Your Best Life Now

Your Best Life Now

And, What Is It You Do? Today’s Elevator Speech

posted by smcswain

elevator speechI had lunch today with Wayne, an old friend who recently reached out to me to rekindle our friendship. Today was the second of what I suspect will be many future luncheons and/or conversations around coffee with Wayne. Wayne is one of those rare souls who knows how to be a loyal friend.

At one time, I was Wayne’s pastor. Both of us have been through a lot of changes in our lives since those days, however. While he is still a person of deep and abiding faith, his connection today to organized religion is an arm’s length connection. I’m no longer a pastor either, having closed that chapter a decade-and-a-half ago.

Our conversations seem to cover everything from what our children are doing who are now adults…to things like his business – he’s a consultant, to things like my business – I’m a consultant, too. We talk about life — how too damn brief it is — and only getting brief-er by the day it seems. We talk about faith, too.  Of course. That’s something into which we’re both deeply interested.

Today, however, we talked business.  He made a couple of salient points worth noting, too. If you’re a small business owner…no, even if you’re the CEO of a major company, these are pretty stellar reminders:

1. When your business is the busiest, your chances of expanding the business are the greatest. Capitalize on this business expansion opportunity. Many small businesses and self-employed persons, however, including consultants like me, often miss this field ripe unto harvest. Which is why we’re always saying, when it comes to the services we provide,  it’s either “feast or famine.” We’re either enjoying the benefits of our busy businesses or we’re looking for the nearest line at a soup kitchen. When business is good, it’s easier just to sit back and coast and fail to aggressively market ourselves and our services. Then, all too quickly, the stream dries up and everything looks as bleak as it actually is. So, Wayne is right. When you’re busy, you’re not only around paying clients but, if you’re paying attention, your potential future clients are all around, too.

2. The second salient reminder Wayne made today is the importance of the “elevator speech.” Remember your first sales and marketing class either in college or in job training program? You had to not only write your elevator speech but, what was worse, you had to actually give it to the guy seated next to you.. I think I flunked that class.

Right in the middle of our conversation, Wayne stopped, looked at me, and asked, “So, Steve, why not give me your elevator speech?  Tell me in thirty seconds what you do?”

I nearly choked on a leaf of lettuce. I was eating a salad. I couldn’t answer his question.

No, it’s not because I have no clue what I do. But, what I do is expansive, varied, even complicated, and it isn’t easily explained in two or three sentences.

That was, at least, my feeble response to his very good question.

That was noon today. It’s now after midnight and I’ve been thinking about his damn question all afternoon and evening.

So, I decided just to sit down and give expression on paper to the stuff I do in person.

Here’s my elevator speech.

Warning: It’s a bit longer than two sentences. But, short enough that, with practice, I could probably use it on those slow elevators that are located in almost every Hampton Inn I’ve ever stayed.

“What I do? Well, I’m a speaker. I give talks to groups interested in the joy of life and living…to those who are interested in the things that matter most…things like who we are and why we’re here…things like how to love and laugh and lead others to do the same. In other words, I give talks filled with laughter and stories on how you and I might live an optimal life so that, when all is said and done, we can retire knowing we’re leaving this world a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable place for everyone, regardless of race, religion, or nationality. I’ll go just about anywhere to give these talks. And, if the price is right, then, yep, I’ll go anywhere.”

“I’m also a personal coach to a select group of persons…those interested in connecting with their highest self…who are seeking answers to the really big questions of life. Some of these persons are professional people just looking for some inner equilibrium, bombarded as they are by daily demands that would stagger anybody.  Others are just seeking to connect to their spiritual center. Some have given up on organized religion or, they’re close to doing so, and largely because it doesn’t work for them anymore. Almost all of these are deeply spiritual people…they just want to keep advancing in their spiritual lives.  I’m privileged to be their guide, as it were, in what is the most important task in life – the journey into one’s spiritual center.”

Well, what do you think?

Oh, I know what you’re thinking. “It’s still too long, McSwain.” I know. I’ll work on it. And, yes, there are other things I do, too, as many of you know. Which is why I said earlier…it’s varied…complicated.

I am an author, a writer for the Huffington Post, and other national and international publications. I’m a spiritual teacher, a fundraising executive and, for the last couple of years, I’ve been an adjunct professor of Communication at the University of Kentucky.

Oh, and I’m a father, too, as well as a husband.”

