I’m so excited to tell you avout what we’ve been working on!
Do you consider yourself a spiritual NOMDAD? Do you have questions about your beliefs? Is so, this virtual conference is for you. Over a dozen speakers — and all of them are real people, not celebrities! I know you’re going to love this!
I’m going to speak about “Into the Mystic” and Laura is going have a conversation during her session about being in the ministry now that we are not. I’ll do a joint session with Jason Elam called “None Who Wander are Lost.”
I’ve been writing a lot the past two years. It helps me know what I think (most writers can relate to that). When I went through my decostruction, and then began to work hard on myself and dealing with the things I struggle with, it was very helpful to be able to write.
Laura took over the mic and interviewed me for a series of episodes about the different books that those writings evolved into.
The first one is about the Tea Shop, a popular chapter in Apparent Faith, about something that happened almost two years ago that is now going to be a book, really soon!
This morning, I was a little upset for a period. I woke up later than usual and poured a cup of coffee. Laura was already up which is unusual. Most mornings, I come to my chair and experience some very quiet, peaceful time alone. Today was different as I needed to take the dog out and Laura was already working. She was talking to herself and listening to a video softly on how to do something with video slides. I put on my earphones and turned up the meditation music. For a moment, I resented that everyone was interrupting my quiet time; but after a few moments, I was able to go within and find that familiar place of rest where I feel God.
During the crisis of COVID-19, millions of people have been confined to their homes and they only go out when they absolutely must for supplies such as food. This isn’t like anything we have experienced in our lifetimes. We don’t have to go to work, but we can’t go out and do things with friends or go on vacation or even go out to eat. All the restaurants are closed and only the essential function businesses are open.
People have argued a lot about various things online, but one thing has become apparent. One of the most important things we need to realize is that we have a deep need for connection. Almost immediately after being confined to our houses, people started organizing online meetings and get togethers. Connection seems to be hard-wired into our DNA. Even if we call ourselves introverts, we at least occasionally need people that we identify as our people that we can depend on for basic things like love and acceptance.
The other night on a whim, I asked several of the guys online that I have met during the past few years to join me for a video conference. I was a little frustrated with a situation and seemed to have lost my peace. These were people that frankly came into my life because I was promoting my book, but later became friends that encourage me. A couple of them have become very close to me in a short amount of time. It was pretty awkward when we first started talking, but then we realized all of us were struggling a little and as we shared our struggles, we felt connection and somewhat of a peace come over us. Several of them told me they were glad we got together and that we should do it again some time.
In our communities, we want people that will identify with us and sometimes even advocate for us. Occasionally, we hope they will encourage us when we are down and give us some well-timed advice when we are messing up. We want to feel like we are cared for. When we are tired, we hope someone will carry the ball—when we are motivated, we like to have someone that we can give ourselves to. In short, we want someone to love and someone that loves us. We hope this is not just because we are a part of their community, but because they freely choose to do so. As I said before, this community can come from a variety of sources. It doesn’t have to be just at church or just in our families or just in a club. It can come from all those places and more; but what we really want is connection, not just community.
Maybe the deepest connection we desire is connection to the Divine. No matter whether we call this God or Creator or Source or something else, this desire to understand and connect with a greater power is something that also seems to be designed into us. Most cultures and peoples from all over the world demonstrate this quest that seems to be a part of them regardless of their history—we seem to be searching to understand and connect with whoever or whatever is calling the shots. Some of us even substitute relationships with powerful or influential people thinking this connection will bring us happiness or success or whatever we are striving for.
This was the nature of my recent struggle. I was trying to connect with the more famous people to give me some credibility or validity to my existence in some way. It’s almost subconscious, but I often long to do something significant and I hope to be on the right team. It goes way back in my history and my Spiritual Director helped me visit this part of me the other day and find some resolution. I assume this quest for validation relates somehow to my desire to connect with God.
Connecting with God was complicated in the tradition I grew up in. God was always believed to be way out there somewhere. Since God randomly distributed gifts at whim, it was hard to know what He expected because He was also depicted as a retributive Father that was constantly angry. We would gather in prayer circles and “petition” him for things that most fathers would be glad to bestow on their children. We begged Him for grace and mercy even though the writings about him said He was full of these things.
