The Ladder to Joy (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge, Part V)

I see only one way out of the problem of suffering. Only one way not to be crushed by the reality of pain, evil and death. One ladder out of the deep hole.

I observe that people who don’t find it do one of three things; kill themselves, break with reality, or hang on in quiet desperation, as the song says – escaping into distractions which tend to become addictions.

The ladder out is the practice of gratitude. I’m not talking about humming a happy little tune; I’m talking about a deep discipline that slowly but profoundly lifts us into joy.

I have the right to speak to this; I am one of the most cynical people I know. I remember sitting on a merry-go-round at the age of three, wondering what everyone was smiling about. “What’s the point?” I thought. “We’re just going around and around.”IMG_20160109_151947918

If you are as cynical as me, the practice of gratitude sounds glib. Nothing is worse than some jackass telling you to count your blessings. I’m not just talking about seeing the glass half full. I’m talking about discovering a reality beyond suffering.

We bring presuppositions to the way we live. One is, “God is not good (or non-existent) and doesn’t care about me.” Another is, “God is good, and God loves me.” I think the first presupposition, which is now prevailing in our culture, sucks for two reasons. It gives us no way out of despair. Nor does it account for the wonders of beauty, love, redemption, joy and those transcendent experiences that shout how much we matter. The second option, on the other hand, doesn’t account for the ridiculous amount of suffering we go through.

Unless. Unless we hang on to the “God is good and God loves me” option, with the understanding that this God has unlimited vision, we have limited vision, and we can trust God to make sense of suffering in the end, plus help us as we go through it.

This is the belief system of Christians, but many of us don’t really believe it. So we need a ladder to take us from our experience in the hole of despair, up to the light of freedom that our theology promises. The way I climb the ladder is to look for what is good, here and now, in this moment. Then acknowledge it to God.

People who aren’t Christian can take the same ladder. It works for everyone. If you don’t believe in God, pretend for a while. See what happens.

Search for good like a researcher racing for the disease cure, like a detective on the crime of the century. Because the joy that comes from gratitude is our cure, it is our life’s seminal work.

So, I am sitting in an armchair alone in my house on a spring morning, looking out a window, journal in my lap. I could list off a number of tragedies unfolding in the lives of all those around me. (There are times for that too, but not now.) Now I write:

Thank you,

For the restoring power of a quiet house.

For the hypnotic peace of slowly moving clouds.

For green growth everywhere- a soft, vibrant life where there was nothing. 

I reflect on the day before.

Thank you,

For the kindness of medical staff, fitting in one more appointment for a loved one in pain.

For the brilliant writing of the script I got to rehearse.

For the joy of seeing someone with dementia, having a joking, lucid conversation with my son. 

As I write, I begin to sense a huge, benevolent power moving in all things, through clouds, through plants, through brain circuitry. I realize I am being carried in that power, always blessed, even in the middle of tragedy.

The rungs of the ladder, for me, are writing and speaking gratitude. I was taught this by Ann Voskamp in her incandescent book, “One Thousand Gifts.” The writing and the speaking rewires thinking away from despair. We begin to see goodness and love as the deeper realities – how they triumph.

The Marvelous Relief in Confessing (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge Part IV)

Right by my front door is a print of Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.” It’s my favorite painting based on one of my favorite Bible stories. A son who has been a complete screw-up, returns home to beg forgiveness and ask to be taken back as a servant, but he never has a chance to get the speech out.

The dad, who has been waiting for him, runs and embraces him. In the Rembrandt, the son is a mess – ragged, barefoot, shorn. He’s on his knees, head bowed to the father’s chest. The father leans over him, arms circling him, hands on his back. The expression on his face is infinitely tender.

Jesus told the story to get through to us that God is like that – always waiting, ready to meet us, hold us and forgive us. So, needless to say, this fourth post on how to spiritually recharge is on repentance.

The energy we waste trying to ignore and deny the wrong we think and do, is phenomenal. The elaborate games we play to focus on anything but our inner darkness are soul-destroying. There is a marvelous relief that comes from turning towards God, and saying, “I’m sorry. These are the ways I’ve messed up. These are the evil things I’ve thought. This is how I’m broken.”

The end goal is to be an open book before God all the time, to turn to God for help and redirection as soon as a crappy thought enters our head. But that takes time. What gets us there is a regular habit of self-examination and confession. Like meditation, described in the last post, it requires solitude.

Repentance begins with the “searching and fearless moral inventory” of Alcoholic’s Anonymous’ fourth step, the honesty needed before healing and change can happen. Lots of people get stuck here, because it’s hard. It’s hard to face the pain of how we have morally failed, and hurt people. It’s hard to admit that many of our thoughts are greedy, angry and cowardly, that so many of our motives are selfish. Writing it all down can help us face the music and long to change.

