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Slow Time and the Pursuit of Happiness

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on May 16, 2018 by thecrossingchicago

I had a chat with a friend the other day about happiness.  She asked me about the pursuit and if it really comes to any meaning.  Perhaps it’s just futile and only leads us on a goose chase that leaves us feeling tired and bitter.  It was a great conversation and it gave me a lot of insights as I pondered it.

I once heard an author say that all of his writing comes from a question.  In other words, he doesn’t write because he thinks he’s an expert about something.  Instead, he is processing out loud as he writes.  That’s exactly what I am doing here.  I’m wondering as a wander, so to speak.

In such a conversation, it seems that we have to start with the semantics.  What is happiness?  Is it really something to be “attained”?  In my own definition, happiness is merely the emotional reaction to what we perceive another is doing to or for us.  While I’m probably just being over-analytical, I would venture that what we are really looking for is joy or contentment.  Or better yet – serenity.

If we stick with the word “happy,”  I have my doubts that it is something that can be pursued and caught up with.  It appears to be a futile chase toward something that is ethereal and can never fully be grasped.  Rather, it would be more like Thoreau’s estimation that it is something akin to a butterfly that will come and land on our shoulder if we would just stop and smell the roses.

Regardless of the right term – happiness, joy, contentment – I find myself more and more seeing it as a state of being rather than a condition to be attained.  In all of its elusiveness, we are shooting at a moving target.  It is nearly impossible to hit something that is constantly changing.  As I was considering this idea, it occurred to me: we are also moving.  If both the target and the source are in motion, then how can we expect to ever make contact!?

What I mean is this: when we aren’t centered and mindful, how do we really even know what we want?  How can we ever come to a place that we can be assured is genuine joy?  It is like hoping that two atoms from opposite sides of the world will eventually make contact.  It’s nearly impossible and only guaranteed to leave us worn out and hopeless.

So what would it look like if we did the inner work to truly know ourselves?  How would it be to slow time and actually live in the moment with complete awareness and intentionality?  Not multitasking, not running, not chasing.  Instead – breathing, sitting, being.

I’m talking to myself as much as anyone, but I would be willing to bet that, if we would stop and smell the roses, we would experience a great shift.  Not only would happiness not seem like an elusive ideal, but we would likely realize that, in that moment, we already have all that we need.  For the first time, we will experience joy and contentment.  Finally, we will have what we ask for in the old prayer: courage, wisdom, and the ultimate peace of mind: serenity.

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Thirst

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 8, 2018 by thecrossingchicago
I took a self care day today.  I knew that I needed it, but I had no idea how much.  It was nothing too crazy – I didn’t go to the spa or try to find a guru on a Tibetan mountain.  I kept it simple, but it was just what my soul was longing for.
I started the day with a coaching session with my coach.  I walked away feeling refreshed and reenergized with renewed focus and centering.  I then went up to my study and meditated.  I always love the way I feel after meditating, but lately I have been out of the habit.  Next, I did some journaling with an exercise that my coach gave me and gained some great insights into myself and what my True Self really needs.  Finally, I walked a couple miles to my gym, had a good workout, walked back, and did a little writing.
When I began the day, I committed it to being a day of self care.  I realized that, although I just came back from vacation, there was some inner work that needed to be done.  What I didn’t expect, though, was how much less burdened I would feel afterward.  I felt an existential weight lifted off of my chest and, for the first time in a while, had a clarity around what my next life steps need to be.
As I was sitting on the bench between sets of bench pressing, something occurred to me – we wait until we feel like we need self care before we do it.  It reminded me of being thirsty.  We typically wait to drink water until we are thirsty, but by then we are already dehydrated.  And so it is with inner work, spiritual disciplines, and self care.  If we wait until we feel like we need them, we are already well on our way toward burnout.
Instead, what would it look like if we committed to doing spiritual practices every day?  Meditation, journaling, walking meditation, just being outside and breathing – all of these things are a simple way to stay ahead of the wrecking ball.
When we are well rested, centered, and mindful, we are much more productive, much more objective, and much more truly ourselves.  Don’t wait until you feel like you need it.  Don’t wait until burnout is already lurking around the corner.  Live intentionally and make self care a part of your rhythm of daily living.

A Letter to My Friend

Posted in Uncategorized on April 5, 2018 by thecrossingchicago

Hey, old friend.  You are a tricky one.  It’s been a while since we had a chat, so I thought I would drop you a line.  I’ve seen you around lately, but haven’t really pulled you aside to catch up.