So, now, there you have it.

But, at 2AM this morning, there is something else that occurs to me. It happens to be another elevator speech that was given by another person long ago when he was asked a similar question.

It was the morning after his spiritual awakening that took place, apparently, under what’s known as the Bodi tree. Siddhartha Guatama was his name and he was met that morning by someone who asked, “Who are you?”

His response?

Siddhartha Guatama said, “I am awake.”  Which is, of course, the meaning of the name by which he would be known to this day, “The Buddha.” Or, “awakened one.”

My friends, I’m not sure I could love my varied, even complicated life anymore than I do right now. But, maybe I will. I’ll see if that is possible.

What I can tell you is this: For all the fulfillment I feel at speaking and writing, coaching and counseling…for all joy I know at being married to Pamela, a truly beautiful gift from God, for all the peace I know at being a father and stepfather to four genuinely amazing children, I am most pleased…the most deeply satisfied…the most profoundly appreciative to God that, I, too, may say…

“I am waking up.”

Not yet awake, but awakening.

What could be better than this?

The Yellow Squash Does Sweat…

posted by smcswain

yellow squash“The yellow squash will sweat.”

Or, so said the recipe. I bought some fresh, yellow squash day before yesterday. Grabbed an internet recipe off the web with instructions for making squash and sweet onion. The recipe instructed me to slice the squash, quarter inch in width, and place the pieces side by side on a paper towel. Then, I was to pinch a little sea salt and sprinkle it across the top of each slice.

I don’t usually follow recipe instructions the way I used to feel I had to follow the Bible – with scrupulous attention to detail, preciseness in application, and all served up with a kind of background fear that, if I do not, the recipe might just go up in flames just like the world will go up in eternal flames if the Bible isn’t taken literally.

This time, however, I followed the instructions closely, sprinkling a little sea salt on the freshly sliced yellow squash.

After a few moments preparing something else, I looked back at the squash and, sure enough, little beads of sweat were popping up on the surface of the squash.  The salt was drawing some of the moisture from inside the squash. As a consequence, it fried better in the skillet, alongside the caramelizing sweet onion slices.

A very tasty spring dish, I might add, too.

Then, it occurred to me that Jesus likened his followers to “salt and light” (Matt. 5:13-16).  Neither of these metaphors of your presence or my presence as Jesus followers in the world carries one iota of effort or struggle or war-making associated with it. Yet, when I think about much of my spiritual life throughout its several decades, my religious life was nothing less than one big struggle with failure sprinkled over most of my efforts like salt on squash slices.

Instead of my efforts at being “spiritual” bringing out the best in me, my efforts made me miserable much of the time and a misery to almost everyone around me.

I struggled to feel close to God. Sometimes I did. Most of the time, however, I did not. When I did, it was usually at a religious rock concert or a revival meeting when the preacher was yelling and scaring the hell out of everybody as he described all the horrors of what was coming when the world came to the end and just how close that end is. His stories were like Stephen King novels filled with suspense, lots of horror, especially for the lost and those left behind.

At such times, I felt something I mistakenly thought was God. It was more an emotional reaction I realize today. It also explains why my spiritual life was mostly dissatisfying and much like a roller coaster of madness. Some days “ON” but most days “OFF.” My whole spiritual life was really pretty pathetic and no matter how hard I tried, I could never quite make it with God.

Or, so it seemed.

I wrestled with unanswered questions that, had I ever admitted those questions out loud to other Christians – a mistake I made more than a few times – I was quickly pounced on by the “We’ve got it all figured out crowd” of religious zealots who would wave their two-ton King James Versions of an inerrant, answer-filled Bible the way Brad Pitt would wave his sword in Troy and they would dare anyone to disagree, or raise questions because, to these misguided souls, questions were akin to compromise, just as they mistakenly thought that doubt was akin to disbelief.  They were wrong, of course, but they would counsel me with their mindless cliches’ “Stop asking so many questions, Steve, there are some things you just have to accept by faith.”

“Really?” I would say to myself. “There are some things I shouldn’t question? That I should just accept by what you call faith? Isn’t what you’re really doing is just avoiding the hard questions yourselves, while hiding behind your presumption of faith? Isn’t it really fear and not faith you’re living by? And, you’re so deceived by your own fear, you can actually call your fear, faith?

