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Your Best Life Now

Your Best Life Now

The Problem with Most Prayers…Including Yours and Mine

posted by smcswain
The Problem with Most Prayers

The Problem with Most Prayers

THE PROBLEM WITH MOST PRAYERS

The problem with most of our praying – my prayers, too, mind you – is this: we pray because we are looking for a way out. But why? Precisely because nobody likes pain. Nobody looks for uncertainty. Nobody wants to suffer.

What healthy-minded person prays for pain…for suffering? No, as a matter of fact, we do everything we can to avoid either.

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Which is where prayer comes in.

For most of us, most of the time, prayer is…
A longing for a way out…

.
May I suggest something?
Sometimes…
No, maybe most of the time…
The only way out is the way through.

Or, so reminded Mark Nepo in The Book of Awakening.

Instead of reducing prayer to a laundry list of things you’d like to be rescued from…sickness, suffering, separation, sadness…

Instead of praying and looking for a way out…
What if you made it your practice to do the following?

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Whenever you face something totally overwhelming…and, btw, if you have not yet faced something totally overwhelming, it isn’t because you’re special. It isn’t because you just happen to be doing everything right so God is “on your side.” It isn’t because your faith is strong compared to others.

Nope, it’s more likely you’ve just been lucky.

Yea, you could call it luck. You might as well. That’s about as good an explanation as any you’ll ever come up with on your own for why life has treated you kindly…

So far.

The Way Out is the Way Through

But, take it from one who’s been around the corner a time or two…

Luck runs out.
Count on it.
Your moment is coming.

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I’m pretty sure I can say, “Yep, your day is coming.”

A few of you reading this are in the middle of the biggest challenged you’ve ever faced.

Here’s what I’m suggesting. Instead of praying…pleading…promising…
Do this.

1. Pray three times to escape. Jesus did.

2. End each prayer for escape with a prayer of surrender. Jesus did (Luke 22:42).

“Not my will but yours be done.”

3. See what happens.

It’s called Enlightenment. Salvation. Awakening.
The old country preachers I grew up with…well…they just called it, “Gettin’ saved.”
And, “saved” didn’t mean “escape.”

Nope, it meant “Surrender.” Therein is the mystery of peace.

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The Christ Experience…What Must Die this Easter and Stay Dead

posted by smcswain
The Christ Experience

The Christ Experience

“Separate the Christ experience from the Christ-explanations,” suggests Bishop John Shelby Spong.

In other words, you and I may experience Christ but we could never explain Christ. When you try to explain what God has done in and through the Eternal Christ…

…well…

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That’s when it gets complicated and mostly just plain wrong. Furthermore, when you rely on the old explanations from our past, you will almost always come up woefully short and/or wrong again.

The Explanations of Christ

Which is the plight, and peril, of Christian theology throughout Christian history. For all the good, for example, the incredible mind of John Calvin produced for theology in his seminal Institutes of the Christian Religion, one could point to an equally confusing, and ultimately divisive, consequence of his propositionally-laden explanations of the Christ experience.

If you do not know what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky. No one ever needed Calvin’s explanations of Christ to experience the Christ of eternity.

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The books of the Bible, for example, were written between 1000 BCE and 135 CE. Which means, most people writing what we still regard as the sacred writings of the Old and New Testaments believed in a three-tiered universe, thought of the earth as the center of the universe and the sun as rotating around it, believed all sickness was a sign of God’s disfavor and regarded anything they could not explain as a “miracle,” as Spong and others have so rightly helped us to understand.

We know better today than to believe any of this.

Or, do we?

Many believers who claim to be faithful followers of Christ mistakenly think that “faithfulness to Christ” is only ever demonstrated by trying to defend old, worn out explanations of the world, God, and the human experience of Christ by arguing incessantly things like “the Bible is infallible” whenever it speaks of anything…whether science, evolution, the human experience, psychology, biology, astronomy, etc.

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Really? Do you actually think that by telling people Genesis is a factual account of how the world came into existence you are being “faithful” to Christ?

I do not agree.

