Saturday, December 1, 2012

How Can I Feel Connected With God When I Don't Feel Connected With God?!

In my mind the answer to this question is simple, but not necessarily easy. The simple answer is to take up your cross, as all Christians have been directed to do, and deny yourself. Simple, but not necessarily easy.

But, denying ourselves should become a normal, very normal, activity. "Self" has come to mean to me, any voice or impulsion I hear in my head or heart, that makes me think of my being as a separate self. It's this sense of life that makes us do and feel all the bad things we do and feel – fear, hatred, greed, loathing, shyness, lust… the list goes on and on.

So, to deny yourself doesn’t mean to keep yourself from doing things you love, or from having good, it just means denying the inclination to think of your being as a separate self – apart from the Whole.

The feeling of being unconnected with God is an outcome of indulging the materialistic inclination to conceive of ourselves as separate, distinct beings, existing somehow apart from the Whole, or God. So, Jesus counsel to us to "deny" ourselves, does not mean what we are often led to believe it means. It is simply to deny in our hearts this inclination that we have to believe that we are meaningless, separate things, wandering around a Loveless universe.

A big part of the problem here is believing that how we "feel" is what tells us who we are. For example, if I feel separate from God, then I am separate from God. However, my experience with feeling and prayer is that I don't have to live with a feeling that is not progressive. We get so used to thinking that our feelings are us, that we begin to find it impossible to defy them. We believe that they rule us. This is a basic problem and to reverse it we have to go to the root of it. Our passing, human feelings are not us.

Denying our "selves", though at first blush seems to be a very uncomfortable activity, and maybe very hard, in fact, yields a much more consistent sense of happiness, security, and meaning. To me it is taking the blockage off of the naturally flowing spring of good ideas, happiness, and inspiration that is flowing right out of the middle of each one of us. We can't just deny self and stop there. We have to reach out to goodness, to God, to the Whole.

Today as I was working to deny myself with regards to an interpersonal thing that has been hurting me I remembered this story:

A donkey fell to the bottom of a deep pit a man was digging for a well. When the man saw that this had happened he was very sorry and sad because he saw no way to get the donkey out. The hole was too deep and the donkey too heavy. He could think of nothing to do but fill in the hole and start over. The unfortunate donkey would die.

But, as the man began to throw shovel-full after shovel-full of dirt down the well he soon had a smile on his face. He watched as the dirt fell down the hole and landed on the donkey's back. Each time this happened, the donkey shook the dirt off his back and it feel to the ground beneath him. With each and every shovel-full of dirt that was hurled down the hole, the donkey shook it off, and little by little the hole began to fill in under him. After much labor by the man, and much patient dirt-shaking by the donkey, the hole became so shallow that the donkey climbed up and out of it.

So it is with us. The world, our feelings, our swirling thoughts of fear and spite and dislike all throw dirt down on us, and we feel as though we were at the bottom of a dark pit, and that our fate has been decided for us. But, it is not so. Each and every time we shake off the dirt, again and again – each time we throw off those feelings and instead reach out to God, goodness, unselfishness, we are transformed, and we are naturally lifted out of the hole.

As we do this, the whole assumption of self, which seems so normal to us, is little by little washed away. We are less easily hurt. We have more buoyancy. We are less easily convinced that we could be separate from God, good.

Thursday, November 29, 2012


When I look in my heart I see that one of the strongest desires I feel – maybe the strongest – is to be useful. I want to feel that I am playing a part in existence. I have found over the years that this desire can be fulfilled in lots of ways. Sometimes it is by serving someone, or working on a project with others. When I see that we are making progress on something that will help someone else, I feel useful. But, sometimes I see that desire being fulfilled when I am making art, or writing a song, or even simply walking around my neighborhood.

The one constant between all those activities is a feeling of engagement in something real. It isn't always something that has to do with others. But it is always something that is engaged with an idea that feels real. I speculate that the reason I want to feel useful, is maybe an even deeper desire to feel real. Maybe an existential desire to have the reality of my being substantiated.

On the other side of the coin, some of the worst times are times when I have not felt useful. That feeling has been so oppressive sometimes that I have thought long and hard about how to alleviate it.