Faith isn’t your BELIEFS

Fear can be dressed up, however, to look like faith.

One of the things I’ve come to learn is that, the more absolute and certain a person tries to sound about what they believe, the more certain you can be of just how uncertain they really are – inside, that is.  Where it matters. In one’s heart.

Somehow, it seems phony to me to disregard the mind as do so many “religious” or “spiritual” people…that God-created and God-endowed capacity to question things…to probe, as did Job in the Old Testament, that seems infinitely more real…more genuine…more honest and authentic to me today.  Unfortunately, the Christians with whom I spent most of my time were anyone but like Job. They were more like Job’s inauthentic, know-it-all friends…who were really religious bigots…the kind so abundant today…the “we’ve got it all figured out,” crowd…the so-called friends of Job were offended by Job’s questions and they came to set him straight…to correct the error of his theological ways.

You cannot imagine how many emails I get from Christians thinking I’ve gone off the deep end. What I’ve left is only the madness they wish they could leave. But so many of them are drawing their salaries from equally mad places of presumed spirituality that they are like incarcerated free people. They look longingly through bars of restriction, wanting to be free of the religious madness paying their salaries.  The door is open, of course. And, they know that, too. But, fear keeps them right where they are…pretending to believe things they don’t believe…saying and preaching things they have sincere questions about…I know this, my friend, I am coach, counselor, and friend to scores of these religious leaders all across America.

Job’s “friends” struck down his questions, told him to confess his sins – since everybody knew such bad things would never happen to a righteous person for no reason whatsoever. Job obviously was a sinner and had done something to deserve his misfortunes.

It didn’t work with Job.

It didn’t work with me.

It doesn’t work with anyone who intends on finding…on knowing an authentic faith…a spirituality that is beyond religion…a sacredness that knows the real temple of God is the Temple within (1 Cor. 3:16), as Saint Paul reminded us.

It was only when I realized that I needed to do nothing at all to become who I am already, that the salt of God’s presence began to sweat from within me all that was inauthentic…phony…playacting.

In case you missed it, Jesus did not say, “One day you will be like salt and light.  Soon enough, but only after confirmation…only after baptism and a new members class and a lot of Bible study courses…no you don’t have to worry about a Bible yet but you will. Right now, you just need to confess that I am the way and the only way to God and that all these other religions are wrong and that I’ve come to start a new religion – I think we’ll call it Christianity…yes, that sounds like a good name…So, from this point on, what I’m starting is right and it is the only way…and once you’ve gotten the theological stuff all figured out – you know, once you’ve accepted the virgin birth – don’t worry about that now, the Catholics whom you don’t yet know but, they will be here soon, they’ll help you sort out your theology and then there will be some Protestants who’ll come along to correct the Catholics…and then, there will be the Evangelicals who’ll correct both the Catholics and the Protestants…and so, once you’ve acknowledged the great doctrines of the Trinity, and the virgin birth, and the immaculate conception…the substitutionary atonement for original sin…and, of course…once you’ve got the inerrant Word in hand…and, oh yes, all this after you first repent of your sins in a revival meeting…that is, repent of your original sin nature you inherited from Adam after his even more evil wife duped him into eating the apple off the forbidden tree…and then…

…and then…and then…

…and so goes the madness we call “religion” today.

“You mean, Jesus, there is more?” you ask.

“Oh, yes,” says Jesus, “lots more you’ll have to get straight in order for this salt and light metaphor to work…you see, you’re not there yet. I mean look at you guys.  You don’t even have a Bible yet. So, you’ll have to get together and, after the Holy Spirit comes…that’s the third part of the Trinity you’ve not heard about yet but you will. You’ll have to figure that out and He will guide a group of folks who’ll convene a Council of Carthage, and they’ll need to be lots more Councils as almost all of these will be divisive in nature but, but you’ll need to get all my words recorded – and it would be best if they were recorded in red and I prefer the King James Version but that’ll come later and so will a man named C. I. Scofield. Remember that name. He’s important because he’ll explain Saint John’s Revelation. Most will think John was smoking weed when he wrote what will be the last book in your upcoming King James Version of the Bible. So, God will raise up Scofield to correct the stuff that wasn’t so clear in the Revelation. He’ll put his own notes in the margins of what will be called a reference bible and, if people will just read his notes, then Revelation will make sense and the pre-millennial, dispensational rapturist theology will finally be the correct version of how the world will come to an end.  So, be sure you get that correct. Gotta know how it’s all gonna end, my friends.”