You’ve had me involved in some fiascos – some longer than others – but I’m finally starting to get how this game works.  Relationships that should never have been or ran their course long before they met their fortuitous end, escapades that should not have involved me, journeys toward things that were never mine to begin with – they had your name written all over them.

I noticed you lurking around the other day, or was it just this morning?  Somehow you always seemed rather foreboding, but I must say that I find it all humorous now.  You sure do cast a long, dark shadow for someone so small.

Am I good enough?  Am I attractive enough?  Do I lack in erudition?  Is my waistline a little thicker than it should be?  Perhaps I should seek someone to validate me so that I can answer all in the affirmative.  Then again, that too shall prove fleeting.  This is what you would have me do and normally I would oblige, but you must excuse me, I’ve got other plans tonight.

As much as I’ve felt that we’ve had some business together, I’ve done well at avoiding you.  To be honest, you rather frightened me.  What if we met and I became unraveled?  What if we sat down together and you scared the utter hell out of me?  How could I risk that you carried with you more than I could handle?  But now that I’ve sat with you in the dead of night, you’re not so scary.

Run from you?  Certainly not.  Separate from you?  Why, never.  You and I are one.  You are me, but I am not fully you.  We are as interconnected as the rain is to the sea.  Yes, we will always be together, but from now on I will have to take the reins from you.

Ah, come now.  I see you, so no bother hiding behind that rock.  Just come on out and let’s sit awhile my dear nemesis-become-friend.  After all, there isn’t one of us who can spend his whole life running from his ego and live to tell about it.

 

Just Be

Posted in Uncategorized on March 14, 2018 by thecrossingchicago

Sit.  Breathe.  Be.

I know it’s not easy.  It’s downright frightening.  What if in that silence you are forced to sit with your “stuff”?  What if it becomes unbearable to face the things that you have been able to keep under the surface by constantly thinking and doing?  What if you come undone?

Don’t worry.  You won’t.

Silence.  What an ironic word.  It connotes the lack of speech, but yet it tells us so much: so much about who we are, who we are becoming, who we have been, who we need to be, who we truly are.  Becoming is uncomfortable, but it’s the only way.

“It’s easier to focus on the future,” you say.  But is it?  The treacherous land of shouldas and couldas is a dreary place, but dread over the realm of what-ifs is just as bad.  It will most certainly unravel you as you ignore the present and consume yourself with all that could go wrong.

There is no past.  There is no future.  There is only the present.  Right here, right now.  The rest are mere illusions created out of our perceptions and the way we reacted (and are still reacting) to them.

The idea of going deep is as foreboding as T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland, but it really isn’t a bad place.  Yes, fear will be there to greet you in a handful of dust.  Yes, the sight of your True Self will startle you as it reflects back at you from those fathomless waters.  Don’t turn and run – go deeper, deeper, deeper.  Go so deep that you emerge from the other side fully clothed in who you really are, resurrected, reborn, truly you.

Sit.  Breathe.  Be.

An Ode to Uncertainty

Posted in Uncategorized on March 8, 2018 by thecrossingchicago

It must be nice to have all the answers.  The rest of us get to walk in the dark amidst the mystery and uncertainty while trying not to break a toe on the bedpost.  Some people have more (perceived) authority to be so sure of themselves than others.

When Constantine took control of the reigns of Christianity and the councils were banishing people as heretics left and right in the name of orthodoxy, those who had the ear of the emperor could carry an air of confidence as they wrote the theology books.  It’s no surprise that it didn’t take long for the desert fathers and mothers to escape the sureness of the prevailing theologians and seek an experience of God outside of dogmatic decree.

This cycle has repeated itself throughout religious history and on into the age of enlightenment and reason.  Fundamentalists latched onto and nailed down anything they could in the whirlwind of logical existentialism and emerged from the rubble with a literal and confident understanding of scripture and theology.  It’s worth noting at this point that theology isn’t really the study of God, but rather the study of humankind’s thoughts and perceptions about God . . . .

Today, we are finding more and more people grappling with the questions that have plagued us since the beginning of time.  Better yet, there is an increase in those who are being vocal and doing something about the questions that they carry.  Some choose to study theology more deeply to find the answers.  Some read the Bible or ask clergy.  Other, sit in silence with their heads in their hands wondering what went wrong when, like Elijah, they finally discover God “in the sound of sheer silence.”  This isn’t the “knowing” of God that they had sought, but rather an experiential “unknowing” that is ultimately more real.

In a society where we are taught to learn more and know more regarding just about everything, it is difficult to embrace mystery.  Yes, it’s irresponsible to rest upon platitudes and merely make the words, “God works in mysterious ways” an ascent to ignorance.  However, for most of us, we would serve ourselves well by practicing a little more awareness and a little less certainty.

