“Be still”…”and know…”
In the Hebrew language, when two coordinate imperatives or imperative verbal forms appear together, as in “Be still” and “know” the emphasis goes to the second command. In other words, what the psalmist is saying could be translated to mean, “Be still in order to know.”
Ah! So, knowing follows stillness?
So, what does it mean to “be still?”
Jesus gave a hint when he said, “And, when you pray, go into your closet and shut the door.” (Matt. 5:11f).
Closet? Literally? Did he mean this literally? Maybe, he was just speaking symbolically, as in “So when you pray go inside…into your inner world…the world within…and, there, as the psalmist said, “Be still” which probably means, “Be quiet.”
Most Christians think of prayer as the words they say. But the most significant kind of praying is the uninterrupted state of oneness…unity…or connectedness you nurture and feel with God. Isn’t this what Saint Paul was suggesting when he said, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).
Is that even possible? For a Benedictine monk maybe. But, how do you and I live in an uninterrupted state of oneness in prayer with God?
The answer is this: Practice the art of going within…this is the secret to knowing God.
Here are five suggestions to make this real:
- Go daily into this inner world. Develop your own practice but here’s how I do it. I spend thirty minutes to one hour every morning entering into “stillness” or “silence.” I use headphones, quietly playing instrumental music. No singing. I don’t need more words swirling around in my head. Now, until your greatest passion is to know this Presence, you are not ready to embrace this practice. That’s not a judgment, just a fact. When you’re ready, you’ll know it. Some of you are getting there now, otherwise you would not be reading this. Of course, a few of you are reading it because you live to find something to disagree with. One day, you’ll grow up. Until then, you’ll probably find plenty in what I write.
- Visualize a mental image of entering into your inner “closet” of quietness, solitude, stillness. I’ve been making this my spiritual practice for several years. Each morning, as I take several deep breaths to release any unnecessary stress or negativity, I visualize a flight of stairs, twenty steps upward, and I slowly and methodically climb the stairs. I cannot tell you how difficult this is. To stay mentally focused, I mean. It takes vigilance and patience. But, again, if you’re serious about knowing God, you’ll have both the vigilance and the patience to stay with this practice until you master it. And, my friend, you WILL master the sacred art of knowing God.
- Use the technique I have provided of the staircase or create one of your own. It really does not matter. What does matter is that it works for you. In the beginning, I struggled many mornings just to reach the top of the stairs. There I was greeted by a closed double door, as in an elevator door. Many mornings I never made it to the top before my mind would become preoccupied with other things…things I had to do that do…places I had to go…something that happened the day before…and so forth. With practice, however, I reached the top more consistently. And, when I did, the next instruction became all the more important.
- Empty your mind of its incessant stream of thoughts. This will be your greatest challenge. Why? Because from our earliest days, we’ve been taught to speak…to think. As a grandparent, I admittedly thrill at the thought of my grandchildren learning to speak my name, Papaw. Nothing wrong with this. But, when this is your primary conditioning, as it IS for most of us, then we miss a dimension of existence that is rich with meaning. As a consequence, the biggest challenge to your spiritual life is not learning the right doctrines…not learning how to speak…not learning how to think about God. Instead, it is learning how to be still…to be silent…to turn off the mind and so enter the stillness that is God’s Presence.
- As your mind empties, the door to Presence opens. What do I see with the mind’s eye as I’m looking into Presence? I see nothing at all. And yet, I see everything, too. It is pitch black but full of Presence too. Outer space, without the stars and planets, is the nearest corollary. Space is mostly that – space. Emptiness. Nothingness. How long has it been since you’ve gazed into the heavens and, instead of seeing the stars or trying to name the constellations, just became aware that it is mostly nothing – blackness…spaciousness…Presence. When you cultivate the capacity to see nothing, you have mastered the art of knowing God. Now, there are some mornings, I cannot successfully meditate…enter this blissful state of Presence awareness. But I do not berate myself for this because, as I see it, any meditative practice is better than no practice. What I do know is this: at some point, and I do not remember when, as I have made this my daily practice, the elevator doors into Presence opened one day and have remained open ever since. So, this is the important thing to remember…
- Remind yourself daily that there is no secret…no effort, and certainly, no magic whatsoever in knowing God. The practice I just described is not so you can arrive at a place of superior spiritual development and so be rewarded with God’s continual Presence. Not at all. You are in God’s Presence already. The practice I have described is only to help release you of the many years of conditioning that have left you with the feeling that what’s important is thinking and speaking. They are, of course. But, what’s more important to your spiritual practice is not that you learn to think but that you learn to stop thinking. To just be silent…observe…be aware…and so live in and walk with the Eternal Presence.
If there is anything I’ve learned it is this: It takes no effort whatsoever to know God. As that nameless but all-encompassing Presence around, beneath, beyond and, most importantly, within you, as you learn to go within you begin to make the greatest spiritual discovery of your life. It is from that place of silence…of emptiness…of no-thing-ness that you meet with the Everything that is. You have found the secret, my friend, the secret that is no secret to knowing God.
God is one with you already. How could you possibly get nearer to You?
Why follow Jesus?
This morning, I opened the Gospel of John to the sixth chapter, desiring to read and reflect on what has become my favorite Gospel account of the life of Jesus.
I did not get very far in the text, however, before I stumbled over these words…
“A huge crowd followed him, attracted by the miracles they had seen him do among the sick” (Jn 6:1-4).
The thought occurred to me, “Why does anybody follow Jesus?”
Then, a bit more personal, “Why do I follow Jesus?”
I cannot speak for anyone else, but I can speak for myself. Maybe there’s something in these observations about why I follow Jesus that would be similar in your experience.
1. Follow Jesus: First Reason.
There was a time in my life when I followed Jesus because I did not know anything else. I was raised in the church by Baptist parents. My father was the preacher. I went to church. It never occurred to me to not go to church. Sometimes, I can remember not wanting to go but, when it came to believing in Jesus, which I was taught equated with following Jesus, it never occurred to me that I even had a choice.
I am pretty sure there are many persons who were raised just as I was raised. If you were, then this experience of mine resonates with yours.