“So fellas’ you see you’re hardly salt and light yet. But, don’t give up hope, you’ll get there someday…somehow…I promise…you’ll make it one day with God!”

Whoa! Sort of wore me out just writing what you and I know inside is the nonsense…the madness of what so much of religion has become. Right?

Of course.

So, can you see, my friends, can you fathom why I have struggled to get through much of my spiritual life? What was around me and, unfortunately, what is still around so many spiritually hungry people…and maybe you, too…is what I would call a salt substitute, anything but the REAL thing.  A kind of religion that is devoid of any power. Just a lot of puff and smoke, or smoke and mirrors.

I had all but given up hope that the religious world could change…that I could change…

Then, one day, sitting on a couch, watching a PBS special on television, a remote in one hand, a Bud Light in the other, I woke up. I both died and resurrected in the same instant. My search ended. The war within was over. The confusion with which I had lived for decades disappeared. All my efforts to know God ceased. Peace…confidence…blissful joy, even the most profound and indescribable serenity came over me and…

I quit seeking God from that instant onward.  Why would I seek that which had found me already? Not since then have I ever felt the need to seek after God, like the prophet erroneously suggested. I live daily with a profound sense of the Presence. Why? I am salt….light.  I am.

And, the same is true of you.

I stopped looking at the Bible, too, as an “answer-book” and, when I did, it took on a life to me. It is no answer book. Never was. People who think it is are just wrong. It’s an old book. It doesn’t even address half the problems we face these days. Probably needs updating with some new and equally inspiring books. But, from the moment of my transformation, I began to see the Bible as it really is, a collection of the faith stories of people just like me, faulty, full of faults, full of themselves, sometimes flippant, almost always arrogant, but, at times, too, seemingly in touch with Source…with life…with themselves…with God.

Try reading the Bible this way my friend and you’ll see for yourself what the Bible was intended to be.

From that moment on the couch – I wish it would have been a bit more dramatic – like when, after reaching the summit of Mount Everest, I met GOD!!!!! – my “burning bush” story – something like that would make my story a little more believable. But it wasn’t dramatic but the consequences have been. Beyond description.

No longer do I feel the need to BECOME anything. I AM everything already. So are you. I am salt. I am light. So are you. Together, we are already making the church sweat and the world salivate after that which is real in us…authentic…and true.  People are leaving religion my friend for the precise reasons I’ve described above. They have not left their longing, however, to be spiritually connected.  They resonate with the truth of Jesus’ words “I am the light of the world” and his equally truthful declaration, “You are the light of the world…You are the salt of the earth.”

We are little Jesus’ in this world. We are not becoming anything. We are just being who we are…brothers and sisters, standing alongside Jesus…loving, to the best of our ability, those our culture wants to call “gays” and “fags” and “immigrants” – hell, my friends, we are all gays and straights and immigrants because, just as Jesus prayed, “I pray that they may be ONE” (Jn 17), we now know we ARE all ONE.  The Boy Scouts of America have gotten it half right. Now, in time, they will get it completely right.

Why? Salt and Light is here.  We are that salt in this world that causes what’s evil to “sweat” – what’s evil in culture, even what’s evil in the church…in religion gone mad…and we are salt and light in the world to provide perspective and presence and power.

And, my friend, there is no effort in any of this. Just be who you are. This moment.

I am…that’s not “will be” “hope to be” “one day I’ll make it”

It is who you are now. When you cease struggling to find God…to be like God…to be good…when you stop trying to find God…

You’ll discover…well…

Well…just give up the struggle, my friend and see what happens for yourself. In yourself.

This is…

Your Best Life Now!



posted by smcswain

happinessJean-Jacques Rousseau said, “Every man wants to be happy but in order to be so he needs first to understand what happiness is.” Understand “what” happiness is? Don’t we all know “what” it is?  Maybe not. Ask people what happiness is and you’ll get as many different definitions as there are flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream.

How would you define happiness?

Andrew Shapter, in an article that appeared in the Huffington Post, offered “99 Definitions of Happiness.”

Really? Is there that much ambiguity surrounding happiness?

Here’s my definition of happiness:

Happiness is a deep sense of contentment that rises from a profound sense of trust, security, and peace with life itself. It is neither dependent on something pleasurable for its rising nor does it need the “right” mood for it to be evident.  Happiness is, in the words of the Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, “an optimal state of being,” what Jesus described as “the abundant life.”