The only reason to go through the agony of it is Jesus’ assurance (through three different stories) that there really is a God who adores us. We really do have a shot at being utterly forgiven, of starting all over again with a power much greater than our own.

Some might be helped with a framework:

  1. The seven deadly sins is a neat summary of human depravity that’s been around for centuries: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. We can take a few minutes to screen ourselves for each one. Maybe do double time on pride; it feeds everything else.
  2. You can break your life down into categories, such as God, family, job, church, friends, and examine your behavior in all those relationships.
  3. Martin Luther used the ten commandments as his guide for confession.

However you structure it, be specific, putting your wrongs into words, spoken or written to God. When you are finished, remember the promise from first John that after you confess, you are off the hook and cleansed by God. Thank God for that. We’re not supposed to wallow in self-condemnation.

When private confession is not enough to relieve our sense of guilt and set us free from the sin, then we should confess to another person, someone mature who won’t gossip. This takes courage, but it makes God’s mercy very real to us, and the accountability really empowers change.

Breathe In, Breathe Out, Repeat (How to Spiritually Recharge Part III)

 I wish someone had taught me to meditate when I was, say, two. It’s one of the most helpful things I’ve ever done, but as a highly distractable, late starter, it took me ages to realize how key it is to spiritual sanity.

Gobs has already been written about meditation, including the differences between eastern meditation (which focuses on emptying the mind) and Christian meditation (which focuses the mind on God.)  This blog will cut to a few simple steps for getting started with Christian meditation. (You don’t have to be Christian, just willing to give God the benefit of the doubt!)

  1. Find somewhere quiet where you can be alone and uninterrupted.
  2. Relax into solitude and become aware of yourself, shutting out distractions. The blog just before this one helps with this.
  3. Get physically comfortable. For most of us this does not involve twisting our legs into the shape of a pretzel. It’s nice to have your head at rest.
  4. Start with a prayer, asking God to lead you into peace and truth and protect you from spiritual darkness.
  5. Focus on your breathing, and inhale deeply and slowly. Exhale slowly. This will help you calm down and slow your thoughts.

Next, try one of the following ways of meditating:

1 .Center on what feeling or thought is dominating right now, and come up with a simple prayer related to it. For example, if you’re obsessed with a deadline and having trouble relaxing, pray, “God of peace, help me to rest.” Or if you’re angry and can’t forgive someone, pray, “Please God, take this anger!” If you’re grieving, “Father God – comfort me.” Notice these examples are really short, and in two parts. That’s so you can sync it with your breathing. As you inhale, breathe in the truth about God that you need to focus on; as you breathe out, breathe out the request for what you need. As you exhale, try to let go of tension, try to let go of anything negative and surrender it to God. You can say the words, but it may be more helpful  just to think them.

2. Instead of coming up with your own prayer, you can pick a short Bible verse, to sync with your breathing. Psalms are a good place to look. A few of my favorites: Be still and know that I am God”,  “You are my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear,” “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Pick a verse that addresses a current need, that drills a truth you want to live into. Meditating on one important thought at a time drives it deep into your being. What you want to believe becomes what you do believe.

3. Take a chunk of the Bible and read it slowly, letting it speak to you personally.      Don’t hurry. Don’t analyze. This isn’t study. Meditating is like eating good chocolate. You take it in small bites and savor it. Try reading the passage three times. Maybe a short psalm, maybe an incident from one of the gospels. The first time, read for understanding. The second time, imagine the scene – make a movie of it in your head. The third time, you can put yourself into the scene as one of the characters.

It may not click right away, but if we keep at it, meditation becomes a powerful way of stepping out of the craziness of everyday life, to let God heal, guide and renew us.

Enjoying Silence (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge, Part II)

The first post in this series talked about finding quiet, beautiful places to escape to, for a few minutes or a few days. This post begins to explore how to make the most of the time there.

Being silent and alone can be creepy for some people. Some of us freak out without our phones on. Some of us are so used to an Ipod or some other device making noise, it’s hard to concentrate without it. I knew a kid, who had lived through a lot of trauma, who couldn’t sleep without the white noise of a fan.

Even so, we really need silence. There are important things we’ll never know about ourselves and wonderful experiences of God we’ll never have if we avoid being silent and alone.

Turning off all devices and going alone to a place we won’t be interrupted opens the door into our own souls, and makes us much more deeply aware of God’s presence. It may not be instant, but someone who makes a regular habit of solitude will be rewarded.