2. Follow Jesus: Second Reason
But is this the best reason to follow Jesus. Well, I’m not so sure it’s either right or wrong. It just is. When I think it gets a little questionable is whether, as you grow and mature, your significant others adopt a slightly different approach, one that encourages you to find deeper and more significant reasons to follow Jesus.
For me, those more significant reasons took me to a very self-centered reason for following Jesus. It did not occur to me then, only later, but it was nonetheless the reason I continued to follow Jesus.
I did so because of what I had come to believe I could get from Jesus. There was a payoff, some positive benefits to following him.
One was eternal life. If I wanted to go to heaven, I had to follow Jesus which, again, meant “believe” in Jesus. So, I “believed” in Jesus. I would follow Jesus so as to go to heaven when I died.
Which was another reason to follow Jesus. So, I wouldn’t have to die. Oh, I think I knew deep down I was going to die. But the thought of dying was such a scary prospect, if I could soften the blow with the belief that Jesus was going to rescue me from that momentary sting of death by resurrecting me in the next moment, who wouldn’t follow Jesus for that payoff?
Furthermore, I remember thinking that, if I follow Jesus, I’d get a “mansion” in heaven, too. And, who didn’t want a mansion? An eternal one at that? My religious peers talked so much about how beautiful heaven was going to be…golden streets, jasper walls, marble palaces…I remember wondering why, if all that materialism in heaven was the reward we got for following Jesus, why were they often preaching against materialism on this side of eternity? If it was so bad now, what made it good then?
I finally decided it was our jealousy of those who had it all now and our illusion of having it all then that made our “follow Jesus” all the more important. “We might be last now, but we’d be first then?” A kind of twisted twist on other words of Jesus.
Another benefit, similar to the story, is that Jesus is the miracle-worker. Or, so I was taught. If you wanted to be healed of sickness…if you wanted to be comforted when troubled…if you wanted to have money when you were broke, if…well…the list was almost endless, but, whatever it was you felt was missing in your life, the key to getting what was missing, was to follow Jesus. And, of course, believe in those who reminded you of this, as in faith healers and miracle workers, all of whom did these things on behalf of the miracle worker himself.
Or, so we believed.
There are still those who believe this. And, believe in faith healers and miracle workers.
Faith healers, like Joyce Myers and Benny Hinn and others, depend on people believing this. And, believing in them. That’s what keeps them in business. If they can persuade people, for example, that they know more and have a direct “line to God,” so to speak, and, if they can persuade you to believe them and demonstrate your belief by giving them your last nickel, they will, in return, intercede on your behalf and get from God for you what you can’t seem to get from God on your own…money, a paycheck, healing…whatever it may be.
It’s a simple proposition.
It’s also a profound lie.
But, it seems to work enough times to keep a host of folks deceived into believing…if they just improve their faith…if they just follow Jesus a little better…whatever that may mean…if they will just have more faith…more belief…then one day they’ll achieve whatever that magical level of spirituality necessary to move God to act on their behalf.
Is this the best reason to follow Jesus?
What do you think?
Yet, in varying ways and to varying degrees, I suppose there is a time in all of our lives when we’d have to admit, we follow Jesus because of what we hope to get from him.
3. Follow Jesus: Reason Three
Why do you follow Jesus?
Why do I?
I think I’ve moved beyond some of the reasons that motivated me to follow Jesus when I was young. But, honestly, the motivations are, though different, somewhat similar still.
- I do not follow Jesus because I’m afraid if I don’t.
- I do not follow Jesus because I want to go to heaven and avoid hell.
- I do not follow Jesus because I need something to anesthetize me from the fear of death.
- I do not follow Jesus because I think I’ll get health or wealth or…
Well…this is where it gets a little fuzzy for me. I do want to be happy. And, happiness for me means inner peace…control over my passions and desires…life lived fully in this moment…joy or contentment…acceptance of what is…
And, yes, I’m trying only to be honest here, I find that, when I follow Jesus and, by that I mean, seek to live as he might have lived, treat myself and others and this world and every living thing in it with the kind of respect and compassion that I feel he would…when I seek to respond to life, including it’s difficulties and even to those I feel wrong me, in the way that I feel Jesus would respond, and did respond, to the difficulties of his own life, as well as how he responded to those who abused and then killed him, I find…
The very happiness and contentment that are important to me. So, I suppose I’m no so unlike those whom I sometimes act as if I’ve graduated beyond. I tend to feel, sometimes, in my own arrogance that I’m at a little higher plane of spirituality than all those self-centered folk who follow Jesus just for they want or feel is missing from their lives.
I’m not sure if I would follow Jesus if I didn’t feel I was getting something in return.
These words haunt me. Maybe in the end, we’re really all more alike than we’d like to admit. Maybe the reasons for following Jesus aren’t much more than self-centered. Somewhere, however, along the journey, is there a shift that takes place and we end up following Jesus because it really is the way to become fully human…fully yourself…fully one with all of humanity.
I hope so.
“A huge crowd followed him, attracted by the miracles
they had seen him do among the sick” (Jn 6:1-4).
I’ll be attending and presenting at the upcoming Parliament of World Religions meeting this year in Salt Lake City, October 15 – 18, 2015.
And, I thought about something Mother Teresa purportedly said some years ago:
“I love all religions, but I’m IN LOVE with my own.”
I love that. In fact, I have loved it so much, I created a pendant I wear that pronounces that very truth.
But is it even possible? Can you appreciate, even love, another religion and remain in love with your own religion?
Some would say “No.”
There was a time in my life I would have agreed. I would have felt, for example, that to even respect another religion would be to compromise my own.
Today, however, I realize that was an expression of my insecurity, not a compromise of my faith. In fact, I have discovered, the more I know, love, and am devoted to my religion, the more secure and capable I am of knowing, respecting, even loving the religion of others.
Over the years, I have made what I regard as significant spiritual progress. I am convinced, in fact, what is sorely needed today among all religions and religious people is spiritual maturity. People need the capacity, as Saint Paul put it, to “lay aside childish ways of thinking, speaking, and believing” (1 Corinthians 13:11) when it comes to their own religions.