This happiness happens not by accident. It is the consequence of a disciplined and healthy mind (and, it is also the subject of my next book – currently being written – entitled “Why are People So Unhappy? Living Life Backwards and Discovering Happiness”).

What’s your definition of happiness?  It might just end up in the book. Share it with me and with others, would you? I’m really curious about this, as I think there is much confusion surrounding it.  What’s good, and I’ll be covering some of this in the book, science has gotten into the fray.  Since the adoption of a Positive Psychology discipline in the late 90’s within virtually every college and university Department of Psychology, some really important, as well as scientific, research has been given to the study of human happiness. In future articles, and in the book, too, I’ll be sharing some of the findings.

For example, scientists have now confirmed there are three main explanations for the level or degree of happiness you and I experience through life. I’ll address these in the next article. For now, take a minute and try writing out your definition of happiness. This is the first place to begin anyway.

So, I thank you for your contribution.

For me, happiness is: _____________

How to Control Your Mind and Thoughts?

posted by smcswain

mind and thoughtsMaybe you don’t have any trouble with your thoughts, but I do. Thoughts pop into my mind without my permission faster than a mosquito bites my skin on a sweltering summer afternoon. And, equally without my permission.

Descartes, father of modern philosophy, pointed to both the distinguishing characteristic of human beings and to the biggest curse of human beings when he made his famous statement, “I think. Therefore, I am.”

The fact that you and I can think, reflect on the past, imagine the future, even to be conscious of our own consciousness is what distinguishes humans from all other animals. The fact that you and I CAN think, reflect and so often regret the past, imagine and so often fear the future, even to be unconscious of our own capacity to be conscious is the biggest curse humans live with and so try to escape from almost continually.

In other words, “Thoughts,” as Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, “can be our best friends and our worst enemies.” I would highly recommend his book entitled Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. I heard him speak for the first time just last week and love the way he blends the best in psychology and the science of happiness with Buddhist teachings regarding the mind and its many afflictions.

Until what is on the inside – that is, your mind – is corrected, the external world, that is, how you perceive and experience the world around you will be a mere reflection of it.

In other words, if the world around you is to you an unfriendly, hateful, scary, and judgment-filled place, why is this so? Have you ever sought to know why? Is this the way the world really is? Or, is this the way you really are? Often we project onto the world, as well as onto other people, the afflictive, negative thoughts and emotions that we cannot admit. Or refuse to acknowledge.

More and more, I am convinced, you and I create the world in which we live. Pop psychologists glibly suggest, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” While this is true, the problem for most people is how to change their negative thoughts and the afflictive emotions that are their inevitable consequence.

Want to change your inner world? Better control your mind, as well as your thoughts?

Here’s the only way possible:

1. Meditate daily. If you’re one of those persons who quickly excuses yourself as having tried meditation and discovering it does not work for you, that’s the first thought you need to change.  Why? Because it isn’t so.  So much of our thinking is just that – wrong. Deceitful. And, the most deceived person is one-and-the-same deceiver.  You CAN learn to meditate and you must, if you wish to learn to control your thoughts and your thinking.

Books on meditation are as abundant today as cookbooks. I would recommend The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, written by Thich Nhat Hanh.

2. Observe your thoughts. Don’t judge them, observe them. How many times has a thought popped into your mind – let’s say some kind of judgmental thought about a colleague at work and, instantly, you jump into judgment mode, finding fault with yourself for even thinking something negative about someone else.

I would suggest an alternative solution to unwanted thoughts. Instead of quickly dismissing them and then judging yourself harshly for having such thoughts, start from the premise that thoughts are neither right nor wrong. They just are. It’s what you do with your thoughts that introduces the “rightness” or “wrongness” of them.  In other words, in the purported words of Martin Luther, “You cannot keep a bird from flying over your head; what you can do is prevent it from building a nest in your hair.”

How? By observing your thoughts. In the east, this is called acting as the “witnessing presence.” Like witnessing an accident and then reporting on it to the authorities.  Be the observer of your own thoughts, even the ones that frighten you.