I must admit, I sometimes connected with people easier at bars than I was able to connect to “God’s people” in “His house.” I was able to relate to a wide variety of people in various areas of life, but connecting with this God that supposedly loved me often seemed elusive and sometimes disheartening. This was made worse by the promises of religious people that this was my most important relationship. Even as a pastor, I felt like I consistently failed to connect with the being that supposedly love me with all His heart.
What my tradition did not understand or affirm is that God (we’ll just use that label for now) is everywhere. Even though the Bible mentions this fact more than once, most groups choose which parts of Scripture to accept and which to ignore. Most traditions pick and choose which parts they will be literal about and which ones they will skip over. When I was in Seminary, they told me that that “where you begin is where you end up.” Basically, it means that the assumptions we start with when studying anything will greatly influence how we understand it.
Another factor that is like that is the idea that God is in us and, possibly, that God is in all things. This also could be asserted just from a few passages in the New Testament of the Bible. Many world religions believe this also. God is everywhere, because He is Spirit, but he is also in us and in all things. Why would He be everywhere and exclude Himself from the creatures He loves? Along with these ideas, we would naturally assume that if His main attribute is love, He would want to be with those He loves, and He wouldn’t hide from those that He cares about. This pandemic has taught us that even humans long to be with the people they love, so why wouldn’t His Spirit be in us if that was a possibility. Why would He hide from us – that’s not a very good Father.
I now believe the Divine is everywhere and in all things and the way of connection for us is to go within. In the Cloud of Unknowing, the author states, “we can’t think our way to God.” That’s why I had so much trouble connecting to God in the past. Througout time, religious people have tried to imagine God who cannot be adequately imagined. If God is love, we have to experience the Divine through things like love and compassion and not through our thinking. When we go inside, we can experience everything that God is through sensations, feelings, emotions and listening. We don’t really experience a lover by intellectually analyzing them – we know them when we draw close. I don’t think we experience God when we think—it’s more like we experience Him when we quit thinking and just love.
When we connect with the Divine internally, we find a peace that is hard to explain. We find understanding not through knowledge but through uncertainty. We feel love because we experience it deep within us not when we intellectually can articulate it. We learn to trust something that we cannot explain. I am less able to explain God than I could 20 years ago, but I have experienced Him more deeply than I ever could have imagined. I don’t use my intellect to spiritually bypass anymore, but I dive deep into the depths of his love and I perceive Him there. I feel it—I know it—and it heals me from deep inside.
In a previous book, I talked about going into a wooded area and sitting in a clove of trees. After quieting myself and playing some Native American music, I heard and understood the words, “I am a part of this, and this is a part of me.” The words connected deeply with where I was mentally and emotionally at the time. It also resonated with my identification with my Native American roots. But the words were not vocal. I didn’t even really hear the words—I felt them. It wasn’t a matter of logic or reasoning. My mind was not speaking or even hearing the words. My body and soul were feeling it. It’s almost as if something ancient came alive inside me. But it didn’t float down or blow into me—it seemed like it has always been there. It was more of an awakening and awareness than an invasion. It wasn’t hard to welcome this thought because it seemed like it belonged.
That is what my experiences with God are like these days. Every morning and sometimes late at night, I sit in my recliner and meditate for lack of a better word. As I begin to release all the thoughts of the day, I also begin to release my expectations. I would describe it more as a sense of being than doing. Thoughts are when the mind is speaking, but true communion is when the mind is only listening with a simple intention to be and be with the Divine. It’s almost like the times when I held Laura’s hand and neither of us spoke; but as we were together, we felt as if our hearts were beating together. When I am present with the Divine, I feel many of the things I thought to be true – I feel love and grace and compassion deep within me. It’s not that I understand these things better; but I feel them somewhere deep inside me.
Being with the Divine may be less like taking a class and more like taking a break. It is certainly learning to be still and go within without any intentions or expectations. It’s not an emotional high that fades away, it is something I experience that was already a part of me. It’s less like taking a trip and more like coming home. Being with the Divine in me is loving in its truest sense. I feel the compassion, mercy and grace deeply – it changes me from within.
Being where I am means being where God already is. Being who I am is recognizing that I already possess this love and I become what I have always been—a unique imprint of the Divine.