I do not feel this being faithful at all. In fact, to still be trying to defend “infallibility” borders on arrogance. Rather than drawing people to Christ, which is really what all of us want, it actually leaves people with no option but to reject Christianity as some antiquated belief system, even a useless relic of an ancient past.

Is that really what Christians want? Is that really what many define as being faithful to Christ?

Personally, I think there is a better way. And, one more infinitely more faithful to Christ, too.

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That way is to let go of the old, worn-out explanations of God, Jesus, the Bible, the universe, how humans evolved, what went wrong with humans, creation, evolution, etc. In other words, rather than regarding everything we are learning in our rapidly changing world as suspicious or worldly or, worse, as being unfaithful to Christ, question everything instead. Start with your own beliefs. If they prove to be antiquated and contrary to what we are learning, let go of them. Staying attached will only ever produce a insufferable inner dilemma. If what you question proves to be true, however, embrace it.

Why wouldn’t you?

The Christ Experience

Be content to invite people into the Christ experience.This never changes. What it does do, however, is change people. Experiencing Christ always defies explaining Christ.

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It always has and it always will, too. What will NOT abide are all of our explanations, antiquated beliefs, and things like the Institutes of our theological explanations. These become relics. Why? Because explanations could never be equal to experience.

There is much about the Church today, as well as the beliefs Christian people argue and debate over almost endlessly, that must die with Jesus this Easter season. But, not just die with him, they need to remain in the grave forever.

It is only ever the experience of Christ that will live beyond the cross and the grave, isn’t it?

Indeed!

What else but the experience of Christ HAS ever lived? What else but the transformative power of the Eternal Christ should live?

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Isn’t this what we call the resurrection?

It is my prayer this Easter season “explanation” will cease to trump “experience?”

As far as I’m concerned, you can take all the explanations of what God has done in Christ – including my own explanations – and, bury them forever.

What lives beyond the grave is your experience of Christ.
What could be more important than your experience?

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The 21st Century Church: “Absolutes” the Church Must Embrace Or Die: Part One

posted by smcswain
21st Century Church: Absolutes the Church Must Embrace or Die: Part One

21st Century Church: Absolutes the Church Must Embrace or Die: Part One

The popular group Hozier has a hit song “Take Me to Church.” Lest you think, however, the title reflects the current youth culture’s longing to return to the Church they have abandoned, think again. One line in the lyrics goes like this:

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“If the heavens ever did speak
She’s the last true mouthpiece
Every Sunday’s getting more bleak
A fresh poison each week”

A fresh poison each week.” Sobering words. And, representative of what many young people think and feel about the Church today. To say the Church across all denominational lines is suffering is an understatement.

Christian Century says there is an average of nine church closures every day in America.
The Bishop of New York recently declared 100+ parishes will close or merge in their Diocese.
According to the Pew Forum, the Millennial generation has all but abandoned the Church.

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It would not take much to conclude the Church is dying. And, in its present form, I suspect it is.

I have written extensively on this subject before, as many of you know. And, while some mistakenly think I, too, have left the Church, I have actually stayed.

Admittedly, I am not involved in the same ways as I have been in the past. Nevertheless, it is my sincere hope to “be the change I’d like to see,” as Gandhi used to say. I believe a viable future exists for the Church in all its historic dimensions, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical alike. I am working toward this end.

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My own feeling is, however, the 21st Century Church future lies in offering “absolutes” to young people who do need boundaries within which to safely forge a real world faith. Those boundaries, however, must be grounded in facts, in honest inquiry, and in intellectual integrity.

Unfortunately, the Church has too often wrongly assumed what those “absolutes” must be. In other words, the Church that keeps trying to resurrect old, worn-out ways of thinking and believing, and pretend while doing so that those absolutes have never changed throughout its history, has decided already on its preferred destiny: the graveyard of history.

Old absolutes?