3. Cultivate the space between thoughts.  In other words, as you train yourself to be the observer of your mind…you thoughts, you are actually cultivating what easterners call “the primary consciousness” or “pure consciousness” that underlies all thinking.  It is that “space between the notes,” said Claude Debussy “that makes the music.” If there were no spaces between the notes on a sheet of music, the sounds you would hear would not only be unintelligible but meaningless, even annoying.

This space is the place of internal peace. It is what some call “pure consciousness.”

The idea of emptying your mind of thought is terrifying to many people.

Why? Because they mistakenly think they ARE their thoughts. This is the core error in our shared human experience. You are NOT your thoughts. You’re not even the observer of your thoughts, although that is much closer to who you really are.

Why is this all so important?  Because this is the only way to get control of your thoughts. And, if you wish to be happy, and who among us does not wish for this, you must learn to manage the mind. Otherwise, it will menace you like the constant dripping of a leaky faucet.

The problem in our western world is not that we do not know how to think. As enumerated so eloquently by the spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth, “the problem most people have is not thinking; it is not knowing how to stop thinking.”

Make this your spiritual practice for to do so is to pursue…

Your Best Life Now!

I Was Born with a “W H Y” Chromosome…

posted by smcswain

questionningI was born with a “W H Y” chromosome which is why I’ve been asking questions all my life. Unfortunately, many religious people are threatened whenever you question faith. But, my own opinion is, until you question your faith, you have no faith.

Yes, of course, you may have beliefs.  And, many of them.  Religion is the consequence of a accumulated system of particular beliefs. Faith, however, requires no particular belief.
Why? Because faith is something you do; beliefs are things you say.
So here’s a sampling of the questions I’ve been asking since my youngest days…
  1. If God knows all things, why did he have to “look” for Adam and Eve in the Garden? (Gen 3:8)
  2. If a “man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife” as Adam is instructed in Gen. 2:24, how did Adam understand that command if he had no father or mother?”
  3. Does God not have to live by his own rules when he commands everybody, “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex 20:13), but then tells King Saul to slaughter all of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15).
  4. If Jesus is really God, why did he command killing in the Old Testament but then tell people to “love their enemies” in the New Testament? (Matt. 5:43-48).
  5. If Adam and Eve are the first people on earth, where did their children, Cain and Abel, find their wives? (Gen. 4).
There are a myriad of other questions. I’m interested more, however, in the questions you’ve asked over the years. Would you share them here? Thanks.

The Madness that Must End Among Christians…

posted by smcswain

Monkey TempleThe Dalai Lama is coming to Louisville this Sunday.

I was thinking the other day, “It’s about time. After all, I visited his part of the world for the first time when I was but fourteen.”

It’s true. It was the first of many trips around the world that I was fortunate to take. My mother was a tour planner…tour leader, too. She and Dad would lead groups on trips to faraway places and my two brothers and I got to go. By the time I graduated high school, for example, I had been to Europe and the Middle East on three occasions, but also to the Scandinavian countries, as well as the far east including Russia, China, Thailand, and Japan. Hawaii was included in all those trips too.

It was a remarkable childhood, to say the least.

You can imagine then, to a young Baptist boy growing up in a conservative Southern Baptist church with its conventional notions of Divine exclusivity and its theological propensity to act as the self-appointed guardians of God’s grace, that I would see things in my travels that would lead me to question my narrow upbringing.

Before traveling the world, for example, the most “other” in terms of religion I had ever known was another Catholic. So, when we visited Rome for the first time, I found myself wandering around the Basilica of San Pietro with thousands of other Catholics who were waiting for the appearance of the Pope. I could not help but wonder who these Catholics  were and where they had come from. I knew that Baptists could trace their lineage all the way back to John the Baptist himself but, I wondered, when after us did these Catholics appear?

LOL!  I had a rather limited understanding of Christian history at age fourteen.

What I did have, however, was the curiosity to ask questions. Even hard ones. So, as someone else has said, I, too, was born with a WHY chromosome. I’ve questioned things all my life.

I heard a psychic on the radio the other day advertising her services.

“You have problems? I’ve got answers. Call me at 1 – 800…”

I thought. “If you are so psychic, wouldn’t you know who had a problem and call them?”

My propensity to question has led me to the conclusion: Christian fundamentalism doesn’t work anymore. Not only in its more extreme forms, as in Islamic fundamentalism. We all know that does not work. Nor can it be tolerated. But, fundamentalism does not work in it’s tamer versions either.  In the tamer versions of Christian fundamentalism, for example, followers vent their anger on the world they’ve failed to save by believing in and praying for the imminent return of Jesus and the rapture of the church.  In other words, since they’ve failed to save the world, they pray and long to get the hell out of it.