One interesting thing is that, just like loneliness can't be quenched with endless socializing, the desire for usefulness can't be quenched with jobs and work. I have learned that, at least for myself, I feel the best, not when I am seeking work to do, but when I am digging deep in thought, striving to hear what my life is telling me to do at the deepest levels.

Surely there is endless work out there that we can do to be useful in the world. But it seems we have an innate desire to do the work that is right for us to be doing. We want to have a sense that our existence isn't arbitrary, and instead that our skills and inclinations are pointing somewhere.

I began to have the sense that I could avoid that feeling of uselessness, not by filling my life with activities, but rather, by thinking and feeling as deeply as I could about the usefulness of life. And then those thoughts and feelings were so real-feeling that I began to see that just doing that was useful.

These days if ever I am feeling useless or disengaged, I try to engage my thoughts in the deep things of life. I pray and engage with depth, to push out that empty feeling.

Then, very often (and always if I stick with it) those thoughts and explorations of depth open into what I think of as spiritual reality. I find myself having new ideas that I have never had before. I find myself exploring and listening to new inspirations. These always lead to further engagement in real life – both in thought, and in the world. And the work is never done!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Is Your Life A Mess?

Is your life a mess?

Has it ever been?

I hope so.

I'm talking about break-ups, mistakes, upheavals, problems, bad decisions, and all the rest of the dramas and difficulties.

Messiness makes us learn. It opens up places in us that we likely wouldn't have explored if things hadn't gotten so messy.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I observe a fear in the world that sometimes creeps into us – a fear of being messy. I want to expose and talk about this fear because it is so dangerous to health and happiness.

This fear draws our attention away from the things it should be on – learning, growing, living deeply, and puts it on appearances. The longer we indulge this fear, the less likely we are to try something new, be willing to learn, or admit a mistake. Ultimately, the fear of being messy causes us to become rigid and cease to progress.

Messes happen in our lives when we encounter the results of a bad decision or false assumption. The only way to really avoid messes is to be perfect. But, of course, humans do make mistakes and have false assumptions. They are not perfect. In fact, the only way to become more perfect, is to reveal the perfection of God within.

Messes are great for that! Often messes are so uncomfortable that they force us to be honest with ourselves in ways we never thought we could. That honesty is great for revealing God's goodness in us. Messes are the mistake revealing itself, and our opportunity to correct them. They are nothing to fear! We serve ourselves (and others!) so much better when we cease to care about appearances, and instead, are only interested in learning our mistake and fixing it.

The danger is when we are so afraid of being messy, or appearing messy, that we would rather not learn about the mistake. Then we put off honesty, we delay integrity, and we pay for it later. The sensibility that fears a mess is actually a frame of mind that subtly assumes that life is material – that what you see is what you get. This mindset feels safe in its situation, and wants to keep things how they are - at the expense of growth and humility. But, that materialistic mindset is not safe in its situation. Sooner or later, that deferred honesty, the delayed integrity erupts in the life and creates a much larger mess than it would have been had it been addressed in the first place.

The kind of honesty that saves us from this holds the bar high. It's not always easy. In fact, the only way to truly not fear these messes erupting in our lives is to feel more of God's consistency and goodness as the real constants in our lives.

Certainly messes for their own sake are useless. And once we have learned a particular lesson, there is no reason to have to learn it again. But, if my life is to be one of continued learning, then I am sure to continue to make mistakes as the things I am learning become more advanced and subtle. In short, a life well-lived will be full of mistakes! It will also be much more full of good decisions, victories, and powerful living that is based on all the insights gained through resolving problems and cleaning up messes. The outward messes become less and less scary because through our living we learn that our home, our security is not so much in our outward situation, but in our unchanging connection to God.

Is a mess-less life the Christian ideal? Absolutely not. Outwardly Jesus Christ had a messy life. He was consistently in conflict with others. He was in trouble with the law and had pretty pronounced conflicts with members of his family and community. What about other heroes? Any one worth his or her salt had messes. Probably some big ones. Jesus said "I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." I understand this to mean that Jesus calls us to follow him, and that in doing so, our messes will be revealed, and cleaned up. Not that we will just BE mess-less!