Here’s a sampling of some of the old absolutes to which dying churches and church leaders still cling today…

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1. The Bible is inerrant and infallible.
2. Adam and Eve were real people, the first two to walk on planet earth.
3. Creationism is a credible explanation for the origin of all things.
4. Evolution is just a “theory” and, therefore, it is evil.
5. Theism or the belief that God is a superhuman who resides somewhere just above the clouds who favors his followers and answers their prayers.
6. Original sin is an infectious disease that automatically separates everyone from God.
7. Substitutionary atonement or the belief God that sent his son Jesus to pay the price for sin.
8. Homosexuality is abhorrent to God and, even if it is a genetic phenomenon, it must be rejected or held in submission.
9. As the only way to God, Jesus is going to return to earth one day and condemn all unbelievers to hell.
10. Hell is, therefore, the final destiny for anyone who does not believe in Jesus.

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There are other “absolutes.” But these may be among the more familiar ones. It is many of these “absolutes” that I see Millennials rejecting outright. In other words, if you want to know why this generation has left the Church, look no further. You’ll find many of the reasons in these antiquated beliefs.

I have listed below a few of the “absolutes” a new generation of believers are embracing. These absolutes are among those the 21st Century Church of the future must embrace with both enthusiasm and devotion, if viability is the desired outcome.

I am convinced, however, survival is not the interest of many church leaders. In fact, there seems to be a kind of victimology disease from which many church leaders are suffering today. When I was in seminary, we called this disease a “martyr complex.”

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Many blind leaders today have actually duped themselves into thinking that the widespread departures from their churches is somehow the fault of those leaving. It’s as if those leaving are in the wrong. That their faith is faulty. That what they believe is misguided.

It is, however, the same age-old blindness Jesus came up against repeatedly. As Father Richard Rohr has correctly noted: “Jesus was never upset with sinners; he was only ever only upset with people who thought they were not sinners.”

And, guess who thought they were not sinners?
Hint…hint.
It wasn’t those outside the Temple.

No, it was the religious leaders in Jesus’ day who were wrong.
And, yes, it is the religious leaders in our day who are wrong, too.

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Church leaders who cling to old ways of believing and refuse new ways of understanding “the greatest story ever told,” are victims of their own blind stupidity. They mistakenly think a change in their theology is a compromise of their beliefs.

They remind me of the stubborn Protestant preachers during the days of the Civil War. Many of the white, southern preachers proclaimed to their death their mistaken belief that slavery was ordained by God.

Slavery was never ordained by God and, as an erroneous belief, it could never be defended.

But defend it, they did…even unto their deaths.

History would be their judge and their judge history was.

For churches today to defend narrow-minded beliefs as “absolutes” shared by God himself is to adopt a similar path that leads to a similar end. No, there won’t be another war over such beliefs, I don’t think.

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Instead, what will happen is what we see happening all around us today. Slowly, but certainly, methodically, people by the hundreds at first, but now by the thousands are quietly leaving these churches, or mindlessly participating for the sake of the kids, but they have little to no interest in what is believed, proclaimed, and promoted.

Such churches have become theaters of religious entertainment – those that appear to be thriving, anyway. The others – the ones whose death is more visible – are slowly becoming church museums like their counterparts in Europe.

For these churches and their leaders, I have a feeling history is about to repeat itself and, once again, preside over a slow and painful graveside eulogy.

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Before mentioning the absolutes the viable Church of the future will embrace, however, I offer first this analysis for consideration:

My feeling is, there will always be a few “mega” churches around that stubbornly cling to old “absolutes” or worn-out ways of believing. Their seminaries will continue to produce mindless robots of mediocrity dressed up in collars and conditioned to hammer away on a building nobody really wants to build anymore. By their sheer size, however, they will successfully deceive themselves into thinking that their size means everyone attending agrees with their narrow theology and, worse, that God actually favors their narrow-minded thinking.

But they are wrong.
In both instances.

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Those of us who try to carefully and honestly study these things know for a fact that such churches lose as many people each year as they appear to gain. In some instances, in fact, they are actually losing more members than they are gaining.

Nevertheless, they give the appearance to the uninformed that they must be reaching the multitudes.

They are not, however.