Christians needs this, I know.
It is true, there are zealots, even violent ones, in all religions. They appear hell bent on making everyone like them and on killing those who refuse to oblige. The world cannot tolerate such people.
In much less violent ways, however, there are religious people within all religions that need to learn to respect, even love, other faith traditions or I am afraid the survival of humanity is threatened.
Here are 5 ways to love all religions while remaining in love with your own.
1. Religions: Know Your Own.
Most religious people do not.
For example, among Christians, the religious with whom I am the most familiar, there is widespread ignorance about Christian history and theology. Even among devoted followers of Jesus, there is little knowledge of the Bible, Christian history, or theology.
Frankly, it is appalling.
In fact, what I have discovered is that the more defensive people are about their faith, the greater their ignorance about it. For example, when I meet a loud and argumentative Christian, and they are as abundant as flies at a hot, summer picnic, I know I am meeting a person with little knowledge but lots of opinions. Most of them wrong, distorted, or just plain ignorant. I wish not to be unkind in these comments, but that is the plain truth.
The more you know your own religion, the greater your capacity to know and appreciate another’s religion. The less you know about yours, the more aggressive and usually offensive you are toward theirs.
2. Religions: Grow in Your Own
Many Christians know just enough about their religion to be dangerous. They’re often argumentative. And, basically, they are very insecure religious people.
Why? Well, I suspect it has something to do with their spiritual maturity. Or, more accurately, the lack of it.
“I could not speak to you as full grown Christians,” writes Saint Paul of the Corinthians. “I spoke to you as if you were baby Christians” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3).
Not much has changed, has it?
Grow in your faith. For Pete’s sake, my hunch is the outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins, could articulate the history and theology of Christianity more accurately than ninety percent of those who claim to be followers of Jesus.
Knowledge, however, no matter how accurate, isn’t enough. If you want to develop the capacity of loving all religions while remaining in love with your own religion, you must grow in your faith. Spiritual maturity must be your ambition. This takes practice. Regular practice.
More than what I was taught as a child by my religious teachers. We went to church every Sunday the way most people grow to the grocery weekly. We mistakenly thought we could stock up on enough “religion” in one day to suffice for all week. As a consequence, rather than growing, most of us got stuck at an immature developmental stage.
In short, rather than living a transformed life, we were mostly spiritual schizophrenics. We learned to behave one way on Sunday and live any other way we thought right the rest of the week.
Real spiritual growth takes discipline. Practice. Meditation. Daily introspection. Self-examination. Honesty. Integrity. In other words, a regimen of religious practice not unlike that of a Zen Buddhist.
Only those serious about growing in their own religion ever learned to love and appreciate the religion of others.
3. Religions: Give Up the Notion Your Religion is the “Right” Religion
For one thing, you don’t know that any more than you know whether there is intelligent life on another planet.
And, don’t make the mistake of saying, “Oh, I just believe it because the Bible says it and that settles it.”
That settles nothing.
All that does is erect a temporary internal wall behind which you can hide and pretend your fear of being wrong is actually your faith in what is right.
I got news for you. What you pretend is your faith is nothing more than fear dressed up in a Sunday suit and tie.
Actually you’re deceived. What’s worse, you’re so deceived you actually believe everyone else is deceived. Which is what makes your deception so self-deceptive.
But this IS the deception many, many religious people across America live in almost daily.
If you were raised a Muslim, you’d be just as tempted to tout your faith as “the one true faith,” as some Christians do theirs. And, you would be just as deceived.
Now, permit me to take this one step farther.
I believe with all my heart that Jesus was perhaps the most God-conscious, God-aware, God-infused human being who ever lived.
Can I prove this? No. Do I teach this? Yes. Do I think he’s the only one who was from God, in union with God, or the only God-conscious person to ever live?
In fact, I am pretty sure there are such persons who have lived in every religious tradition. I’m even pretty sure that you and I have the capacity to be as just as fully human and fully God as Jesus was.
Why do I say this?
Precisely because Jesus said this.
“Greater things than I have done, you will do” (John 14:12-14).
“Who are my brothers and my sisters?” (Matt 12:46).
Jesus lived most fully into his humanity. That was his secret. It was the secret many other students of their faith tradition found, too. You become most God-like, not by escaping your humanity, but by living into it as fully as possible. This is the meaning of the “incarnation of Jesus.” The miracle was not that God became man in Jesus. The miracle was that this man, Jesus, became God.
I suspect that same capacity is what all religions in their various ways actually teach.
I say this because I have sought to make it my spiritual practice, not only to know and love my own religion but, as I have become more and more a student of other religions, I find myself falling head-over-heels in love with my own.
4. Religions: Be a Student of Other Religions
I wish to know other religions. As I do, I discover many things.
One such discovery came a few years ago when, one day, it dawned on me there may be only one spiritual truth in all religions. This singular truth, however, is experienced and expressed in a variety of anthropological, social, and cultural contexts.
I love to study the life of Buddha, for example, and Buddhism itself. It is an utterly amazing philosophy of life. A life-transforming philosophy. To say it isn’t is just plain ignorance.
I love to study Judaism, particularly the Kabbalah tradition, given my propensity to be a Christian mystic. Which is why I am also a student of the Jesuits, the Benedictines, and the Franciscans in our Catholic tradition.
How do you read the Old Testament and not be amazed at just how remarkable a leader Moses was to the children of Israel? Sadly, most Christians I know do not really know the Moses of the Old Testament. They know only the perverted portrayal of him by the equally Biblically-ignorant Cecil B. DeMille in his movie, The Ten Commandments.
Further, I am lately beginning to love Muhammed. Frankly, this is one religion to which I am a “Johnny-come-lately.” Like almost every Christian reading this, I have studied little of the Koran. But I have made it one my ambitions to know more about Islam. The more I know, the better I like it. The more aware I become, too, that the Muslim faith known by most Americans is a very extreme, limited, and obviously, a distortion of the teachings of Muhammad.
Does my interest in and growing respect for other religions make me love Jesus less?
