Have you ever read a book that did not really grab your attention initially, only to pick it up later and have an entirely different perspective of the book?  That was my experience with Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning.  I actually read this book several years ago.  I enjoyed it, but it was not one of my favorites by Manning.  (Abba’s Child was perhaps one of the books that have had the greatest influence on me!)  But recent circumstances prompted me to read it again and it turned out to be exactly what my soul needed to hear.images

Manning calls the act of trusting in the love of God the second conversion.  Many may accept God’s gift of grace, but then live out their Christian lives never fully understanding what it means to trust God with their whole being.  One reason for this is a loss of God’s transcendence:

The loss of a sense of transcendence among today’s believers has caused incalculable harm to Christian spirituality and to the interior life of individual Christians.

Busyness, stress, fear, and image management all contribute to this loss of transcendence.

On a personal level, the last six months have brought much change, stress, and transition to my life.  From buying a house to moving to a new city to unexpected expenses to unplanned life events, I found myself just trying to keep my head above water and get through all the transition.  But I also discovered just how little I trusted God.  Trust is easy when life is going well; difficult times will reveal just how much we actually believe that God loves us, hears our prayers, and is shaping us through our circumstances for our betterment.

Hence, the prompting for me to re-read this book.

Through short, easy-to-read chapters, Manning describes the many-faceted aspects of trust.  Some of the more poignant aspects that I needed to be reminded of included:

  • “The foremost quality of a trusting disciple is gratefulness.”  Gratitude is accepting the invitation to celebrate life one day at a time.  This includes all that life throws at us, whether good or bad.  When we live in a state of stress and anxiety over our circumstances, we will certainly experience a loss of gratitude.
  • “Trust cannot be self-generated.”  We cannot determine within ourselves to trust God more with additional effort.  The paradox is that the harder I try to trust, the more I am actually relying on myself and less on God.  Trust develops when I allow myself to be loved by God completely, releasing the need to be in control of my circumstances.
  • To be fully present to whoever or whatever is immediately before us is an act of radical trust.  Worrying about the present and past, endless self-analysis, and constant planning of our future all rob us of the ability to be fully present in each moment.

These, and many more points, served as timely reminders of what I had evidently lost sight of.  Trusting God is an act of surrender – surrendering control of outcomes, future plans, agendas, and expectations.  It is a daily act that allows us to meet God in each and every circumstance, knowing that no matter what the outcome, we are loved and valued by the Creator.

Have you ever noticed how often the title of Ten Commandments is used to list the most important rules of everything from buying a car to earning money on the internet?  When I wrote Ten Essential Words, I set up a Google alert to let me know what was trending online for the phrase “Ten Commandments.”  Each week I am amazed at how often this phrase is applied to any topic imaginable.  Here are just a few examples:

  • The Ten Commandments of a Happy Marriage
  • The Ten Commandments of Dating
  • The Ten Commandments of Money
  • The Ten Commandments of Twitter
  • Google’s Ten Commandments
  • The Ten Commandments of Dog Ownership
  • The Ten Commandments of Cruise Ship Buffets (for those who consider buffets a religious experience, I suppose)

You get the idea.  One way to make your list the definitive list is to attach the moniker The Ten Commandments of [insert topic here].  Atheists have even felt the need to come up with their own ten commandments.

So what makes the idea of listing ten items such an enduring one?  After all, there were many more laws and commands in the Old Testament than just the traditional Ten Commandments.  As I write in Ten Essential Words:

Oddly enough, the Bible never explicitly gives these statements the title we have given them – the Ten Commandments. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the phrase that is used is aseret devarim, which literally means “ten words.” The root Hebrew word davar, however, has a wide range of meaning from the simple idea of a word to the more encompassing ideas of statements, speeches, and commands. So our English version of the Bible interprets “ten words” as the phrase “ten commandments.”

Yet there is something exceptional about this list.  At a time when ideas were passed down orally, it is notable that God instructed Moses to write this list down – carve them in stone.  God did not want the Israelites to forget this list.  Additionally, at a time when nobody could really walk around with stone tablets to refer to, a list of ten words or phrases could be easily memorized and recalled.

