Soulscaping

We recently used some Christmas money to re-sod our lawn and fix some drainage issues in our yard.  While my wife and I have almost finished all the work inside our house since moving in last July, the yard was a mess.  The grass was patchy and drainage was poor.  I spent several weekends last fall weeding the yard, only to find that the weeds comprised most of the green ground cover.  I tried grass seed, but with our irrigation system non-functional and a lack of rain, the seeds sprouted, but never took.  When it did rain, two or three areas in our yard would turn into small ponds.

So last week a crew showed up, tore out all the existing grass, fixed the irrigation system, and brought in a dump truck load of dirt to level out areas of erosion.  It was a flurry of activity for one morning and the crew did a great job.  There was just one problem.  The new grass won’t be delivered until sometime this next week.

As I had my coffee the next morning, I was looking out over our revamped lawn and all I saw was dirt.  In that moment, I actually started thinking the old yard wasn’t that bad.  Better than just dirt.  I had to remind myself that what I was looking at was not the finished product.  It was a necessary step to restoring the health of our lawn.

Landscaping

But this post is not about our lawn.

Being the beginning of a new year, I am working my way through my annual look back at my spiritual life, using the Fruit of the Spirit as a guide.  I couldn’t help but think that this was all a parable for the state of my soul.  I want spiritual growth in my life.  I can identify the areas that need some work.  I want to open myself up to the transforming work of God’s Spirit.

But – truth be told – I prefer God pluck a few weeds, scatter some seed, and hope for the best.  It is much less painful, but it will never create an environment where my soul flourishes.  Meanwhile, I wonder if God is ready to plow up all that is unhealthy, alter the landscape of my soul, and lay bare everything in preparation for something new.  But the laying bare part is the part that is painful, and it isn’t pretty.  It is, however, a necessary step in the formation of an environment that will promote flourishing.

So which will I choose?  The tinkering around on the weekends with some plucking and primping of the current state of my spiritual life?  Or the laying bare of all that isn’t compatable with the kingdom of God, so that new growth can take place?  Which will you choose?

Dirt isn’t pretty, but it is the foundation of healthy, new growth.

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What I’m Reading: Ruthless Trust

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.

Renew Your Mind

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.

Dallas Willard, 1935-2013

Wow, two of my biggest influences as authors have passed away in the last month.  I recently gave my thoughts on the passing of Brennan Manning, and now today, Dallas Willard has passed away after a battle with cancer at the age of 77.  Willard was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, but his books were known for their theological approach to spiritual growth.  Willard was characterized as being on a “quiet quest to subvert nominal Christianity.”

UnknownWillard’s classic work may have been The Spirit of the Disciplines, which examines the role of the disciplines in spiritual transformation.  The Divine Conspiracy is another book for which he is well-known.  I will forever associate this book with a personal retreat I took.  It was during that retreat that I wrestled with the question of how to integrated the kingdom of God with everyday living.  The Divine Conspiracy both prompted those questions and served as a guidebook through my retreat.  I just recently enjoyed flipping through it again and discussing it with my brother when he asked for a Dallas Willard book I would recommend.

51pZJhHm6pL._SL500_AA300_One of the first topics I wrote about here was on Willard’s book The Great Omission.  Willard did not hesitate to challenge the church where he saw gaps in theology.  He wanted the believer to always experience more in their relationship with God.  The other book I have read by Willard is Hearing God.

Willard’s spiritual, yet intellectual approach to faith will be missed!

Top 5 Books That Have Influenced Me

I recently happened upon a website called Goodreads, which allows you catalogue and rate books you have read, and gives you the ability to share your interests with others whom you have friended.  Predictably, this site only fueled my book addiction.  While compiling my library and rating my books, I began to wonder which books have impacted me the most – which books get a 5-star rating in terms of rocking my world?  I thought it would be an interesting list to share, so here they are in no particular order.

Walking The Bible by Bruce Feiler

  • Why It Impacted Me – I had just returned from a trip to Egypt and Israel in 2005 and this book absolutely fueled my desire to further experience these ancient places you read so much about in the scriptures.  Feiler sets out on a pilgrimage to many of the places mentioned in the five books of Moses, visiting the sites, talking with the people, and gaining an understanding of the cultural backdrop of the Hebrew Bible.  The television program of the same name is itself a spiritual journey.
  • Why You Should Read It – If you want to read familiar stories in the Bible in a new way, paying attention to oft overlooked details, this book is a great primer – written in narrative, non-academic language – in the importance of cultural context for a full understanding of scripture.

Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

  • Why It Impacted Me – I read parts of this book in seminary, but then again, I read a lot of books in school and didn’t always have time to process what I was reading.  But I remember this was a book I wanted to pick up again.  So a couple years later I read through it again.  N.T. Wright is one of my favorite theologians/thinkers and this book really showed me how much there was in scripture to understand beyond the surface reading.  Much of the New Testament was written not just from the Hebrew worldview, but also the Greek and Roman worldview as well.  Stories and references begin to take on new meaning when processed through these multiple lenses.  Wright in many ways rekindled my love for scripture.
  • Why You Should Read It – Unless you reeeeeeally love the topic, this may not be a book you want to read – it is over 700 pages and it isn’t easy reading.  Fortunately, Wright’s popularity has grown and he has written a number of more accessible books for those wanting an introduction to his work.  Try After You Believe or Surprised by Hope.

Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning

  • Why It Impacted Me – At a time in my life when I was tired from maintaining an image of having it all together, I read Abba’s Child and Manning gave me permission to get real with myself.  To use Manning’s words, we all have inside of us a struggle between the impostor and the beloved.  When we have the courage to quit living as an impostor, we are freed up to truly be embraced by God.  It was a message that had me in tears more than once and I have returned to this book many times since.
  • Why You Should Read It – Manning has a way of giving you permission to be yourself and embrace the love of God.  If that isn’t something you need, then skip this book.  But if you ever struggle to live in the freedom of authenticity, this book will help you embrace the beloved inside.

Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross

  • Why It Impacted Me – There are times on your spiritual journey when God’s presence seems more distant than near.  And then there are those times when God’s presence feels completely absent.  I have encountered the latter on my own journey and it was very disconcerting.  Reading this book both gave me words to describe that experience and hope that it doesn’t last forever.  It helped me relate to God in new ways and in many ways normalized the entire experience.  For that I am thankful!
  • Why You Should Read It – For hundreds of years, this writing has encouraged people through dark times in their lives.  I would almost recommend not reading it if you are in a good place.  Rather, keep it in mind if you ever find yourself feeling distant from God.

No Man Is An Island by Thomas Merton

  • Why It Impacted Me – I have to confess that there isn’t any one thought that jumped out at me in this book.  I just know that I read it three times before I was able to put it down.  It is so full of small profound insights into navigating this life that I had to include it.  Merton, though not necessarily in this book, speaks quite a bit about contemplative prayer and the role that contemplation can play in your daily routine, and I have benefited much from a more contemplative life.
  • Why You Should Read It – Don’t let the title fool you.  Though this book uses the language of men, there is plenty for both men and women to take from it.  It is broken up into manageable chapters that make it easy to read a handful of pages and process that reading throughout the day.  It is a very insightful book into navigating the spiritual life on a daily basis.

So there you have it.  If I were compiling a list of the best written or the most interesting books, perhaps the list would look different.  But these are the books that have influenced me the most.  So what about you?  Have you read any of these and if so, what did you think?  What books would you include on your list of books that influenced you the most?

The High Places

I have recently been reading through the historical books of the Old Testament: 1 & Kings, 1 & Chronicles.  I love history, so I enjoy pouring over the details of kings, timelines, and intersections with major historical events in the Ancient Near East – you know, all that geek stuff most don’t pay attention to!  Bad rulers are scolded for their tolerance of foreign religion to run rampant through their land, while good kings are praised for tearing down the idols left by their predecessor.

Though I have read through these sections before, there is a reoccurring phrase that keeps jumping out at me.  Over a dozen times, even after good kings are praised, scripture adds the phrase:

The high places, however, were not removed.

The high places were locations of cultic worship associated with Baal, Molech, and Asherah, among other foreign gods.   They were typically located outside of cities on hilltops or mounds, perhaps contributing to the name, high places.  Another explanation to the name comes from the idea that Baal was associated with being god of the clouds, mountaintops, and other high places.  Over time however, they could be found anywhere.

I wondered why these high places were so difficult to purge from the land, even among the best of rulers.  I wondered if their location – remote and out of the way – made it seem like they were not worth the trouble of identifying and dismantling.  After having pegged the obvious perpetrators – large temples to Baal, Asherah poles set up in prominent places in the cities and in the temple in Jerusalem – perhaps traveling about the countryside for these small, crudely fashioned shrines seemed pointless.  Or maybe after spending time ridding the country of the large idols, kings figured they had other business to attend to.  Like modern-day politicians, perhaps they figured they had sufficiently grabbed the headlines; it was time to move on to other policy issues.  Yet, these historical writers note time after time that the high places were not removed.

It occurred to me, however, that as easy as it is to question these good kings, I have high places in my own life that seem too difficult to tackle.  Truth be known there are places in the remote areas of my heart and mind that I don’t want to make the effort to tear down.  It would be difficult to tackle and besides, those places are hardly observable to others.  And dare I say that part of me doesn’t even want to take them down.  After all, I try to read the Bible, develop a regular prayer time, and engage in other practices that bring me closer to God.  I just walked through my Fruit of the Spirit year in review.  Aren’t I doing enough?

The high places, however, were not removed.

Reading this over and over, I don’t want this to be true of me.  The first step, I suppose, is to simply acknowledge that they exist and that they have more allure than I give them credit for.  More than once I have found my mind or attitude drifting – wandering the remote countrysides of my heart and mind – only for that phrase, the high places,  to come to mind.  It is enough to give me pause and question what my next choice will be.

So what are the high places in your life?  When all is written, will it be recorded that you had the courage to go beyond the obvious to sweep clean all the unseen areas of your heart?  Or will it read: The high places, however, were not removed?

Tis the Season

Each year at Christmas time, I go through my annual scrum between the festivities of the season and the longing for something deeper, more meaningful at Christmas.  I know I am not the only one that feels this annual tension of the holidays, yet sometimes it feels that way.  Some of these tensions for me include:

  • The hustle & bustle of mall shopping versus times of peaceful solitude
  • Buying presents for everyone on my list versus a longing for more simplicity in my life
  • Going to holiday parties versus a deeper engagement in the season of Advent
  • Big, slick Christmas productions versus an alternative to the over-marketed season

So, once again, I find myself anticipating all that the holiday season brings, yet wanting a retreat from all the activity. I recently pulled out a prayer book that walks through the Advent season to try to answer some of that longing for balance and perspective, and to counter some of the frenzy of the holidays.

So what about you? Are there any tensions you feel during the Christmas season? What are they?

Or is it just me? Tis the season…