For me, it has not. In fact, what I am discovering is just the opposite. I am discovering what Mother Teresa discovered: As I love all religions, I find myself more in love with my own.
Besides, Jesus was very likely a student of other religions.
Why do I say this?
Many of his teachings were not original. For example, the oft-quoted Golden Rule most Christians mistakenly think Jesus first coined or spoke is a case in point. He was not the first to say it. Various versions of the Golden Rule appear in almost every religion, a few that predate Christianity by two to three thousand years.
Where then did Jesus get the Golden Rule?
Either God revealed it to him, as he must have done with hundreds of others in other religions. Or, Jesus picked it up himself from his study of other religions.
Maybe it was both.
Who knows? We don’t.
Does it matter? I think it does.
5. Religions: In All Things, Practice Compassion and Humility
We are living at a critical time in human history. We need religious zeal. What we don’t need are more religious zealots.
There are people running for president in our country, for example, who scare me. They actually believe we are living in the “last days,” as they call it. Their twisted theology is such that they actually imagine everything coming to an end very soon. And, some of them believe God is calling them to run for office to help usher in the end.
Maybe that doesn’t scare you but it scares the hell out of me.
I hope Americans look with care and discernment at these candidates.
Which is why I believe we must elect political leaders who demonstrate sound and sensible judgment and leadership. Extremists only ever bring about consequences that are extreme.
You’ll have to be the judge as to which political candidate demonstrates judgment, maturity, humility and compassion, not only toward those of us inside these borders, but toward all of humanity, toward people of all traditions, nations, cultures, and religions.
Now, when it comes to religion, there are only a few religious leaders today demonstrating exemplary leadership.
One is Jimmy Carter. Oh, I know he was a politician. But he is a remarkable man of faith, too? A humanitarian, too. What more can I say?
There’s the Dalai Lama.
If you have been watching the news lately regarding Pope Francis’ visit to America, you are likely thrilled as I am at the leadership role he is taking. The response of the American public to his visit is indicative of the longing in America for spiritual leadership. If you cannot see this, remove your blinders.
Is Pope Francis going far enough?
I’m sure some think he’s gone too far already.
Personally, I do not think he has gone far enough. I wish he would take on the religious establishment with greater fervor. I wish he would demonstrate greater God-consciousness and change the much-too-entrenched hierarchy that is the Catholic Church…
- A Church that still relegates women to a lesser role in its structure;
- A Church that still assumes only men are clergy-worthy and must be celibate;
- A Church that still regards homosexuality as an expression of flawed humanity.
Which just proves, for all of Pope Francis’ beauty, he is not Jesus. Of course, compared to the poor papacy of his predecessor, how could I not be pleased? I am. Pope Francis is having an incredible and positive impact on world leaders and world religions.
I am thrilled.
I am hopeful.
I am humbled and hopefully half as compassionate in my own life and, hopefully, I, too, am living as fully as I can into my own humanity.
Pope Francis is far more than I am, and perhaps far more than most of us will ever be, in terms of our walk with God, our compassion toward others, and our embracement of all religions, all religious people, including those who wish not to be associated with any particular religion or spiritual tradition.
But, for all of us, should not the goal of life be, by whatever means you may choose, to become fully human, to live compassionately, and to walk humbly with all humanity?
Isn’t that what it means to be fully human…to be fully God?
See you at the Parliament in Salt Lake City. Click here to find out more.
This article first appeared on Dr. McSwain’s own blog: SteveMcSwain.com/blog
The Golden Rule
Last night, I stayed in Philadelphia near the airport in an older Hampton Inn. I mean, an older, Hampton Inn. Not “old” as in the old, but elegant Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue, New York City. I mean old, dirty and, well, just old and dirty. As I approached the entrance, I thought to myself, “I bet it stinks in the rooms, the A/C doesn’t work, and the carpet has too much deodorizer in it to kill the smell of sweaty and dirty human feet.
I checked in at the counter and vocalized my thoughts to the desk clerk, “I hope the rooms are in a little better shape than what I’ve seen so far of this Hampton.”
He smiled and said, “We have good housekeepers.”
I thought, “Yea, right.”
When I walked up to the door to my room on the first floor, the housekeeper had just finished cleaning and was coming out as I was stepping in. She smiled and spoke with broken English.
Now, you might not know this, but, when you stay in a hotel, if you’re pleased with the service, you’re supposed to leave a tip for the housekeeper on the dresser or on the bed. I have not done this with any regularity, however. I’m trying to change that habit.
In my defense, I have always been a good tipper of servers in restaurants, even when the service is less than desireable. I have made this my practice to do so largely because my stepdaughter was a server during her college days. She struggled to get by almost all the time. She worked hard…really hard…and, often, she worked long hours serving tables and thoughtless customers and she used to tell me, “I hate it when they put me on the Sunday afternoon shift.”
When I asked why, I didn’t like the answer. “Because that’s when the church crowd shows up.”
“What’s so bad about them?”
To which she responded, “Are you kidding?They’re often the most demanding, unappreciative customers I ever have to deal with. And, worse than this, they’re the stingiest with their tips.”
Need I say more?
So, I tip servers well. But leave a tip for the housekeeper in a hotel room? Not so good at this practice. But I’m getting better.
I smiled at the housekeeper as she stepped back and I stepped through the door and into the room.
The room was, unexpectedly, very clean. Just like the clerk indicated. Even a little better. I was happily surprised.
Clearly, the housekeeper had gone to great lengths to make an old room feel, smell, and look anything but worn or dirty. No, it was not perfect. But far better than expected.
I was instantly in a better way, as they say.
I proceeded to tidy the room, according to my liking. Having slept hundreds of nights in hotel rooms, I have a little routine I go through to get the room to feel a little more like home. I move chairs around, set up the bathroom with my preferred condiments and then, I open the little plastic bag draped over the ice bucket and fetch a bucket of ice to enjoy with a beverage.
That’s when I noticed the first and only mistake made by the housekeeper. She had forgotten to leave me a plastic insert for the bucket.
I picked up the bucket and walked back to the entrance into the room. I opened the door, not knowing whether she would be down the hall cleaning another room or gone altogether to another floor.