 Butcher, Carmen Acevedo, The Cloud of Unknowing: A New Translation,
“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means for escape” Anonymous
We are currently experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic. It has required us to practice what is known as social distancing. Americans seems to resist any thing that we believe limits our freedom. Even when the limitations can save our life, we like to think we know what is best for us (even when we have very little information to base those decisions upon). I suppose most people reading this will remember the crisis and will be able to identify with one view of the other of this isolation that was required of us, either by choice or by force.
There is a part of me that believes that some people like isolation better than others. I have always identified as an introvert, but I also seem to crave approval and acceptance. I am like a hermit in a cave that occasionally has to come out and say, “What do you think of this?” I suppose many writers and artists feel that way. We enjoy the solitude, but occasionally we crave that someone would enjoy what we’ve created. It’s primarily for us, but we also have secondary desires to see it affect someone else.
The situation we are in has me thinking about the difference between solitude and isolation. Is there a difference and does it even make any difference whether I an introvert or not? Like most things, I’m not disciplined enough to do a lot of research, I would rather just tell you about what I am inclined towards. I’d rather just let people correct me later and try to remember to thank them and not take it personally.
Isolation seems to bear with it the negative image of being pushed away or running away. By its nature, it seems to indicate that we are not being allowed to do something or we are avoiding something we should or could be doing. In its simplest forms, maybe it’s not our primary choice, but something we were coerced into or led to by our poor choices. Solitude seems to be a much better option. Even though technically it is similar, the reviews and results seems to be muc h more positive.
Solitude seems to be a positive choice we make. It is moving toward rather than running away from something. It is when we step back and breathe and go inward. In solitude, we disconnect to the outside and connect to the internal. It is an attitude or mindset that seems spark our creativity and inner strength. It helps us to know ourselves better and map our lives in an authentic way. Maybe it’s an attitude—maybe it’s a mind set—maybe it’s a purposing. All I know is that I crave it these days. Even if I am being forced, I find fulfillment in solitude.
It is true that we need connection and we seemed to be hard-wired for it. But, in our modern communities, we seem to always be doing. We convince ourselves that the road to fulfillment is in always have something to accomplish. The to-do list is our manifesto and, in the process, we forget who we are. And, in response to our need for connection, our religion can become just being with people; but because we are not authentic and grounded, we never really connect, and we return to our isolation feeling defeated. My hunch is that if we would realize we need solitude and apply it effectively, we would better be able to navigate our lives with authenticity and strength, instead of recklessly accumulating friends and accomplishments for no real gain.
I remember learning about contemplative prayer and discovering that it ideally requires at least 20 minutes of silence. When we are in a crowd, a minute of silence can seem like an eternity. Dead air on a podcast or a new program can be frightening to those that are managing it. We live in societies that are chocked full of activity. Our minds are constantly occupied with tasks; and, if we are not engaged in conversation, we seem to require alternate stimulation. Our minds race furiously through the day, up until the moment we collapse in exhaustion at the end of the day.
This began to change for me when I attended a quietness retreat. The location was a peaceful retreat center in the middle of a busy metropolitan area. The whole process only took a few hours, but it was divided into five sessions of 20 minutes each. Remember, this was when I barely believed, I could sit in stillness for one 20-minute session, much less five of them. The host coached us on the process and invited us to let go of all the activity in our minds and just be still.
During the first session, my mind was still racing, and it did seem like an eternity. The second session seemed to go a little quicker, but I still wondered whether I was accomplishing anything. Somewhere during the middle session, I remembered that I didn’t need to accomplish anything and I started to just BE there. The final two sessions seemed more like falling asleep and waking up than meditating or praying. I couldn’t really explain what I received, but I knew that it was good.
Something within me realized there is a knowing within me that is hard to describe and is hard to access outside of solitude. At the same time, I was working at a job that required me to go to bed earlier at night and arise sooner in the morning. Mindfulness and solitude help fall asleep almost instantly at night, but also had a different affect on me in the morning. As I sat in my recliner in the early morning, I seldom had the inclination to set an intention; rather, I was simply being in solitude before the cares of the world could overtake me. I found that this experience of solitude in the morning helped bring me into focus and gave me more strength and wisdom for the day.
Many worry that mindfulness and solitude are an escape from reality. I find opposite to be true. For me, it is putting off the falseness of my world and going inward to find what is true and worthy. I find a knowing within that seems much more ancient. I learn of the invincible preciousness that is inside me. Although it seems vulnerable at the time, and I must face both the darkness and the light, I feel like my eyes are wide open and I am consciously compassionate and aware of all these things.