A kind of paranoid schezophrenia fundamentalist Christianity.

Fundamentalism, either in its harsher forms or milder versions, has never worked. But this is especially true today.

In our increasingly scientific and pluralistic world, fundamentalist theology unravels at almost every seam.  I’m becoming more and more aware of this and I suppose I’m becoming a bit bolder in my public admission of it, too.  God has not appointed me, nor has God appointed you, to be his guardian over truth.  For one thing, you and I “can’t handle the truth.” But it’s also because our little minds and even smaller egos too often try to squeeze God into our little box of limited explanations. In other words, we are guilty of the very thing God warns against – “fashioning God into an image we can manage…control…manipulate…put parameters around…and, basically, just incarcerate in our little heads.

But God is not only bigger and grander than you can imagine, God is bigger and grander than you can imagine.

For me, the shift in my thinking began even at fourteen when we visited Kathmandu, Nepal. That beautiful city that sits under the shadow of the snow-covered Himalayan Mountains. Can you imagine how impactful it was to observe, as I did, the Buddhist Monks in prayer and meditation, sitting in the familiar Lotus position, draped in their saffron-colored robes?

“What do they believe?” I asked myself.

“How is it so different from what I believe?”

“If God is a God of love but Christianity is the only way to know God…the only way to go to heaven, why would God permit so many other religions?”

“Why would he allow so many nice people to be so misled, too?”

My confusion was compounded when, after meeting some of them and then exchanging conversations with the monks who knew English, I discovered that they were actually happy in their faith. They weren’t the bit interested in my more enlightened way…my truer path to God. They seemed quite content with the path they were following. Furthermore, when I learned some of them had been sitting in meditation for days without food or water, I remember thinking, “When have I ever seen that degree of discipline or dedication even among the most dedicated Christians I’ve known?”

I had not. Why? Because most Christians are not that dedicated. Nor are they that sincere. This is no judgment. It’s just a fact.

The really big question came to me after having made friends with some of them. That question was, “If I’m going to heaven because I believe in Jesus but they’re going to hell because they don’t, how am I going to be happy in heaven knowing these happy monks are suffering in the flames of hell?”

My narrow, fundamentalist theology of exclusivity was falling apart even at that very young age. Yet, like many Christians then and many Christians still now, including many ministers who draw their livelihood from fundamentalist Christian congregations, I learned to stay quiet about what I was really thinking…what I was really believing…even through my own seminary days where I earned a doctorate in theology and went from there to serve as a Baptist pastor…I kept quite about what was going on inside my truer self, my higher self, because, to admit publicly the questions I had would have been tantamount to career suicide.

This is why I receive almost daily today emails from Christians ministers, priests, pastors, from virtually every denomination across America – Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, notwithstanding – and, they all say virtually the same thing. “I believe much of what you write about Steve but, if I were to admit this from my pulpit, my ministry would be over.”

I learned the hard way, my friends, you cannot live a lie and pretend to be a happy Christian or believe things you really do not believe.  Oh, I suppose you can and many do. Sooner or later, however, and, for me, it came sooner than later, the curtain will drop on your theological charade…you phony belief system.  If salvation, as Christians call it, or enlightenment as Zen Buddhists call it, is anything at all, it is inner wholeness…integrity…peace inside, even within paradox and contradiction. If you’re trying to make yourself believe something that, “just ain’t so,” as Mark Twain would put it, or preaching one thing but, in your heart, believing something else, just know that you’re likely on board an emotional and spiritual train wreck that’s just waiting to happen.

And, guess what?

Life will find a way of bringing your duplicitous journey to a screeching halt.

It did me. I’ve written about that in The Enoch Factor: The Sacred Art of Knowing God.

On this day, at fourteen, in Kathmandu, Nepal, we visited the famous Swayambunath Temple, known to most tourists as the “Monkey Temple” because monkeys actually live there.

When our tour group was ready to return to the bus, I was still standing near the Zen monks, transfixed as I watched them sitting motionless in meditation. I thought, “It’s just a show…surely, at any moment, one of them will twitch with discomfort or peek to see who was watching.”

They never did.