I was happy to find her, however, standing right behind her cart but in front of the door to the room just across the hall.
She must have realized her mistake because, before I could say anything, she pointed to the bucket and said, “I’m sorry. I’ll get you a plastic bag and some ice.”
“Just the little plastic sanitary bag,” I responded. “I can get the ice myself.”
“No, no, sir,” she objected. “It would be my pleasure.”
She took the bucket and disappeared down the hall.
The Golden Rule: Just Be Compassionate toward All People
When she returned just minutes later, I am not exactly sure why but I impulsively reached into my pocket, grabbed my money clip, fingered past the $5 dollar bill, as well as the $10 dollar bill, and grabbed the $20 bill instead.
She struggled with English. But this time, she spoke no words at all. She just stared at the twenty dollar bill as if she was looking at a winning lottery ticket.
I thought, “Clearly, she’s not gotten many tips before.”
“No, no,” was her initial response. “My pleasure.”
I said, “No, no,” right back at her with a smile. “My pleasure. Thank you for a nice, clean room and for the bucket of ice.”
I closed the door.
I stood there thinking.
It happened spontaneously.
It was over in minutes.
It felt good giving her the twenty.
I could do without it.
She could probably use it.
She would a nicer lunch that day, maybe buy lunch for another housekeeper.
I’m not sure how it made her feel. But I hope half as good as it did me.
Then, I had another thought.
I wish I were always benevolent.
I wish I were always kind.
I wish I were always generous, pleasant, and as compassionate…
I wish I were more Christian, or Christ-like, in how I think, live, and treat others.
But I’m not.
Maybe a little more than I used to be.
But I have a long way to go.
Saint Paul said, “As we have opportunity, let us do good unto all people, but especially to those of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10).
Not what I’d call one of the saint’s more inspired moments, in my own opinion. I think Paul would have written something truly inspiring had he written, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to those who are insiders – inside the household of faith; but, especially, to outsiders, those who aren’t in the household of faith.”
Get my drift?
Jesus said, “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you” (Matt. 7:12).
I used to mistakenly think, as most misinformed Christians do, that these words of Jesus originated with him.
They did not.
The Golden Rule: Not Original with Jesus?
Some version of what we call the Golden Rule is found in virtually every religion of the world. The Buddha, for example, said, “As I am, so are you. As you are, so am I.”
My point, however, is this: What does being a follower of Jesus mean in today’s world?
It means believing the right things about Jesus…right?
It means being a member of the right church…right?
It means holding firm the belief the Bible is inerrant…right?
It means believing unbelievers all go to hell…right?
Rhetorical. But you get that, right?
I rather suspect…being a follower of Jesus simply means being a compassionate human being, in every situation and toward all people, regardless of who they are, what they look like, what faith they hold, whether or not they believe in anything, no matter their skin color, their sexual orientation, their insider status.
Does any of this ever really matter?
I cannot help but wonder, if being a genuinely compassionate human being toward everyone were the practice of all followers of Jesus, maybe Millennials and other people would not be leaving the Church in record numbers.
Maybe they’d actually be interested in attending such a church…one where compassion is more than a word. Where the Golden Rule is more than a plague on Sunday School walls.
I’m thinking about those times in life when the doubts of faith are many and the difficulties of life are manifold.
Thank God, on the sailing journey of life, those times are few.
Do you remember that time when Simon Peter and the other disciples were sailing on the Sea of Galilee (Matt 14)? Suddenly, unexpectedly, a storm arose quickly and it did so as if it nature was looking for vengeance on the world.
The disciples saw Jesus walking on the water. And Peter jumped ship to join him.
At first, he seemed to manage pretty well. But, before long, the wind and the waves overwhelmed him. He was afraid and began to sink.
Has it ever occurred to you what this story about?
When I was young, I was taught by well-meaning religious people that this story was all about Jesus and his ability to walk on water. He was a miracle worker, you see. Which meant, he was God incognito and, as a consequence, he was really the Commander-and-Chief even over the forces of nature.
Furthermore, I was told, this is a story about Jesus and everyone’s need to put their faith and trust in him to save them from destruction, even to rescue them from the storms of life.
That’s how most read the story.
Which is why most miss the point entirely.
When I became an adult and, hopefully, a little wise and more spiritually-discerning, I realized this is not a story about Jesus at all. It’s a story about Peter. It’s a story about you and me. Jesus plays a secondary role and, as such, he’s a role model for Peter, as well as for you and me, about the capacity…the possibility…of living life in peace…tranquility…inner calm, even when all around you there are storms…there is chaos and confusion…
Peter was learning, as the story indicates. He managed for a short time doing pretty well. But, before long, he looked around…he lost focus…the storms overwhelmed him…the winds frightened him…and, he began to sink.
That’s been the story of my spiritual journey.
So, here’s what I’ve learned.
1. You will have storms.
The winds will howl from time to time. Anybody who tells you differently…isn’t alive. Oh, they may have a heartbeat, but they’re divorced from all reality. Life is damn tough. And, for some people, most of the time.
2. Nobody will rescue you from life’s storms.
If that’s why you’re religious…why you’re sending your hard-earned money to the religious charlatan on television who’s promising, if you do, you’ll be delivered, might as well flush your money down the toilet. Stop looking for a rescuer…a Savior who’s going to deliver you. Jesus made it pretty clear, “In the world, you WILL have trouble…” (John 16:33).
3. You will, and can, learn how to navigate your storms and live more at peace than you know now. How?
Face your storms. They may not be going away any time soon. And, in fact, they may get worse before they lighten up at al.
Embrace your fears. Sometimes, you WILL be afraid. But to be afraid does not mean you’ve lost faith or have a weak faith. People who pretend they aren’t afraid are not exercising faith themselves. They’re just acting strong so you can’t see their weakness.
Forgive your weaknesses. Stop believing this nonsense you hear from radio and television preachers that people of faith are never weak or afraid. Or, that people with strong faith are never doubt or feel spiritually vulnerable. It isn’t so. Everybody sinks occasionally, except the pretenders. And, they do, too. They’ve just fooled you into thinking they don’t.