There are many labels we might attach to this thing called solitude, but the best label I can determine is BEING. It is authentically and intentionally being where I am and who I am long enough to nod “yes” to the Universe and the Divine and proceed with my life.
I hope this pandemic helps us to be more compassionate toward each other. Right now, it is hard to see whether that is happening or not. Currently people are arguing whether they should abstain from church services. Most agree that we should for the public’s safety, but there are some that fear this might infringe upon their rights to do what they please. Others, would argue that whether you’re in a building doesn’t affect your ability to commune with God and they wonder why all the fuss. Sometimes you have to be creative.
But as people miss their physical communities of religion, work and play, I’m sure many doubts have arisen. What if some of these things don’t return to normal. And, what if some of these things were not normal to begin with. I now believe we only know the answer to questions like this when we go inside. One of the most important questions initiated by the pandemic may be, “What is really important?” And, then the subsequent question may be, “What is not?”
When we are traveling along at the speed of life, it’s hard to determine what is essential and what is simply demanded by our circumstances. The tyranny of the urgent shouts down any reasoning that would slow it down from getting where it’s going (even if it doesn’t know for sure where it is headed at the time).
We have been given an opportunity. We can take this forced isolation to be intentional and experience some real solitude. Possibly, we could at least be without remorse that we are neglecting the to-do list. Because there is less urgency, we can throw off the shackles of its tyranny. We can listen and observe without any objective. And, maybe we will discover there is something we have been searching or longing for that we couldn’t put into words. Maybe we will hear and respond to understanding of what really is important and what is not. Possibly, we will isolate ourselves more often and find the strength in solitude to be where we are and who we are more often.
Recently one of my friends shared how she has practiced yoga for 99 days straight. Many people congratulated her, but I didn’t hear anyone that said, “Me too.” Why? Because exercise, getting in shape and creating healthy habits is hard. We take a long walk and our bodies seem to scream out warnings that even a little bit of exercise is way more than we are accustomed to. When I haven’t done yoga, I can feel emotions releasing from my body when I stretch and make space. It’s painful physically and even emotionally to intentionally begin a new practice when we have been negligent.
Everyone knows that, even after a few days, our bodies will begin to adjust to the new routine and become stronger so that we don’t feel as much pain even with more involved practices. Every day, we will be able to walk further or lift more or breath better. But, there’s the pain! It’s always going to be painful first.
We also find pain when we try to address emotional, spiritual and trauma-based issues in our lives. To survive, we often bury our struggles rather than deal with them. At the point of the wounding, we either didn’t know how to deal with them or we didn’t feel like we were able to endure the pain involved with confronting issues. Sometimes even good things we could have done get buried because they seem painful or they don’t fit into our current environment and we avoid doing what we know we could, because the reward seems less than the effort of pain of moving forward.
For many years, I could barely lead a silent prayer without passing out. I flunked a speech in college because I forgot the second half of it and I almost passed out right there in front of the class. I wasn’t even sure what I was afraid of, but it was extremely painful. It was sort of like climbing a mountain with no clothes on. When I was forced to speak, I would finish the endeavor exhausted and wrung out emotionally—it at least felt extremely painful to speak publicly, so I avoided it like the plague until I couldn’t anymore. Coming out of this cycle was extremely painful. My terror of public speaking was rooted deep inside me had created an atrophy that would take years to reverse.
In college, I learned about pleasure and pain. They told me that some of our primary wiring in our brain is that we avoid things we perceive to be painful and seek after things we believe to provide pleasure There is no doubt what we think will bring us pleasure and what we fear will be painful is often skewed. In my experience, it is often deeply distorted. Never-the-less, pain and pleasure are great motivators. We go to unbelievable lengths to avoid and pursue what we think will benefit. All this makes me thankful for mindfulness in my current practices, because at the least I can hopefully sort through all this confusion a little more effectively.
So, what options do we have to deal with the pain?
The most obvious option and one I’m most familiar with is quitting. I can stop exercising because it is painful hoping I’ll be more motivated later. Maybe there will be a better option or some piece of equipment that is somehow easier. I can withdraw from a relationship because it’s painful to have these discussions. Maybe there’s some secret I haven’t discovered yet. I can quit my job because surely there’s a better company out there. Granted, there are times to quit, but most times quitting only delays the pain until the next situation reminds us we didn’t deal with the root issue.