The real truth is, they are treading water, so to speak. Their actual numbers are declining. Revenues are diminishing. Layoffs are occurring within their staffs. Anyone on the inside knows this.

What keeps people coming, however, is the good music; the fact that their preachers are superior motivational speakers; and, mostly, the activities for children and youth against which small, struggling congregations could never compete.

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There may be a few other reasons that create the illusion of growth. But this one thing is clear: for the most part, the growth these churches seem to be experiencing has nothing to do with widespread agreement among attendees with what is either preached or believed by their leaders. Other reasons draw them and, among the most prevalent I’ve identified already. The only other reason is because they have grown disillusioned by their former church and/or rigamortis has set in and they have lost interest in sticking around for the church’s funeral procession.

Strangely, however, church leaders seem to miss this salient reality.

We have just such a mega church in our city that fits this description.

Were it not for the multiple sites the church keeps starting here and there, the fact is, their annual report would show nothing but declines in both membership and attendance. By starting all these churches and combining their growing numbers with their own declining numbers, they successfully maintain the illusion of growth.

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The real truth is, however, the mother church is suffering. People are leaving. Revenues are diminishing. Layoffs are occurring. Insiders…that is, the few in the know…are growing more and more disenchanted with what is all too apparent to those leaving – hypocrisy at the core of the beliefs.

Are they still big? Yes, of course. Do they still have “dynamic” worship services? How could they not? Their musical staff is made up of professional musicians, “the cream of the crop,” as we say in rural Kentucky.

Facts are facts, however, and truth cannot be hidden in the baptistry. The future looks rather bleak for this church and many other mega churches like it.

Conversely, we also have in our city a church like the one I believe will be the growing, viable 21st century church of the future. It is experiencing growth and vitality already and it has for many years.

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More interestingly, however, it is a “city” church and, while others around it are declining and dying, it is growing, thriving, and has the healthiest mix of young and old I have seen in any church in America. And, I have been in literally hundreds of them representing virtually every denomination within Christianity.

More importantly, however, this city church embraces a different set of Christian “absolutes.” The kind I have briefly outlined below.

Consequently, in this Part One of a two-part post, it is my intention to outline the “absolutes,” core values, or beliefs that this church not only embraces but the absolutes I believe the viable, 21st Century church of the future will embrace as well.

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In Part Two, I will more fully elaborate on these absolutes. Here, I mention them only for your reflection.

1. The universal need for union with God.
2. The innate goodness within all people.
3. We are a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints or a hotel for paying customers.
4. All people are created equal and equality for anyone is equality for everyone.
5. When we say everyone is welcome, we actually mean EVERYONE. Including the LGBT folk.
6. The Bible is our guidebook. It is not our “rule” book and certainly not our science text.
7. Jesus is “our way” to God. But we know our God is bigger than any of our beliefs about HER.
8. Doubts and questions are encouraged here. In fact, we believe faith is forged through doubt.
9. Stewardship is about money but also justice for all people and the care of God’s planet.
10. Heaven is not about “golden streets” any more than hell is about “flames and torture.”

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Just like the others, these, too, are only a few of the core absolutes the thriving 21st century church of the future will embrace. But they represent some of the more important ones.

I remain hopeful.

As Saint Paul put it, “…old things are passing away. Behold all things are becoming new” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

And, none too soon, in my own opinion.
And, in the opinion of the 3,500 people who will choose to leave the Church before the end of this day.

Dr. Steve McSwain is an author and speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World’s Religions. His interfaith pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith respect or charitable living.

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All that Really Matters in Any Religion

posted by smcswain
All that Really Matters in Any Religion

All that Really Matters in Any Religion

“In essentials unity…in non-essentials liberty…in all things charity.”

I have heard this phrase for the greater part of my religious life. In fact, I am pretty sure I have used the phrase myself. It is a much more helpful position to adopt in this world of multi-religious beliefs.