Find peace within. It may be chaotic around you, but it can and will find the “quiet” within your soul. It’s there. I promise. If you’re focused entirely on the storm, however, and not on the example of the Spiritual Master himself, you’ll sink like Simon Peter.
And, you may sink anyway, from time to time. No worries. So did Peter. But, if there’s anything the Savior does do is offer you a helping hand to get back on our feet and try again. He does not magically put an end to the storms. At least, not every time. But, he’ll show you how to tap your inner Source of strength…your inner peace.
Try making this your spiritual practice and, when the storms do come, and they will come, you will begin to stand.
And, who knows. You might even walk on water one day.
I just drove past an electronic billboard located in front of a local church. The following message flashed brightly for those passing by:
When It’s Hardest to Pray!”
I thought to myself: “Clever. Memorable. But is it true?”
This much is true. At least, true for me.
1. Sometimes, I find it very hard to pray. I’m just not in the mood for it. As if you have to be in the mood before prayer can be real. Ever thought similarly?
2. At other times, I’ve questioned whether prayer makes any difference. Yes, I have doubted the veracity of prayer.
Well, maybe the television preachers. Heck, the way they pray on television and before a live audience, with all their shouts of “Hallelujah!” and “Praise Jesus!” and, especially, when they scream, “In Jesus Name!” you’d think they had a direct line to God. That, when they pray, it’s like a trainer in a three-ring circus cracking a whip to get God up and off his “you-know-what” to answer their prayers.
I assure you, however, they’re hardly as “spiritual” as they’d like you to believe and, if you send any of them money in order to demonstrate your ‘real’ faith and get God to release blessings on you the way they want you to think He does on them, you need to see a shrink. You’ll get more from a shrink than you’ll ever get from the “spiritual” dudes you watch on the tube.
3. And then, I can think of a time when I worried that my praying wasn’t proper. You know, not according to procedure. Or that the posture I was using was not appropriate. Or that the prescription I followed was misinformed.
In other words, I worried that I wasn’t using the proper words.
Has any of this been your experience? How hard do you have to pray in order to get an answer from God?
Here’s what I’ve come to believe:
Remember what Jesus said?
“Ask, and you will be given what you ask for. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened. For everyone who asks, receives. Anyone who seeks, finds. If only you will knock, the door will open. If a child asks his father for a loaf of bread, will he be given a stone instead? If he asks for fish, will he be given a poisonous snake? Of course not! And if you hard-hearted, sinful men know how to give good gifts to your children, won’t your Father in heaven even more certainly give good gifts to those who ask him for them?” (Matt. 7:7-11)
Three ways to get an answer to your prayer:
1. Ask – No need to beg, plead, struggle, strain, try to overcome doubts. Just ask. I love the simplicity here. Why do religious people complicate things?
This is the point Jesus is making. Just ask, like a child who unhesitatingly approaches a parent and asks: “Can I have a cookie?”
2. Seek – No struggle here either. “Seek” means “look.” To be watchful. To ready oneself. Prayer does this, doesn’t it? And, it does this, to prepare you for the next step.
3. Knock – Which means, to test what you know, and know deeply, you need to do. In other words, I have come to believe you have the answer to your prayers already inside you.
Why do I say that?
I say that because Jesus promised, just before He left, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, the Presence of God, would be in each of us (John 14). This is what that chapter is about. What it’s not about is who gets into heaven and who doesn’t. Which is why, if you hear anybody using John 14 as the “proof text” for who the “insiders” are, they’re likely an outsider who hasn’t discovered it, yet.
Jesus promised God is in you.
Pretty big promise.
Which means, if God is in me and I’m praying to God, I’m praying to myself and the answer is there already.
It might not be apparent at first. Which is where the “knocking” comes in. To knock means to take action. In other words, as you ask and seek, the answer begins to emerge.
When I think back on my prayer life throughout life, I think that, very often, if not indeed, every time I have ever prayed about something and sought to know the direction I should take, I actually knew the direction all along. It was not always clear at first, however. And, my continual asking…seeking…would eventually reveal the answer.
In other words, my problem was not knowing what I needed to do but finding the courage to risk doing it when it began to become clear. Or, clearer. Sometimes, it’s a process of gradual discernment.
Which is why I love this image created by Jesus of “knocking.” It implies testing a few possible directions to follow and discovering the right path to follow.
To Pray is to Ask
Here’s a real life example of what I’m talking about.
I remember when my father suffered a massive brain attack twenty years ago this November. They called it a “stroke” in those days. And, it was a doozy. He never regained consciousness. I gave the sermon at his memorial service.
He lived for ten days. But only because, shortly after they admitted him to the ICU at Baptist Hospital East, they put him on life-support. Instead of breathing on his own, the machine kept his body alive, long after his mind was gone.
And, his mind was gone. They were never able to stop the bleeding on his brain. And, every day, whenever they took a picture of his brain, more and more of the brain cavity was full of blood.
My father’s doctors had suggested by the second or third day that he would not recover and it would be best to shut down the life support.
But we did not agree.
To Pray is to Seek
If you’ve ever been in a similar situation with a beloved family member or friend, you understand how reluctant we were to give up hope.
We prayed. We prayed. We prayed still more.
We sought for any sign of his recovery. Every twitch of his body we were certain was a sign our prayers were being answered and he would soon open his eyes and recognize us.
Although no one was able to accept it at first or admit it at the time, we knew with each passing day, however, he was not going to make it. It took us ten days to muster the courage to act on what we knew intuitively. Therefore, on the tenth day, we signed the release papers and the medical personnel turned off the machine.
He was gone.
To Pray is to Knock
Actually, he had been gone for days. But it took a lot of courage for us to step up to the door of death and actually knock.
I firmly believe that you and I always know what to do. The answers we seek in prayer are inside us all the time. That’s how God has wired us, since the Holy Spirit showed up anyway.
Prayer then, and its process, is one designed to help us move closer and closer to the doorway where we courageously knock and then proceed. This is faith in action. Faith isn’t mustering up confidence enough to shout “In Jesus’ name” the way Aladdin feverishly rubs a lamp hoping a genii god will pop up and out and grant three wishes.