As of late, I have come to see the truth in this line of reasoning in my own life.  Things that I thought would serve me and make my life more fulfilling have, at times, turned out to be a hindrance.  Being so sure of what I need and of what God needs of me usually will only lead to discontent.  Instead, I will sit in the darkness and not be so concerned about stumbling because I choose to be there – embracing the beauty, the experience, and my own transformation from the inside of an unknown, mysterious, and still-creating God.

The Birth of Self

Posted in Uncategorized on December 26, 2017 by thecrossingchicago

I tend to have equal parts of love and enmity for Christmas each year.  Yes, I love what the season represents, but there is also all of the work as a pastor that goes into making Christmas meet everyone’s expectations: giving the congregation a great service, making sure my kids have enough presents that they actually want, etc.  While the beauty of it all stirs me, I’m also rather cynical as people rush around for gifts and lights and tinsel.  A pastor friend of mine even reached out to me minutes ago to share how much Christmas wears her out.  I can only agree, but a recent realization gives me hope.

Advent is coming to an end and we will pass into Christmastide and on into Epiphany.  I’ve been reflecting a lot lately on the liturgical calendar and have become acutely aware that there is an internal process as well as an external one.  Externally, we consider the life of Jesus and what each phase of his life meant to the world.  Waiting for the Christ Child through Advent, his birth at Christmas, homage at Epiphany, journeying into the wilderness at Lent, dying on Good Friday, and being resurrected at Easter.

This is the typical progression that we celebrate throughout the year, but what if we were to undertake the inner work during these seasons?  Each step along the path of Jesus’s life is also a metaphorical representation of our own life journey.  Unfortunately we tend to experience these seasons from the periphery as we go through the motions, but I have become convinced that there is something miraculous that can happen if we commit to the process internally.

There is both a corporate and an individual aspect to the different liturgical seasons.  The corporate and cultural aspects (centered in our westernized Judeo-Christian cultural context) tend to get the most attention.  But what would it look like for us and for the world if we took each season with an attitude of intentionality and commitment to the inner work while celebrating the traditional meaning?  Perhaps it might look like this:

Advent – Traditionally, we await the coming of the Christ-child.  A light shines in the darkness and we wait in expectation for the birth of hope into a world that feels hopeless.

Internally we turn our gaze inward toward the light that shines at the depths of our being – the divine flame that burns within each of us.  We progress through Advent with a growing awareness of this flame and let the God-In-Us grow.  Like the desert fathers and mothers, the great mystics of past and present, we recognize the mysteries within and without and begin a commitment to embrace them.  The light shines gradually brighter and the darkness recedes with the only remaining unlit corners not as ominous traps, but as questions to be lived.

Christmas – Jesus is born into the world and despite the troubled climate of the land, the possibility of justice emerges.

Within us, the light emerges fully and for the first time, we begin to realize that change is actually possible.  There is a shift in our mindset from complacency to conviction and determination.  We refuse to give up in the face of opposition and start to claim our own lives.  The True Self that has been cloaked in darkness and fear emerges and our sense of purpose brings new meaning to being alive.

Epiphany – Three wandering Oriental mystics take notice of a shift in the cosmos and are curious.  They begin a journey across the desert to find the reason for this shift.  They pay homage to the baby Jesus and bring him gifts.

Inside, we develop an awareness that this “thing” is actually working.  It is not merely an idea, but a concrescence being born into reality.  As Catherine of Siena said, being who were were made to be actually is setting the world on fire.  People around us notice the shift in our countenance and feel the joy and peace that we are experiencing from being our True Selves.  This realization starts to take hold on those around us and a transformation begins.

Lent – Jesus leaves civilization and decides to go into the wilderness alone.  Many times he is tempted to take the easy route, but he commits to seeing his journey to completion.

In our hearts and minds, we come to the realization that, while we have allowed for the birth of our True Self within and the nurturing of the essence of our being that interconnects us all, there is a lot that needs to be let go before that True Self can fully thrive.  So, we embark on an inner journey of self reflection through which we carefully identify those attachments, relationships, habits that may (or may not) have served us in the past.  We realize that most of these things only served to feed and affirm our False Selves.

Good Friday – Jesus is led to Golgotha and crucified at Calvary.  He cries out to God “Eloi!  Eloi!  Lama Sabakhthani!?” My God! My God!  Why have you forsaken me!?  His Godhood within and without are at odds and he struggles with his destiny.