Today’s modern society does not memorize much of anything anymore.  Thanks to the internet and smart phones, all we have to do is google a topic in order to recall it.   Studies show that we moderns can recall two or three main points, far less than a list of ten.  Jesus reduced this list of ten commands down to two: love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.

Still, there is something enduring about taking a complex issue and reducing it down to ten bullet points.  Perhaps this explains why the label, The Ten Commandments of…, will continue to serve as the defining list for any and every topic, be it dating or cruise ship buffets.

Ten-Commandments-Film

Which way to the buffet?

I just finished reading a book that has been on my reading list for quite some time: City of God City of Godby St. Augustine.  It is considered a classic, but if I am honest, it was a tedious (and long) read.  It is incredible what points of theology were being debated at the turn of the fifth century AD – issues such as how much a person will weigh or what age they will be in heaven, which makes me wonder what issues might be considered frivolous in our modern debates. Yet the overarching theme of the book was intriguing: the contrasting viewpoints between the once-powerful city of Rome and the ethereal city of God. One of Augustine’s primary points was that to live life in the city of God would require an entirely different perspective from the way the world operates.

This motif coincides with another issue I have been wrestling with as of late: what does it mean to renew your mind? The Apostle Paul addressed this in a couple of his letters:

 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds.

Renew your mind. Or we might say today, “Change the way you think about things.”

We can at times be naïve about what this means by assuming that it is something that just happens to people of faith: “The Holy Spirit will renew my mind.”  That may be part of it but it isn’t the whole of it.  Or maybe it involves asking the occasional, “What would Jesus do?” question.  But I think it runs deeper than that.

When we approach the subject of the way we think or our perspective on life, we are really talking about worldviews – not necessarily the active thoughts in our brain, but the unconscious way in which we are processing everything around us.  Our worldview is the lenses through which we are interpreting our life events, not even aware of the glasses we are wearing.  In other words, if we have to ask the question, it is probably not yet a part of our worldview.

Perhaps an anecdote will help.

When my wife and I moved to Chicago several years ago, we were doing so as born and raised Southerners. I was bringing with me an entire worldview based on the culture of the southern United States. This perspective was challenged in many ways by the Midwest urban center that is the city of Chicago.

Early on there were numerous times when my perspective seemed at odds with the environment around me. Then I began asking the question, “What would a Chicagoan do in this situation” or “why is this different from the way I would think about this question,” essentially confronting my own point of view. Over the next several years, I asked those questions less often, because I found that I was just learning to think differently. I was adopting and embracing a different worldview. It was becoming simply a part of who I was. Ironically, after living in Chicago for thirteen years and moving back to Florida, I experienced some of the opposite: my newly adopted perspective was being confronted in areas I had previously never given a second thought.

I believe this is what Paul was referring to when he called on these communities of Jesus to renew their minds. He wanted them to not simply ask some questions of the pagan culture around them, but adopt an entirely different worldview to the point where they were no longer asking the questions, they were responding naturally as followers of Jesus to the world around them.

After several years as a Chicagoan, I no longer asked, “What does it mean to be a Chicagoan?” I just was one. Likewise, as citizens of the city of God, can we renew our minds to point where we no longer have to ask, “what does it mean to be a follower of Jesus?” because we already are one, from the very depths of our mind and thoughts.

Here is the second part of the Tenth Commandment from Ten Essential Words.  The Tenth Commandment reads, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

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Today coveting also goes by many names and takes many forms, though the actual word has fallen out of use in our vocabulary. Our culture gives coveting more palatable names and even promotes some of these ways of thinking as good and healthy. “Greed is good” goes a famous line from the 1987 movie Wall Street and vestiges of that notion are still alive and well today. We are told that spending is good for the economy. We are not told what kind of spending; just spend. We are encouraged to overextend ourselves, from the homes we buy to the cars we drive. Yet we never encounter the word covet. It is a word that does not market well.