Nope that’s a lot of drama for television preachers, but it has nothing…I repeat…nothing to do with authentic faith.
Faith is full of doubt but it determines to go forward, knocking as it does.
Ask. Seek. Knock.
No begging. No pleading. No struggle. Doubt, maybe. But, determination, nonetheless.
Why? “Your heavenly Father knows already” what you’re about to discover.
I read a story today shared by one of my Facebook friends whom I’ll simply refer to as Joe. It is a powerful, illustrative story shared by the Lutheran Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton about money and our weird relationship to it.
Here’s her story in her own words:
“A church in the Northeastern Ohio Synod describes itself as a ’50/50′ congregation. It gives away half of offerings received. A significant portion goes to mission support, but the congregation also supports local projects and ministries. I visited this congregation on the day it was bringing in offerings for a special appeal. One by one, somber parishioners came forward and placed their offerings in a basket before the altar.
Farther back in the congregation I noticed a girl, maybe 5 years old, sitting on her father’s lap. She squirmed and wriggled until he gave her his offering and set her loose. She came tearing down the aisle, check held high, looking for all the world as if she had won the lottery. As she returned to her seat, I pointed out the joy of giving this little girl embodied. Someone from the congregation quipped, ‘It’s not her money.’ I waited for a minute and then said, ‘No, it’s her Father’s money.'”
Nothing has changed.
It’s all a gift.
No matter how much or how little you have.
It’s all…all of it…it’s all “the Father’s money.”
Most people never learn this, however. Which explains their weird relationship to money throughout most of life.
Sometimes, I know my readers on Your Best Life Now or the Huffington Post – Steve McSwain or who follow me on Facebook – Dr Steve McSwain wonder what I do. Sometimes, a few will muster the courage to ask me, and usually they do in a private message, “What do you do?”
I respond with one word “Money!” and just leave it at that.
Most do, too.
The one subject about which most people will not talk is money, unless of course they mistakenly think you might know how to get more of it.
Which many seem to think I might just know. At least at first, they do.
If you’ve ever flown on commercial airlines as much as I have, you know how irritating it is to sit beside some stranger who believes the two of you are best friends who haven’t seen each other in years. You exchange a polite hello but it does not end there. In fact, from the first hello, he has you. From then on, and almost the duration of the flight, his mouth runs faster than a Boston Marathoner.
It’s all about who he is, too, what he’s done, what he’s doing, where he’s been, where he’s going, and on and on he goes. Nauseatingly.
Just before the flight comes to an end, however, and he’s finally slowing down on how fortunate the world should feel that God has brought him into it, he turns and asks…
“And, what is it that you do?”
“Money,” I respond.
“That’s right, money.”
By which he, and almost everyone else, assumes I mean, “I am a stockbroker or a banker or a financial advisor,” none of which would be true. Not exactly anyway. So, I take this brief interruption in his recitation of just how wonderful he is, to explain…
Money, Money, Money!
“In our society, there are those financial advisors, abundant in number I might add, who tell others how to make all they can, save all they can, and die rich. But that would not be the kind of advisor I am.”
“Oh?” he typically responds. “There is another kind?” he asks and genuinely surprised.
“Yes” I answer. “I’m the kind of financial advisor who encourages people to make all they can, then GIVE AWAY all they can, in order that they might die broke.”
That ends the conversation.
It did for Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler, too.
You most likely remember the story of the young rich guy who approaches Jesus one day and asks, “Teacher, what must I do to have eternal life?”
He asks the second of two questions that concern most religious people today.
Go into almost any church in America today, watch almost any preacher on television today, and you’ll hear two primary sermons being preached. The first is along the theme of “How to be happy, healthy and wealthy in this life…”
It comes in many packages but that’s the basic message.
The other sermon you’ll hear is “How to stake your claim on eternity…how to get ready to meet God…how to know you’re going to heaven…how to be sure you’re saved!”
It, too, comes in many shades, but it’s basically the same pattern.
What more could anybody want from religion?
Prosperity on earth now?
Security in heaven then?
The substance of most religious rhetoric today.
So, the rich dude, presuming he had made already a shit-load of money here, which he probably had, and was now concerned to secure his place in eternity, asks Jesus, “What must I do to be saved?”
They rehearsed a few things after which the rich dude responded, “But Teacher, I have done all these things. Isn’t there something else?”
To which Jesus responded, “Well, yes there is. Go…sell everything you have…give it to the poor, and then come follow me” (Mark 10:17-22).
That ended the conversation.
It ends most conversations today, too.
And, that’s because the hardest lesson to learn in life is the lesson of detachment. It’s the core issue of faith, however, precisely because what most of us want is content…something to which to hitch our soul because security is our greatest concern, whether in this life or the next.
It’s all about security. Just think about that today. Think about how much your life is driven by the want of security.
It is the explanation for why people are attracted to a preacher, or religion, who promises wealth and prosperity today and eternal security tomorrow.
But that’s the irony. The rub. The crux of the matter.
To have, you must learn turn loose. “To gain,” said Jesus, “you must lose” (Matt. 16:25).
Hardly the American way. I mean, we are so drunk on “winning.” Talk about “winning,” and you’ll have followers. Talk about losing, however, and…well…it’s a lonely world.
This is what I call the “great TRUTH reversal.” It’s just the opposite of everything you’ve been taught. Everything our western culture is built upon – independence, ruggedness, having, getting, attaining, achieving, becoming, acquiring, possessing…
Madness. It’s all madness. And, it’s the greatest single delusion of life. Because we are scared, we seek. We want. We crave. We claim. We acquire. We save. We sue. We will do almost anything, believe almost anything, lay claim to almost anything…and all to feel secure.
And, the irony?
We never do. Feel secure, that is.
Which explains why the rich have to be richer. And, the poor can think of nothing else.
I don’t know much about poverty because, like the Rich Young Rule, I have had it pretty good in this life. It’s the next I get preoccupied with…worry over.