Living the ideals of Christianity (love, spirituality, forgiveness, purity, courage, etc.) cleanses our lives of the causes of messes – selfishness, dishonesty, fear. But the process of living those ideals is very often not a smooth road. And that's just fine.

Let's be honest with ourselves! The Bible tells us over and over that the effect of God is to overturn all that is wrong. Christ says "I am not come to bring peace to the earth, but a sword." We have nothing to fear from God, Love, though God's action in our lives is sometimes to overturn our wrong assumptions and mistakes. It is always for our own good, and brings healing and peace much faster than any other approach to life. We must admit our mistakes and correct them. We must humbly accept the chastening that life brings to us, and work our way through it, becoming better. This is the way that we most quickly pass through them, learn the lessons of life and love, and never return to those messes. Then, we are ever onward to new and greater labors and loves.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Each One Will Carry His Own Load

This idea of each one carrying his own load bears continues to be interesting to me. Not least because it is a thought that we don't hear very much at all.

The assumed virtue (and it's great and right) is to help others. It's what we hear about, and what we first feel is the good, admirable thing to do. It's what we are taught to do as children, and what we are admired for as adults. And we certainly could stand to do more of it.

Still, Each one will carry his own load. (Galatians 6:5) I have certainly had problems, confusions, hurts, that I have tried to solve or understand by talking with friends, or through the help of friends, but which, it became clear, they were not able to solve, or even help solve. I had to solve them alone with God.

This was a big lesson! I was learning that I had to carry my own load.

This describes a big idea. Each one of us, in being alive, has a responsibility. Our responsibility is to do well, be useful, feel good, understand and feel meaning in our lives. We begin to see that these things are our responsibility when we see how terrible we feel if we don't do these things! At the beginning it seems as though we can successfully travel this road simply with help from those around us. But after some time it becomes clear that we need something a whole lot more powerful than that. The temptations become too strong, the dangers too severe. Then, we begin to realize that each of us has work to do – spiritual work, alone with God. It is work of learning to be courageous. Learning to be less selfish. Learning to trust in goodness for the sake of goodness. Sometimes these things feel so counterintuitive, so difficult, that we are amazed at the sheer amount of work we have to do. Still, there it is before us!

At one point in my life I might have seen this statement that "each one will carry his own load" as a cold notion. I might have read it as anti-social or even anti-community. I might have wondered why the author was so severe in his statement of what virtue was.

But, these days, I feel so comforted by biblical statements like this one. They are not pronouncements of what is or isn’t virtuous. They are statements of the lay of the land. They are the news from the front. Letters home from scouts and travelers who have been to a land I haven’t been to. They are the map through the wilderness. And they are infinitely kind. Not because they say things that are sweet, but because they tell the truth.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Yes at both ends of the spectrum

Hi there friends.

I have lots of great photos to share with you of recent adventures as well as the surprising and hard-fought outcome of the mural I began in my last blog.

However, I am not in a place where I can get photos on my computer onto this internet. So, we will have to wait. Alas.

But in the meantime, there are lots of other things to think about.

For example, this, in Galatians 6:2.

"Bear one another's burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ."

This is one that has felt very natural to me over the years. Even if don't always succeed at it, at the very least it is natural to understand. Duh, it's right and good to help other folks out when they are hurting, lost, or have great need.

But then, 2 verses later we read

"But let each one examine his own work, and then he will have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another. For each one shall bear his own load."

This stopped me in my tracks recently. Each one shall bear his own load. This is not a sentiment we hear very often. Or if we do, we hear it as the voice of selfishness – someone who doesn't want to help out another. But in this context it seems to be stating a fact. A spiritual fact or law. Upon considering it, it meant to me that there is a law that each one of us has work to do that no one else is able to do.

I have come to love parts in the bible where seemingly opposite ideas must exist side by side. "Bear one another's burdens…" "Each one shall bear his own load". Because they are so close to one another it's obvious that the author wants us to notice that these very different pieces of counsel are both necessary.

It's just like when in the gospels Jesus counsels us not to judge, but later says "When you judge, judge righteous judgment".

In each case, both sides express a true, virtuous, and accurate idea. Opposites!