For us, we have done the work of naming those things that have to go in order for us to fully live into our True Selves.  We have identified what needs to die, but with both a sense of liberation and trepidation, have realized that we cannot merely shed those things, but must die completely to our False Self.  It isn’t easy.  There is much emotional and existential pain.  We have become so used to being who we thought the world wanted us to be that it feels nearly impossible to sacrifice that Self.  It’s who we have known and been for all of these years and as with anything, it’s easier to stick with what you know – even at the cost of losing our True Selves (recall the Exodus story).  But, we do it anyway.  We carry those burdensome and heavy traits of our False Self and through gritted teeth and stinging tears, cry out as our False Self breathes its last.

Easter – Jesus is called out of the tomb and when the stone is rolled away, he is nowhere to be found – until a gentle voice falls upon Mary’s troubled ears.

We open our eyes in complete darkness.  For a split second, we panic wishing that we had shorter memories.  But the grave clothes come off in strips more easily than we expected.  The cool smoothness of the rock walls inside the tomb are cool and soothing to the touch as we grope along the wall until we feel the huge stone that stands between us and  the sunlight.  Our fingers find their way to a small gap where a sliver of light pierces the darkness and we push with all of our might.  The stone moves slowly, at first, and then gravity helps.  The stone rolls down the hill as we smile, finding it reassuring that even the laws of nature were on our side from the beginning.  We make our way out into the day – resurrected, whole, healed.  Those who come to look for us in the tomb do not find us and as they weep for our selves and their own selves, they turn with a start as we place our hand on their shoulder saying, “It’s ok.  I’m not in there anymore.”

And so they begin their own journey to resurrection, to their true selves.  And so begins a revolution of societal transformation all because we chose to do the inner work through the liturgical seasons.

 

Christian Mindfulness

Posted in Uncategorized on August 22, 2017 by thecrossingchicago

Elijah

You wanted to descend like a storm wind

And to be mighty in deed like the tempest,

You wanted to blow being to being

And bless human souls while scourging them,

To admonish weary hearts in the hot whirlpool

And to stir the rigid to agitated light,

You sought me on your stormy paths

And did not find me.

You wanted to soar upward like a fire

And wipe out all that did not stand your test,

Sun-powerful, you wanted to scorch worlds

And to refine worlds in sacrificial flame,

With sudden force to kindle a young nothingness

T0 new becoming of blessed poem,

You sought me in your flaming abysses

And did not find me.

Then my messenger came to you

And placed your ear next to the still life of my earth,

Then you felt how seed after seed began to stir,

And all the movements of growing things encircled you,

Blood hammered against blood, and the silence overcame you,

Then you had to incline upon yourself,

Then you found me.

— Martin Buber

There seems to be a lot of disconnect when it comes to the subject of mindfulness.  Most people assume it is a Buddhist thing and so many Christians who are careful not to tiptoe the inter-religious lines shy away from it like an unclean leper.  The truth is, though, that mindfulness exists in all religions and no religion.

When one thinks of mindfulness, depending upon the person, the mind goes to certain aspects: meditation, enlightenment, awareness, presence, breathing, etc.  None of these are particular to Buddhism.  Meditation and contemplation, for example, are something that go back to the early days of Christianity when the desert fathers and mothers escaped to isolation where they could avoid politics and experience God.  Centering prayer, Lectio Divina, and even meditation are ancient practices common to Christianity.

The practice of awareness is one that Jesus spoke of extensively.  He constantly warned the disciples to be aware and the Psalms are full of hymns that sing of the awareness of the presence of God.  Being present to those whose company we keep, focusing on our breath, active listening, all of these things bring a deeper awareness of the sacred space between and around us.

I often wonder if joy is somehow our perceptible inner reaction to the awareness of the presence of God.  I believe it was Buechner who said that happiness can be attained anywhere, but true joy can only come from God.  This past week as my boys are in Japan, I spent four days with my daughter.  Cuddling, laughing, going on carnival rides, chatting, drawing together, skipping while singing songs, making up silly songs about her beating up monsters, and all of these things brought me such joy.  Feeling her head on my shoulder as I patted her back to sleep and hearing her say, “I love you, daddy” served as a bigger testament to the presence of God than any written scripture.

It matters not what religion we practice nor who we credit with “inventing” mindfulness.  What matters is the way we sit in the silence and watch the gentle rise and fall of a small child’s chest as she breathes; the way she rolls over in her sleep to touch your arm to make sure that you’re still there and in that moment your mind and soul are aware of nothing else. Just like Elijah, it is only when we pause so still and quiet as to hear the beat of our own heart and sigh from our chest in synchrony with that of the universe that we are truly aware of the essence of life.