But the rich? The really rich? Well, now, they might just be the most frightened of all. Or, insecure. Same thing. Why? Because they have more. Plain and simple. If you have more, there’s more to worry about. A bigger security blanket is needed to make them feel more secure.
And, most don’t.
Faith, however, real faith has little to do with content. And, everything to do with conduct.
It’s all about letting go, not latching onto.
The eastern religionists knew this, too. Indeed, they have known this for a long time. Which is why the Buddha talked almost incessantly about “detachment.”
Jesus came along after the Buddha and his message, though shared in a different context, was virtually the same. He told the Rich Dude, “Sell everything,”…his way of saying, “Detach…let go…be done with…and then, Come Follow Me.”
But instead, it ended the conversation.
It ends most conversations today.
I mean…come on, now…
Who wants a religion that’s all about…
Getting all you can…
Giving away all you can…
And then, dying broke?
“Hell? Are You Going There?”
“Heaven or Hell…Which?”
“Are You Saved? Only the Saved Go to Heaven!”
“Have You Heard of the 4 Spiritual Laws?”
Those were the cliches’ I often heard…heck, I even used them…when, at one time in my young adult life, I was an over zealous evangelical out to “win souls,” and lead everybody I met to Christ.
I viewed anybody and everybody who did not believe as I believed as destined to spend eternity in hell, apart from where the real Christians like me were going to spend eternity.
In heaven, of course.
Then, one day, I made the mistake of actually thinking about what I had been saying…about what I had been preaching…what what I had been told to believe…and, what I had never really examined for myself. Instead, I just accepted it and then hid behind cliches’ like, “I just believe the Bible.”
The truth is, I only said things like that because I was scared of God. I called my fear of God, “respect” because it didn’t sound respectable to say “I’m scared of God.”
Well, you can dress up a pig in any outfit you’d like, but a hog is still a hog.
But, there was another reason I hid behind things like, “The Bible says it. I just believe it.”
All the peers who I secretly envied said they believed these things I sometimes secretly questioned. But, because their good opinion of me was far too important to me to ever let on that I might have thought or believed differently, I sang the same refrain.
In other words, I lived prisoner to everyone’s opinion of me.
How’s that for authenticity?
Think about this. Be confident enough to believe that, if God gave you a mind, he expects you to use it. And, that means, question things. You have no faith until you question your faith. At best, you have nothing but a satchel full of somebody else’s beliefs.
So…here goes…a little intelligent reasoning.
Are you ready?
When you really think about it, this hell and heaven stuff I mean, much of what we believe about it makes very little sense make much sense.
Consider this about hell for example, and expressed quite well by a Catholic priest himself, Father Richard Rohr, in his wonderful little book, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life.
“If your notion of heaven is based on the exclusion of anybody else,
then it is by definition not heaven, but hell.”
He’s right, you know.
No matter how you wish to spin this – “Well, the Bible says it, so I just believe it.”
Really? What you’re actually saying is not too different from what I used to say, too. But, the truth is, there is much that the Bible says you will secretly find hard to believe, once you really start thinking about it.
And, to think critically and honestly about the Bible, or to question the beliefs of old that are recorded for us on sacred pages, well…what’s so wrong with this?
People in Bible times believed the earth was flat and the sun revolved around the earth. Nobody believes that anymore. So, when we read where it says things we know just aren’t so, as in Joshua 10 where the sun is said to have “stood still,” you don’t have “to twist your brain into a first century pretzel,” as Spong loves to put it, or react by throwing out the Bible. Nor do you have to decide that none of it is trustworthy ever again.
Just because the thinking and the believing of ancient people was limited, and sometimes even wrong, does that mean they were unfaithful to what they did know?
Of course not.
Can you and I grow up ourselves and let the Bible grow up, too? Can we stop trying to explain every discrepancy we find in scripture as if it is a tumor that must be removed? And, isn’t it the truth that the only reason we argue about the Bible and try to explain everything in it is because we secretly know it’s full of mistakes?
But of course. Otherwise, we would not be trying to explain the mistakes. Period. End of story.
I long for the day, don’t you, when religious people finally grow up? And, let the Bible be what it is, too? A collection of stories of faithful people who, across many centuries, followed their experiencing of and understanding of God…to the best of their misguided ability.
The New Testament has some strange stuff in it too, but, thankfully, most of the stuff I secretly doubted as a young minister was in the Old Testament.
For example, did God really command the Israelites to engage in mass extermination of the people they would encounter when the crossed the Jordan and entered the Promised Land?
That’s what it says in Deuteronomy 7:1-3. Go read it.
Secretly, however, in my young adult days, I didn’t believe this. I still don’t. Did they believe it? Of course, they did. Were they wrong? Of course, they were. But they were unconscious they were wrong. They thought they were right. And, in the end, if there is a judgment, I suppose God judges on the basis of what we know, not what we do not know.
Now, when I was young, I didn’t know how to explain any of this. So, again, I did what other people did, especially those mindless preachers in big churches who I also secretly envied and wanted to be like, too, so I just dismissed such questions and disbelief from my mind for fear, if I did not, God might just exterminate me.
But, the fact is this: If you are a follower of Christ, as I am, and you think about any of this with any depth whatsoever, you could not possibly…you could not humanly say that you will enjoy heaven one day, knowing that some of your own flesh and blood, not to speak of the enemies Jesus insisted on us loving, too…but, my point is, you could not possibly say you will enjoy heaven for any one minute of eternity knowing your offspring…or some of your family…or any of your friends were suffering in “the flames of hell fire?”
Now, could you? How could you?
Wouldn’t there suffering make your heaven into your own hell?
Now, don’t tell me that in heaven God will remove them from your sight or memory so your experience of heaven won’t turn into some kind of hell. Where did that nonsense come from? Certainly not the Bible because, since you take everything literally anyway, doesn’t Lazarus in heaven know the Rich Man is in hell?
Go back and read Luke 16:19-31
Of course, knowing others are in hell would make your heaven into one, too.
How could it not?
So, if it would not for you, please do not bother to answer the question in the comment section. Keep your answer to yourself.
Because your answer will likely reveal more about who you really are than even you are aware.