I knew a very talented storyteller named Brother Blue. He had been to Harvard and Yale, but made his name as a storyteller and became known as "The Father of New England Storytelling". The first time I heard him tell a story he lit my heart on fire. I bring him up because, he would often expound on the process of telling a good story, and one if his favorite things to say was "The human mind can't do it!" And then he would describe how he recognized his absolute need of ideas and inspiration that came from beyond him.

This is relevant because the human mind balks at being instructed to bear one another's burdens, but that each one will carry his own load – all in one breath. It seems to me they are coupled together like that to make the human mind get out of the way, and instead recognize our need for inspiration and guidance that are beyond our own limitations.

Is right to bear another's burden? Yes! Is it true that each one will carry his own load? Yes!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Wrestling with a new mural

I started a new mural today. It is meant to be a neighborhood scene, but where all the buildings are different places of worship. Kind of an interfaith neighborhood. The mural is for a facility that is supported by a diverse group of faith communities, so not only is it an interesting idea to communicate, it's also very heartfelt for the space.

So, I began painting at at about 10 this morning - working out the design on the wall as I normally do. I laid out the buildings and the people in a drawing of light green paint. I had a few things in mind as I played around with the images. I knew I wanted it to be loose. Not realistically rendered buildings, but rather, like I would draw in my sketchbook - fanciful, off balance. I also wanted the colors to be rich. My idea was to express the depth and beauty of faith through the richness and beauty of the color combinations in the rendering of these churches and temples. That's something I could feel. I was very excited to pour my own love of God, and church into my care for this mural.

An interesting lesson grew out of this!

I found, after making the initial drawing, that I was lost as to how to proceed. I kept trying things, adding colors, but it all seemed so very lame. I worked and worked for several hours and it all seemed to be a mockery of what I had been dreaming of making. In fact, because I was trying to express something so precious, it was especially uncomfortable to think of failing. Everything I did was coming out so dumb!

It wasn't until about 4 in the afternoon, after I had been working on it for about 6 hours straight that some things began to fall into place. At that point I began to feel a unity to the colors. Part I had gone over several times with different colors began to make sense. I started to have a vision of how to proceed. I worked for a couple more hours and left for the day.

The lesson to me was to think of all the times I feel lost or adrift in my life. There had been 6 straight hours of work today that I had been pushing forward, trying new things - all the while putting off thoughts that were telling me it wouldn't work, or that the idea wasn't good enough, or it didn't even matter and it was alright that it would be 2nd rate. Hah!

Finally, things began to come into view. Thank God! So now, it is nowhere near finished, but at least it is cracked open. I believe in it now. I know it can work.

I have till Friday afternoon to make it perfect!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Almighty Update

Hi all. I'm in Florida where it is so hot.

And actually, tomorrow I'm flying to Houston which I don't expect to be icy cool.

One of my favorite things about tours (mine anyway - I don't bet U2's tours are like this) is that dates get picked up along the way. I love to see that the journey itself is alive and that it makes itself up as I go along.

Here is a list of the places I have stayed so far:

1) A huge mansion in Germantown, Philadelphia, PA, with Zach and Corrie and a bunch of other nice people. They served a gorgeous dinner of angel hair pasta with cod right when we arrived. Got to see Zach and Corrie perform too. They are awesome.

2) With Ashley in her apartment in DC. It was in flux and had things piled up to the ceiling. Played a wee little concert in DC and then sang a falsetto solo at a church in DC the following day. Went to the glorious national botanic gardens. Behold the orchids the Lord hath made!

3)With Jodi and Greg and their sons Ian and Jareth in Oakton, VA. We watched Dr. Who and made some enormous soap bubbles. Also played one of the most fun house concerts of my whole life. You know when the audience is just like a sports car and we can turn on a dime and go right where we need to?

4) With Nina in Spanish Moss laden St. Helena Island, SC. There's too much to say about this place. palm trees, pine trees, dogs, horseshoe crabs, flip flops, history, evening's gentle breath, fresh food, lovely conversation, the internet while i look out on the ocean. Coming back here in May. :)

5) In my own guest apartment with Laurie and Mike in Merritt Island, FL. Played a dynamite show at a youth event on Saturday, and again at a church in Cocoa, FL on Sunday. I just love to perform, and afterwards, just love all the people. Whew! Thank God we all love to be together. Did a mural of 3 Bible stories in the Sunday School of the church in Cocoa (can you believe it's called "Cocoa"? There's also a river nearby called the Banana River. come on.) The Bible stories (so fun to think about how to depict them) were Daniel in the lions den (Dan. 6:22) The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:33) and Jesus walking on the water (Matt. 14:25). I will have pictures soon.