We encounter the modern equivalent of coveting most notably in two common ideologies: materialism and consumerism. Materialism as a philosophy teaches that there is nothing beyond the material world and reduces everything to a tangible and material substance. The soul, the heart, and the spirit, among other intangibles, are either discounted or denied altogether. While most may not wholly embrace materialism as a philosophy, many are deeply affected by its influence and give credence to the philosophy by their lifestyle. Materialism, in its prevalent form, places the highest good on present enjoyment and tangible possessions. To quote the rich man in Jesus’ parable: “eat, drink and be merry.” We are bombarded by messages on a daily basis that promote this philosophy, and it is deeply engrained in our western culture.

Materialism also leads to the second ideology of consumerism. Consumerism is one of those terms that mean many different things to different people. In its most innocuous form, consumerism is the economic notion that consumer choices should drive the economy, as opposed to a centrally-planned economy. In some forms, consumerism even encourages the consumption of material goods and holds that the increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable. However, as a growing ideology, consumerism is the idea that what we purchase will bring us some sense of satisfaction. At its worst, it is the lie that the next purchase will make us happy or bring fulfillment. Like materialism, many may deny holding such expectations, yet have spare rooms full of stuff that held out such promises.

First, a bit of housekeeping.  Trying to maintain two blogs – this one, as well as my site for Ten Essential Words – proved overly ambitious.  So I have chosen to focus my energies on one site with more content.    I have brought over the posts from the Ten Essential Words site, and thus you will notice a lot of new content here.  Part of combining sites is completing the chapter previews.  What follows is to that end.

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The Tenth Commandment reads, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”  The following is an excerpt from Chapter 10 of Ten Essential Words.

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So this Tenth Commandment differs from the other nine in two distinct ways. First, it prohibits an inner attitude, and not an external action. If we revisit our heart-word-action pattern, it is the one commandment that focuses on a heart attitude and not a specific action. It is difficult to point to someone and shout, “Aha, I caught you coveting!”, though it may happen often enough. Yet it is precisely this heart attitude of coveting that the Hebrew Scriptures seem to indicate will lead to the eventual violation of the other commandments. By listing it tenth, they are almost acknowledging that it is the least enforceable, yet it is the one we should take away and contemplate the most. If I had just heard the Ten Commandments read, I probably would not walk away thinking, “I better not kill or steal today,” but I might leave thinking, “I wonder if there is any way I am guilty of coveting?”

Second, it is the only commandment that does not have a corresponding punishment. Each of the other commandments has a punishment associated with its violation. We have discussed the principle of reciprocity, but without an outward action associated with coveting and the difficulty in identifying when coveting occurred, there is nothing to reciprocate. Again, the Law seemed to assume that the punishment would be incurred if coveting led to breaking one of the other commandments.

Because of these reasons, it is also the one commandment that has no real equivalent with other Ancient Near East law codes. It is the one commandment that explicitly points to God’s desire that these laws not simply be obeyed, but that their intent should transform the human heart. It would separate those in Israel who truly understood this intent from those who merely sought to conform to a legal code.

I have readily admitted over the years that prayer is a practice that I can struggle with at times.  In a previous post, I mentioned that the single word Amen can be a prayer all by itself.  Several years ago, I memorized the Lord’s Prayer so that I always had a framework for a more in-depth conversation with God.  I also employ a prayer book that has guided prayers for each day.  All these have served to bolster a prayer life that is sometimes wanting.

This past weekend, as I was downloading an app on my phone that had to do with prayer, it occurred to me how many prayer resources are becoming available directly to one’s phone, tablet, or computer.  I thought I would share some that have helped me in the past and still serve me in this area.