The first time I tried it, I took too much time. I walked to an empty art studio a few miles away and sat alone among the canvases, trying to feel some kind of connection with God. Nothing happened. By the end of the day, I felt worse than before I started. I wish I’d known a few things:

  1. Start small. If you don’t mind being alone, shoot for a few hours. If you hate being alone, a half hour is probably enough to start with. Add more time as you get comfortable.
  2. Say a prayer at the beginning of the time. Don’t expect some epic spiritual awakening, just ask God to protect your thoughts, to help you focus, to give you peace and anything else you need.
  3. Slow down. If you want to be still, get comfortable. If you want to walk, take slow steps. Pay attention to how you feel physically and emotionally. Acknowledge everything, negative and positive. You can’t take care of yourself if you don’t know how you’re doing, so this is your time to climb inside your own skin and pay attention. This self-awareness is necessary before we can really meditate, pray, reflect or study – subjects for future blogs.
  4. Then, focus on your surroundings. Make sure you’re sitting in front of something that you want to look at – flowers, a view of the sky, a picture if you’re inside. This will help you shut out the hundreds of random thoughts about the past and the future that grab for your attention. As much as you are able, stay in the moment, resting in the silence, enjoying the beauty. When negative thoughts do crash in, try to let them go and refocus on now. If you’re plagued by negative thoughts or memories, ask God to help you. Wait it out for a few minutes. For most people, this will work. But if you try solitude a few times and it’s just haunting and hard, find a pastor or a counselor to talk with before you try it again.

The vast majority of us will leave a time of solitude feeling stronger and more peaceful. Letting our minds and bodies rest from work, people and noise, focusing our senses on where we are right now and becoming conscious of how we are feeling, is healing in itself.

For further reading, try Richard Foster’s “Celebration of Discipline,” a classic.


Finding a Thin Place or Two (10 Ways to Spiritually Recharge)

There are a few habits, like, say brushing your teeth or checking texts, that you don’t think about. Life just would not work without them. I’ve come to feel that way about spending time with God. I have several habits, some involving seconds, some whole days, that draw me into awareness of God’s presence and give me spiritual strength. There’s lots of advice out there about how to stay physically well, and Americans are good at playing, which helps us recharge emotionally, but how to stay spiritually healthy is not such a hot topic. So the next ten posts will be about staying spiritually well.  But first, a few words about location:

A ‘thin’ place is a Celtic term for a location where it’s easier to connect with God, a natural place of beauty where the barrier between heaven and earth is somehow more permeable. I won’t debate whether these places exist in the objective sense, but what I know is that when I find an undisturbed place that delights me and I repeatedly use it as a base for praying and reflecting, it becomes a thin place for me. Just being there makes it easier to calm down, focus and become receptive to God’s presence.

Some of us don’t even know we need these places until we find them, and then it feels like we’ve been living on a fast train, and only by accident stepped off to still, solid ground. Then we don’t want to leave.
church garden outside 2 light outside gardenMy closest thin place is a lovely garden on a church property up the hill from my house. On a winding path of memorial stones, you pass under a bell tower,  flowerbeds and shady trees with stone benches, to a tiered fish pond. When I have less than an hour, I go there to think, pray or maybe just rest. If I have a little more time, I drive to Spring Grove Cemetery, one of the most wonderful properties I have ever seen – acres of towering trees, stunning monuments and endless flowers. The beauty of the place never fails to work its magic. Even without the effort to think or pray, you just feel better in a place like that.

When I can schedule a whole day off, I go to a retreat center an hour away, off the highway, past streams and farms and into the back country of southern Indiana. There are cabins there for people who need to get away. There are walking trails, a labyrinth and a lake with a spring that keeps bubbling up to its center. That spring is a metaphor for what happens to me whenever I go there. I experience the energy of God freshly, and realize it will always be there for me, if only I sit down and shut up long enough to drink it in.

We desperately need to find these quiet places, where our heart rates can slow and the silence helps us remember who we are.

Not everyone has access to beautiful quiet places, but even in a city there are little parks with hidden benches. There are churches open to the public. If all else fails, we may have to hide in a closet. Somehow, some way, wherever we are on the journey, we need to set aside time and place to be with God, or, if we are unsure there is a God – to seek truth.

So, this week – find a thin place or two.

Welcome to my new site!

Now that all my published writing is in one place on the web, I wonder if the rest of my life will  fall into line too. Maybe this bold organizational coup will inspire the ordering of files, the arrangement of photos, the cleaning, even, of closets. Anything could happen.

The other pages on this site lead you to my published work and the theater company I perform with. This front, blog page will include posts on:

  • New writing projects
  • Drama and educational resources for churches
  • Thoughts on following Christ, but only if they’re really useful. There is, after all, already so much blah, blah, blogging about how to live.