My brothers and I played a lot of organized sports as kids. My parents never made us play anything, but my dad had one simple rule: If you sign up for the team, you cannot quit. He knew that after we got through the initial pain of getting in shape that we would be able to reap all the positive benefits of being on the team. This model would be deeply tested in high school when I experienced two-a-day football practices.
This in no way means that we shouldn’t ever exit a relationship that is abusive or a situation that is producing trauma for us. There are definitely things that we should quit, but we cannot quit everything that is hard. We can’t stop going to counseling because it involves encountering things that are difficult. We can’t keep quitting everything and expect to move forward. We may need to halt a relationship, but then face the pain of restoring our well-being. There is really not any gentle slide down joy and happiness. It’s most always hard, painful work that requires persistence and patience.
The second way we often try to deal with pain is through numbing. I can hear the religious elites warming up the choir. We love to criticize alcohol and drug abuse. There is no doubt that these are issues in society, but there are many ways we anesthetize our pain instead of dealing with it including prescription drugs. People even use religion to numb the pain that they don’t want to face. Spiritual bypassing is when we use religious phrases and practices to bypass encountering things that might be painful. Activities, religion, hobbies, vacations, work, and various vices can all be things that helps us forget about the pain. They all promise to take away the pain, but they really just mask it for a while and sometimes drive it deeper within us. If we continue to numb the pain, the sure reality is that we will see it again later when it comes out sideways.
I was convinced I could bury the painful rejection I felt at various times in my life. Over the years I continued to numb that pain and try to pretend that it wasn’t there. Occasionally, it would misbehave in various ways. I would blow up for no reason or react in unusual ways to small things. After apologizing, I returned to my life and continued to use the business of my life to numb the pain of rejection. Then, one weekend, it all came rushing out in one of the most bizarre and painful weekends of my life. It almost ended my marriage and certainly derailed my career for some time. Numbing the pain never really reduces or solves the problem of pain. Emotional pain doesn’t get better on its own, so numbing agents only help temporarily and actually make the problem worse.
The only real way to deal with pain in our life is to lean into it. Just like I had to keep exercising to get in shape, getting in emotional shape often requires facing some things that are painful and stepping into them. Again, this doesn’t mean staying in abusive situations; but it may mean facing the abuser or reporting them or facing what we feel deep down about this abuse. Many of us stay in the situation and escape emotionally or just keep ourselves busy enough where we don’t think about it.
As I briefly mentioned, mindfulness has been a helpful practice for me. Some people think of practices like this as escaping because they imagine it’s an escape to some peaceful meadow somewhere. Certainly, yoga and meditation and things like this can provide relaxation and escape, but what they most promote are presence and taking on the role of an observer. Sometimes this journey is blissful, but occasionally it is deeply painful and troubling. When we are able to be with our selves and observe what is actually beneath the service, we can actually step into what gives us joy AND what deeply troubles us. When we are able observe instead of judging or shaming or avoiding, we are able to approach this necessary space with compassion.
Eventually, I would lean into the pain of past rejection. It was a week of deep work that changed my life. I would describe it as shadow work and focusing that helped me face the inner child and inner critic and all emotional things that I had stored in my body. Our bodies are amazing vehicles that tie the physical, spiritual and emotional together. The body doesn’t take kindly to things stored within that are not helpful and healthy to store there. We can ignore those things for a while, but we will see them again and they my be behaving badly when they return.
Leaning into our pain not only helps us solve our issues, it also helps us learn about them. Some things we can’t solve magically and some of them, if understood, can become strengths instead of weaknesses. That’s probably a whole other book that someone has already written, but suffice to say that we can learn by being the observer. When we lean in and bring fresh air to our pain, it begins to heal and it loses it’s control over us. Even though we become more aware, it isn’t out focus any more. It’s just a part of us that we know better.
Some pain is okay. It’s okay to be sad about some things. Feeling the weight of things sometimes can be helpful, as long as the empathy and compassion we feel extends to all people, including ourselves. Pain is an early warning sign that something is wrong. It needs our attention and that’s really the point of all this. Lean in and experience the pain, observe it. The intensity will lesson over time and then we’ll understand its purpose and design.