a few hours. I am unfortunately too heavy to be blown away (I’m working on that), but it’ll be a struggle.

In New Testament Greek, the same word is used for wind and spirit. You look at context for which meaning to pull out. Of course, the writers sometimes work a pun on the two meanings of the word. Thus Jesus, the master craftsman with words, ties together two thoughts–one that people obviously experience and one they may not be entirely sure about.

The spirit is like the wind in many ways.

Sometimes a gentle breeze the soothes the skin and soul.

Sometimes a force that propels you forward.

Sometimes, like in my running against the wind (sorry Bob Seger), it makes us stronger.

Sometimes it is a force that gets our attention causing awe or fear.

Mostly, like the wind, the spirit although not directly visible is real.

Ancient Promotion of Women

March 12, 2021

I guess I have sinned in the eyes of the Southern Baptist Convention. I have learned from a woman. I don’t mean my primary school teachers–I guess that’s OK. But as an adult. I have learned from Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, Therese of Lisieux, Beth Moore, and many others. Oops, I guess that some (men) within the SBC took offense that Moore had men in her audience (as I have been told). I see she has taken a public stance about the leaders of her denomination.

I never forsake an opportunity to learn something, no matter who is teaching or leading. I don’t like to tell people what to do, but I think I’d make this a command–learn from whomever.

It wasn’t this news that brought this to mind as much as it was reading Pope Benedict XVI’s description of Saint Jerome. “Moreover, an aspect rather disregarded in ancient times but held vital by our author [Jerome] is the promotion of the woman, to whom he recognizes the right to a complete formation: human, scholastic, religious, professional.”

Something else Jerome wrote that I think is appropriate at all times (but seems brought out by much news of (male) religious leaders over the past few years, “May your actions never be unworthy of your words, may it not happen that, when you preach in church, someone might say to himself: ‘Why does he therefore not act like this?’ How can a teacher, on a full stomach, discuss fasting; even a thief can blame avarice; but in the priest of Christ the mind and words must harmonize.”

1,600 years later, we’d extrapolate that “priest” part to include everyone who proclaims Christ. If only they (we) would all let our actions and words align.

This blog has surpassed 2,400 posts this week. That’s a lot of discipline. That’s a lot of opportunity for those few who know me to say–he isn’t really like that. But I hope not.

Taming Our Excesses

March 11, 2021

Pope Benedict XVI gave a series of insightful weekly teachings on the Church Fathers. This was a particularly interesting introduction to one of them.

Today we turn our attention to Saint Jerome, a Church Father who centered his life on the Bible: he translated it into Latin, commented on it in his works, and, above all, strove to live it in practice throughout his long earthly life, despite the well-known difficult, hot-tempered character with which nature had endowed him.

Pope Benedict XVI, Church Fathers: From Clement of Rome to Augustine

What better brief description of the works of spiritual disciplines can you find?

How often do we later regret some excess of out character–anger, depression (not clinical), cynicism, fear, hate–that expressed itself in hurtful ways?

Not only studying the Bible, but also striving to put it into daily, yes, even hourly, practice in our lives can tame that wild beast and at least make us easier to get along with. And maybe people would actually like us and like for us to be around!

Savor the Flavor

March 10, 2021

I really enjoy the flavor of coffee. Some coffee, that is. There is a whole value chain from growing kindly and organically to picking at optimum times to proper roasting. Taking care along the way.

I enjoy the early morning, quiet, alone, reading and meditating with a freshly brewed dark roast direct trade coffee.

Some people say they cannot get up and start moving until they have a coffee. It’s like an addiction. I wonder if it is all in attitude, since I have never experienced that. I can get up and get moving just fine without coffee. But I won’t be as happy.

Spiritual development can be related that way.

I think of how McDonalds has changed its coffee roast. Once McDonalds coffee was a fine as any coffee shop. Then they changed beans and roast and the flavor was reduced. A few months ago I stopped at a McDonalds in the morning for a coffee to sit in the parking lot, get out the laptop or journal and pen, and write for a while. They changed again. And the flavor was reduced yet again.

Was your prayer and meditation and study once robust and full of flavor? And perhaps you’ve noticed that over time the intensity, the flavor, has reduced?

Or taking care with attitude and preparation at every step of the way, you find enjoyment from the subtle flavors of your meditation, study, and prayer? It takes cultivation and care and persistence and habit.

The best part of waking up may not be “Folgers in your cup”, but it might be the practice of savoring the flavor.

Hearing Others, Not Fixing Them

March 9, 2021

I once worked with a guy for about six years. He was always in trouble with his wife. She would talk to him about a problem at work. He’d offer suggestions about how to fix the situation. She ignored the advice and would be not happy with him. “Brian,” I’d say, “she doesn’t want a solution. She’s smart. She’ll figure it out. She just wants you to listen.” He was an engineer. I don’t know if it was an engineer thing, or a man thing, or just a thing thing.

If we want to support each other’s inner lives, we must remember a simple truth: the human soul does not want to be fixed, it wants simply to be seen and heard. If we want to see and hear a person’s soul, there is another truth we must remember: the soul is like a wild animal – tough, resilient, and yet shy. When we go crashing through the woods shouting for it to come out so we can help it, the soul will stay in hiding. But if we are willing to sit quietly and wait for a while, the soul may show itself.

Parker J. Palmer

I think this sit quietly and wait and listen that Parker Palmer talks about is the real key. Some try to order others around. They’ll fix you if you just do as they order. Perhaps more like a dog or cat is “fixed”, than finding a solution. Or helping some soul in need.

Some competent engineers in Texas could fix the power grid problem, if empowered.

Competent engineering, the trained problem-solvers among us, fail to help the human soul. Somewhat perversely, that takes more inaction than action. Sitting quietly and waiting on God is perhaps the hardest spiritual formation task of all.

Jesus Turned Power On Its Head

March 8, 2021

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Mark 10:42-45

The Roman-ruled world where Jesus and his followers lived was structured on power. At every level of society, someone had power over some others. And they were expected to exercise that power, brutally if necessary.

We often overlook the Roman context of the 1st Century and its influence on the writings. It is likely, for example, that Paul never saw the end of Roman power until the end of the age. John’s vision with which the Christian Bible is ended places that vision in metaphorical language.

Jesus turned that all upside down. Leaders were not to exert power over followers. Leaders who followed him were to lead with the attitude of serving. This is a teaching that leaders who call themselves Christian often seem to forget judging by their words and actions.

Jordan Peterson has published a new book, Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life. He discusses this power relationship.

Those who are power hungry–tyrannical and cruel, even psychopathic–desire control over others, so that every selfish whim of hedonism can be immediately gratified; so that envy can destroy its target; so that resentment can find its expression. But good people are ambitious (and diligent, honest, and focused along with it) instead because they are possessed by the desire to solve genuine serious problems.

Peterson, Beyond Order

These describe a human condition. Political leaders, bosses, CEOs, parents, pastors… If you thought of someone immediately when reading this, that may be true. The most important person to consider from this point of view is the one in the mirror. How do each of us, you and me, handle ourselves when we have authority at any level? Are we following Jesus’ teaching?