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I have heard it used among Christians and, since there are more Baptists than there are flavors of Baskin-Robbins ice cream, for example – not to speak of all the other denominations within Christianity – I suppose adopting this as your modus operandi can be helpful. But, if there is anything the internet has done for us, it has made many of us delightfully aware of just how varied the religious and/or spiritual landscape is here in the U.S. alone.

America is close to passing India, and actually may have passed it already, as the most religiously-diverse country in the world.

How will we survive this? Will we survive it?

I think the jury is still out on this one.

But my own conviction is this: as long as we insist there are “essentials” in any religion that are regarded as “non-negotiable” then I suspect the disagreements, followed by the debates, and, ultimately, then the divisions (that seems to be the inevitable progression of things, doesn’t it?) even between people within the same religious tradition will answer the question of human survival…the question of the future of humanity.

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It is a big question for which there are no little answers. Which explains why “Rapture-minded” Christians have booked their flights early to escape the madness they’re secretly scared but certain is about to unfold.

I think that rather “big” of them, if you ask me. Frankly, I’m a little more inclined to think Jesus’ method of “facing the music” is a little more in keeping with his way of dealing with opposition and difficulty. Love embraces. It doesn’t look for an escape hatch to imaginary freedom.

But don’t take my word for it. Try reading what we Christians call the Gospel. It’s a little radical I know but it is the “WAY” of Jesus. Which is of course what Jesus meant by “way, truth, and life.” It’s not the way most choose, but one “narrow and difficult” (Matt. 7:14).

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When it comes to “essentials” in any faith tradition, however, tell me something: Who decides what the essentials are?

My beloved Catholic friends say, “The Church, Scripture, and Tradition.” But you can’t even get two Catholic Popes to agree on what within any of these is really “essential.” Pope Benedict and Pope Francis represent two vastly different views of what’s “essential.” Don’t let anybody tell you differently. They do.

My friends among Protestants and Evangelicals say, “Sola Scriptura” – I love that one.

Frankly, I’m at that place in my spiritual pilgrimage where I have decided there are no “essentials.”

Except maybe one.

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And, interestingly, a Catholic Franciscan framed it pretty well. I suspect Father Richard Rohr, OFM may be on to something, when he says, “The only absolute essential is your union with God.”

Isn’t that all that really matters?

And, isn’t it true, if we add anything else, we are only admitting we have not found our own union with God to be “essential” enough?

Dr. Steve McSwain is an author and speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World’s Religions. His interfaith pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith respect or charitable living.

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Change: The Two Vital Steps to Lasting Change

posted by smcswain

Change. Sooner or later, everyone wants to change something.  We begin each new year resolving to make changes…

Change

Change

In our relationships;
In our priorities;
In our health;
In our personal fitness;
In our eating habits;
In our ambitions;
In our careers;
Even in our beliefs.

Within weeks, however, many of the changes we set out to make begin to slip. Before long, we fall back into familiar patterns. It’s not only frustrating, we are disappointed in ourselves.

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As a leader and trainer, as well as a private coach to a select group of clients each year, I am frequently asked, “How can I make a change that will last?” Leaders often express their desires to see changes in their company or among their workers. What they do not know is that the changes they want to see around them are often the same changes that they need to make themselves.

Coast to coast, I have observed and coached CEO’s, leaders in major companies and organizations, businesses and communities, as well as religious leaders from within every faith tradition you can imagine. It was not until I became honest with myself, however, and observed my own lifestyle and patterns of behavior, that I made the most vital discovery about change.

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The most vital ingredient in change is closer than you think.
It is actually much simpler than you might think, too.

The spiritual master, Jesus himself, once hinted at this vital ingredient to lasting change when he said, “You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-16).

Metaphors, of course, but potent metaphors, to say the least. Whatever else may be concluded, it is clear Jesus is saying, “Salt and Light both effect change…by their very presence…instantaneously and conclusively.”

Light dispels darkness just as salt, when added to anything, results in instant change. Once you salt something, you cannot un-salt it. Once light has illumined a room, even if the room is later plunged back into darkness, things inside the room are never the same.