  • Pray As You Go podcast – This was one of my favorites for several years.  The Jesuits put together an audio daily guided prayer with scripture and music, which is usually about 10 to 12 minutes in length.  Subscribe to the podcast and you will get the MP3 delivered to your phone or device each day.  Search iTunes for Pray As You Go.
  • The Divine Hours eBook – I have the good old fashioned paper version, but I have noticed that these are now available in digital format that can be downloaded to any e-reader.  These are guided prayers for every day of the year, with a prayer for each office of the day: morning, midday, evening, and night.  I have prayed through these prayers many times over.  Search most online bookstores for The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle.
  • The Daily Office app – I saw this app recommended recently.  I downloaded the app, but the prayer readings can be quite lengthy.  The app will make available two guided prayers each day.  Select the morning or evening prayer and a reading will appear to guide you through the prayer.  Search iTunes for Mission St. Clare.
  • Centering Prayer app –  Contemplative Outreach has just released a simple app to enhance meditative prayer times.  All it does is allow you to select how long you want your contemplative time to be and select the sound that will begin and end your time.  Very simply, but I am already a fan of it!  Search the app store for Centering Prayer.

What about you?  Are there digital resources or apps out in cyberworld that have helped you with the spiritual practice of prayer?Prayer Hands

Just after Thanksgiving last year, we lost our dog of 13 years to a heart tumor.  It was a painful couple of weeks, but a small sacrifice for the many years of service he provided us.  At that time, I intended to write about lessons I had learned from my dog, but with the holiday distraction, that intent never materialized.  Then a couple of weeks ago, my wife and I welcomed a 1-year-old German Shepherd into our home.  He was basically well-trained and house broken, but had a couple unaddressed issues that we needed to quickly get under control– he is no small lap dog and still a puppy!

Dog training has fascinated me over the last several years.  I enjoy watching Cesar Millan’s show, The Dog Whisperer, and have read his book as well.  If you have ever seen his show, you may be aware that one of his mantras is that it is as important to train the human as it is the dog.  Dogs derive a great deal of their energy and disposition from their humans.  In that sense, a dog can act as a barometer of the emotional mindset of the people in their life.  It is both a fascinating and sometimes scary insight.

RoccoSo last weekend we enlisted the services of a dog trainer for a couple hours work, primarily to address walking (not pulling!) and handling the volatile energy level of an adolescent dog.  I was quickly reminded that some of the issues with the dog’s state of mind could be addressed if I would only change my state of mind.  I was impressed as I watched the trainer whip the dog into a playful frenzy and then within 30 seconds, have the dog lying calmly on the floor.  I became aware that in my attempt to be forceful, I was also projecting excitable energy, sending the dog mixed messages.  And in trying to keep the dog from pulling, I was essentially getting into a tug-of-war contest I was not going to win.

With a few adjustments in how I communicate with the dog, but also with my own state of mind and energy level, this past week has been a reversal of the first couple of weeks.  The dog walks right beside me, calm for the better part of the walk.  Not only does the dog respond better to a few verbal commands, but I have much more confidence in my ability to bring his energy level down when it gets quickly elevated.  And I am now freer to play with the dog at home without fear that I have just unleashed a whirlwind of chaos.

Yet returning to Cesar Millan’s philosophy, all this is not as much about our new dog as it is gaining insight into my own state of mind.  Keeping a dog calm at home requires me to remain calm.  Over the last week, I have been aware of how many times I face the choice of whether to let some little incident send me fuming or whether to calmly address the issue and move on.  Calmly, yet assertively, communicating my wishes works much better than raising my voice and yelling the command.  (By the way, this works on humans as well.)  There is a living, breathing (and panting and slobbering) barometer in the room that is giving me constant feedback.

While we two-legged creatures may not be quite as dialed in to the energy levels of each other as dogs are, it does make me wonder if I can apply this understanding to my human interactions.  What energy level am I bringing into my conversations?  What emotions do I think I am hiding, but actually projecting through my non-verbal cues?  Am I fully present in these interactions?  Having just finished my annual reflective exercise of the Fruit of the Spirit, it is much easier to “vibe” love, joy, peace, and patience when my mindset is already in that state.  Perhaps we give ourselves far too much credit for being able to contrive these virtues when our spirit is flustered and fuming.

The training continues.

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