Went swimming in the glorious rough ocean after the first long day of painting. Today saw an alligator in a pond behind Walmart. Also a couple of manatees in the marina.

This weekend concerts in Houston and Austin, then back to Florida for a few more before heading north again.

Ok! Keep in touch! I love you!


Friday, March 23, 2012

The Power of Being Watched

"Nearly everybody is looking for something brave to do. I don't know why people shouldn't write poetry. That's brave." -Robert Frost.

I have loved this quote from Robert Frost for many years. I know that feeling of looking for something brave to do, something I can do that will be good, even, glorious. I always felt that the point of Frost's comment was not so much about poetry as it is about having faith that our small, inner acts of goodness actually matter. We don’t all write poetry, but we do all have the power to influence the world for the better through our smallest actions and decisions.

We are almost always surrounded by people. Folks are always watching us. No one actually knows what to do and how to do it all the time. Everyone is wondering how to live, how to live better, how to be happier. And we all are watching the people around us for clues.

The idea that people are watching can be scary if we feel we are going to be judged, our weaknesses seen and noticed. In fact, maybe that's what most people would think of first when thinking of being watched. But, I've come to feel that being seen and watched gives us great power. If we think of being seen as an opportunity to communicate with others by our actions, we can do a lot of good. It's also a great way to get over fears about being seen!

One of the things people most long for is a way to be useful. Sometimes we search and search, feeling unfulfilled in the quest for how to actually be useful. But God has given us a way to be useful constantly. It is to be aware that every day, as we live our lives we have an audience. We have an audience of interested listeners, hearts who are looking for insight into the mystery of life.

The thing to do is to find the courage to really live our best ideas. In fact, at any given moment, what you have to offer the world is the best ideas you have encountered – your loves, your enthusiasm, your passions. When we do this, we are useful. As we live our loves, putting our best efforts into solving our own problems with virtue, courage, and faith, we are a model for others. As we solve our own problems, as we fight our own battles, striving to be good, we are serving those around us by being an example. And, as we do this, it becomes clear that the good things our lives are bringing out are not from us personally, but from God.

There is no time when this kind of service is not possible. I work as a chaplain in a jail in Boston. Sometimes I speak with men who are struggling with how to be feel useful while they are incarcerated. It is especially pressing when one of them is looking at an extended sentence. A question that each heart asks is, "How can I be worth anything if I am locked up?"

I have seen that question be answered beautifully as men in this position have taken to heart the fact that even in jail, they are surrounded by others watching, learning, hoping. One of the most inspiring sights I have seen was a young man of about 21 years, who had just received a 20 year sentence – After having spent a year or so deeply studying the Bible, and giving his life over to God, he intimated to me that he knew that his purpose was to teach and live the Word of God, right there in prison. He would not allow his God-given power to contribute be taken from him.

We all have this power, today. The world is in need of models. Models of courage, persistence, patience, and the whole spectrum of virtues. In fact, what is the world more desperately in need of than these? And yet, they are right there, in our hearts, ready for us to use them. Just like everything worth doing, it's not easy – but the payoff is enormous!

One may say, "I am not courageous! I don't feel persistent! I don't have patience!" But, the thing is, everyone else has that voice working in them too. Everyone else is suffering under the influence of those same fears, and doubts. Think of how much the rest of the world needs proof that courage exists. Think of how powerful it is to see someone actually be courageous. We have the power to give that gift to someone else. Maybe even a lot of people.

We all have the work of life ahead of us. That work is to do good, to be better and better, to love others and to love God. I have found it a great help to realized that as I fight my battles honestly, and with the whole array of virtues, to the very best of my ability, I am not only helping myself, I am helping others as well. The world needs each of us to write the courageous poem of our lives, for the sake of those around us.