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The Most Vital Ingredients to Lasting Change

Therefore, the ingredients to lasting change, even enduring change, are two-fold:

1. Ingredient One is an Inner Motivation: The motivation for change must occur inside you.

Lasting change can never imposed from outside yourself.

A Great Big Example of This is War

It seems our country has a hard time learning this rather obvious lesson. We mistakenly think, for example, that war is the answer to all unwanted conditions. Our recent war with Al’caida seemed successful at first. All of a sudden, however, that victory seemed only to produce a more formidable enemy whose ruthless and barbaric beheadings of innocent people are unimaginable.

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Admittedly, this is an extreme example but the principle surely applies.

You cannot force another to change. Diplomacy, therefore, is almost always the preferred action to take. Only when we sincerely and respectfully attempt to understand another, but especially an enemy, as well as humbly concede where we might be wrong, do we create the possibility of negotiating a better outcome.

Again, both sides must have a willingness to admit to error and culpability. Each must make concessions and be willing to make change. If both will not, however, then sometimes drastic measures have to be resorted to…but, only out of necessity in order to effect change. Drastic actions, however, as in war, should always be a “last” resort. Too often, it seems we are impatient with the time factor necessary in making lasting change.

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The Change Must Come From Within

It is the same with personal changes you might wish to make in your own life.

Changed forced on you, or imposed too quickly, or coerced by someone with more authority than you, as from the CEO or the manager above you, usually will not work to produce the results anybody wants. Sure, actions imposed might produce immediate change, but long-lasting change will often backfire. For change to be enduring, the motivation within workers must be tapped. Otherwise, the change will have as much lasting effect as the typical resolution made by someone at the start of a new year.

Even your doctor telling you that, unless you stop smoking or lose weight, you are going to develop diabetes or cancer or, worse, premature heart disease is not enough to produce lasting change in you. Enduring change must come from within yourself.

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Change that sticks is change that starts within.
This is where the second vital ingredient comes in.

2. Ingredient Two: The Second Ingredient to Lasting Change is the Pain/Pleasure Factor

I do not remember who said it but I learned just how true it is:

“When the pain of remaining the same is greater
than the pain of making a change,
you will change.”

Lasting change will occur, almost naturally…even spontaneously…with this internal shift in consciousnessb takes place – whatever the subject.  In other words, I learned that when the pain of smoking – which I loved to do for years – became greater than the pain of quitting, I quit.

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I had tried for years to quit but with little success.  I refused to listen to my inner voice warning me time and time again to quit. I had good intentions but I never realized the importance of listening to your inner guide.

That is, until the day I suffered a heart attack.

While I denied it for hours while it was happening, I was not surprised by it at all. My inner voice had been warning me for years.  The shift in consciousness, however, brought on by the heart attack itself, resulted in instantaneous and thorough change. I have never had the desire to smoke again.

Now, it would be better to follow  your inner guide. It will not mislead you. But, if you’re stubborn like me, you had better hope you are lucky like me, too. If it takes something as dramatic as a heart attack, maybe then you’ll experience the shift.  What I know is this: until the shift in consciousness takes place, whatever changes you make will be short lived.

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The Pain/Pleasure Factor

For years, as I describe in my book, The Enoch Factor, I had serious doubts about my faith and many questions about the practices I saw in my organized religion.  For fear of losing my ministerial job, however, I kept most of my doubts and questions to myself. Like too many other religious leaders, I seldom voiced my complaints about my religious establishment. I too infrequently voiced my objections to many of the beliefs my friends said I had to believe in order to be in their group.  So, I said I believed things that I knew in my heart I did not believe and why? I was afraid not to…afraid of being alone…afraid of losing my place in the religious group where so much of my identity had been wrapped up.

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Having lived this way for so many years, I became quite proficient at playacting. I was like a professional, religious actor, auditioning for a part. The only different is that I was auditioning for the approval of others, almost all of whom I was giving way too much control over my life.

Ever made a similar mistake?

The consequence is…you will find a way to fit in, but you will lose yourself in the process. You can hide from others. But you have to sleep with yourself. When you make a whore of yourself, you’ll soon grow tired of yourself.