Fearing I might be more impressed than I should be by their devotion…their discipline, detachment, dedication…or, worse, their happiness and contentment, one of the little Baptist ladies in our tour group came over and stood by me. Presently, she whispered in my ear, “Look at those poor monks praying to a God they do not know.”

She paused.

Then, she picked up the familiar, fundamentalist refrain: “Why, if only they knew our sweet Jesus”…it came out like – ‘schweet Jesus’ – the way some southerns ask for ‘schweet’ tea in small town cafes’ – “why,” she said with such certainty…”I know but those poor souls do not”…”why,” she continued, “if they just knew our sweet Jesus, they would go to heaven when they die…instead of that other terrible awful place.”

My Christian friends, this is the madness that must end.

I was just fourteen years old that day outside the Monkey Temple in Kathmandu. No kid could have been more self-centered, more self-absorbed, or more pretentious than I. Yet, I can distinctly remember feeling offended by the sincere but sincerely wrong old Baptist lady. I wanted to look up at her and say…

“What makes you so certain you’re right and they’re wrong?”

“What if they’re right, and you’re wrong?”

What is it in you and me that wants to make God into a manageable deity?

The psalmist said, “The fool says ‘No god’!” (Ps.14:1).

I think the psalmist today might say, “The fools say, ‘We KNOW God’!”

No God.  Know God.  I’m not sure which fool is the bigger.

Seeing the Most Obvious…or, the Measure of Enlightenment

posted by smcswain

captain_obviousTwo little fish are swimming along in the ocean one morning when they meet with an older fish who casually asks them, “Hello fella’s, how’s the water today?”

They responded with equal casualness, “Fine, sir” and then, they continued to swim on. After a moment passed, one of the younger fish turns to the other and asks, “What the hell is water?”

The point is obvious. But, isn’t it true that often, the most obvious signs of Divine grace are all around us, but we miss them? We fail to see, or express our thanks…our deepest and most profound thanks…for the most obvious…the air you breathe…the sunshine, as well as the rains, the Presence so obvious in the eyes and smiles of another we but casually meet along the way?

What is spiritual enlightenment?

The capacity to see, and so appreciate, the most obvious signs of grace…God’s inexpressible grace.

Awaken, my friends. Spirituality need not be more complicated than joy over the obvious.

What Is the Sign of Spiritual Maturity?

posted by smcswain

spiritual maturityHow do I know when I am advancing on the spiritual path? What is a “sign” of spiritual maturity?

I would answer that question as many spiritual teachers like Jesus did when questioned…with a question of my own.

Must everyone believe as you believe in order to accepted by you?

Must you insist that what you believe is right which, by implication, means others must be wrong?

When you suggest that you, and other enlightened folks as yourself, “just believe the Bible” are you aware that what you are really saying is that you believe your “version” of the Bible and that equally devoted followers of the Bible frequently interpret the same Bible differently but just as sincerely as you do? So, can you not be honest enough to admit that you, and others like yourself, might be wrong yourselves?

When you are able to make your “truth” claims with passion…with sincerity…but draped with love…humility…and room for others to believe and so hold to equally meaningful “truth” claims, you…my friend…are advancing in the direction of spiritual maturity…true enlightenment.

It is time that we live with Christ-like humility…Buddha-like respectfulness. It is time for greater openness…for conversation…for contemplation…for introspection.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was right when he suggested, “The sign of first rate intelligence (I would say, the sign of first-rate, spiritual maturity) is the capacity to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind and still be able to function”…(I would say, “still be at peace”).

Can you?

Make it your spiritual ambition to give up your believing in your beliefs. “Beliefs,” as my spiritual mentor always loves to say, “are a coverup for insecurity.  You only ever believe in the things you do not know.”

When you “Know” something, what is there to believe in?

Make it your ambition, therefore, to know God – this is faith. Do not be content with knowing “about” God – this is the “belief” stuff…which is just believing in the words you say about God or that someone else says about God.

No, know God for yourself instead.

“How?” you ask.

Wrong question.

Start from the premise that you know God already.


Because you do.

“What do you mean?” you ask.

If you did not know God already, why would you bother to ask the question?

Give up looking for God.

God cannot be found. You will NOT…I repeat…you will not find God in a book of religion.

When you stop struggling to find God, that is grace…real grace…the Biblical kind of grace.

Grace is the inner realization that God has found you already.

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