Trust me, I know

Seems like I read somewhere, too, when Jesus provide a similar warning: “In seeking to save yourself, you actually only succeed in losing yourself” (Luke 9:24).

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Yet, isn’t this the way many people live today?
Is this the way you are living?
For some of you, sure it is. That’s why you’ve stayed with this post all the way to this point. I’m writing about me, but it feels like I’m writing about you.

Here’s the good news.

One day, everything changed for me. Permanently.
I’m pretty sure it could change for you, too. Permanently.

For me, I became excruciatingly tired of seeking to live by the beat of everyone else’s drum. Something in me had shifted. I think it was my father’s untimely death that triggered the start of the shift. It is often out of crisis of death that a needed change is birthed. Again, I tell this whole story in The Enoch Factor. That is, if you’re interested.

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No longer was my attempt to please everyone else just a minor discomfort, it had become a royal pain in my ass. Pardon the bluntness. But it is precisely my point. Earlier, I would never have been so blunt. Why? My position as a religious leader dictated I should never speak so bluntly, especially around proper and “holy” church people. Their spiritual sensitivities might be too easily offended. And, since they’re paying my salary, I must conform to their expectations.

Do not miss my point while stumbling over the word “ass.” You’ve heard worse. One thing I’ve come to know is that even the proper “holy” people, as I pretended they were, said “ass” and many other things regularly themselves. But that’s another story for another time.

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My point is simply, there is of course a place for proper talk. I am being blunt here only as an example. I am hardly suggesting you go about breaking all rules of etiquette. What I am illustrating is just how ill I had become at wasting so much of my life trying to please everybody else and live up to everyone else’s expectations.

And, all for what?

Job security?
A comfortable retirement?
A position of status in my religious community?

Bull! That’s what it all became to me. Bull.

In other words, the pain of remaining the same was suddenly more painful than the pain I had thought about for years that would accompany change. When this inner shift occurred, however, I did change. I left the professional ministry and pursued the life of my dreams.

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That was twenty years ago, almost to the day. I’ve never been happier, freer, or more content for having made permanent changes in my life goals, beliefs, ambitions, and dreams.

When this kind of internal shift takes place in you…

You, too, will change
Permanently.

Until the shift internally occurs, however…
Well, the best you’ll ever be able to do is a…
Resolution.

This post first appeared on Dr. McSwain’s own blog under the title: Change: Making Real, Lasting Changes in Your Life.

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Dr. Steve McSwain is an author and speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World’s Religions. His interfaith pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith respect or charitable living.

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“Healing the Divide” – An Interview with Author, Christian Mystic and Church Reformer, Amos Smith

posted by smcswain

Healing the Divide.” That’s the title of Amos Smith’s book.

Fr. Richard Rohr calls it “a foundational work written in a style that will be respected by scholars–yet easily accessible to ordinary Christians and would-be seekers.”

Leonard Sweet, author of I Am a Follower, suggests this: “Read Healing the Divide and eat the mystery. It’s a check-up call to your identity and mission.”

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Cynthia Bourgault says Amos Smith’s book Healing the Divide gets to the “Christian mystical epicenter” which will rescue Christianity “from contamination from both the Christian hard right and the sometimes rudderless new age” approach to spirituality.

Amos Smith is a graduate of Chicago Theological Seminary and a pastor in the UCC tradition. As an author, thinker, church reformer, and mystic, Smith sees his mission in life is to live deeply into and out of the mystical traditions within Christianity. In fact, it would be safe to say, he believes this to be his mission in the Church and the Church’s hope for a meaningful future in the world today.

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Recently, I had the distinct honor of briefly interviewing Amos Smith by SKYPE. I asked him about this book and several other questions such as the following:

“What do you mean by mystical traditions?”
“What is the divide that needs healing in Christianity?”
“What is happening in the Church today causing its widespread decline?”
“You speak of ‘dualistic’ thinking. What is that and how might it be overcome?”
Why are churches closing and what can be done to turn things around?”

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View the interview below but get a copy of Amos Smith’s thoughtful book by clicking here.

One correction: Toward the end of the interview Amos Smith notes that GRAVITY: A CENTER FOR CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM is located in Oklahoma but he intended to say Omaha, Nebraska.

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LIVING WITH FEARS: How I’m Learning to Manage Mine

posted by smcswain

I think I have always lived slightly afraid of something.

• I am not afraid of being attacked like a soldier must feel on a battlefield.
• I am not afraid of falling off a cliff, although I would be if I did not avoid heights.
• I am not afraid of being struck by lightning because…well…I’m just not.

My fears have always been slightly more subtle ones.

Living with Fear

Living with Fear

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Here are a few of them…

• I think my extroverted nature hides my fear of being invisible.

I developed this fear in my young adult years. My father was an expert extrovert and it came naturally for him. That is, whether in a group of two or three friends or speaking in front of a thousand people, Dad was always funny, a great storyteller, and completely at ease in almost any situation.

I, on the other hand, was not. I always felt invisible, almost like a prop on someone else’s stage. I am sure Dad sensed this and was bothered by it. Being the good father he was, he tried to include me whenever he and his peers were chatting it up. I would chime in but only ever awkwardly. I never felt as if I had much to add, however.

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For these reasons, and probably many others I am not even aware, I learned to compensate for the fear of being invisible to everyone by working hard to be unavoidable. I became an extrovert, too. But the difference was two-fold: my extroverted personality came across unnaturally.

As a consequence, my auditions for everyone’s approval were regarded suspiciously or interpreted as mere self-promotion. That created a different set of problems for me. The invisibility I feared and sought to avoid was only enhanced instead.

Do you know a similar fear?

• I think my fascination with wealth hides my fear of not having enough.

I do not remember a time when I have not been fascinated by opulence and wealth. I have always imagined having plenty of the latter, which probably explains why I did not dismiss the impulse to buy a Powerball ticket when it recently reached a half billion dollars.

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I do not regularly buy lottery tickets. It is an ethical matter for me. But, when the amounts reach planetary heights, I find myself temporarily suspending my principles and trying my luck at planetary travel.

“What harm could there be in that?” I reason. “Besides, ‘Somebody’s Gonna Win…Might as Well be Me!’” (To read a recent post where I outline the actual odds of winning the Powerball Lottery, follow the link to “Better Listener”).

You might recognize the words, “Somebody’s Gonna Win…” as the slogan the Kentucky Lottery Commission used for years to promote the buying of Powerball tickets.

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Whenever I feed the fantasy of having hundreds of millions dollars, I enjoy the temporary reprieve I get from the fear of not having enough.

As I do, do you worry too much about having too little?

Sometimes, I fear I might not have enough income for my present needs. At other times, I am scared I might not have enough for my future needs. Is this true for you?

I have been involved in professional fundraising for many years. I always found it amazing whenever I interviewed a retired person whom I regarded as sitting on a heap of investments at least equal to the gold of Fort Knox. I would be amazed at how reluctant some of them could be to turning loose of even a little of their acquired wealth. So much for the “trickle down” myth.

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“What are you scared of?” I often wanted to ask. “You, my friend, are sitting on a fortune. Why don’t you share some of it?”

When I finally stopped asking these questions in my head and looked instead into my own heart, as well as my own fears, I understood. They were only worrying about the same thing I feared – the fear of not having enough.

Having more makes no one less fearful. It might in fact make you more fearful. You certainly have more to worry about protecting.

• I obsess over fitness and health as a way of avoiding my fear of death.

My Dad died of an unexpected stroke at the age sixty-seven. He was too young to die and with no prior symptoms about which we were aware. He had been active, played tennis almost daily, and traveled extensively. But one night, unexpectedly, while giving an inspirational talk to several hundred people, he just collapsed in the middle of a sentence.

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He never recovered.

And, his death scared me to death.

While that was twenty years ago now, the whole thing still sends shudders down my spine, but not because I am worried about where he is. There was a time I might have been. I was raised in a conservative religious church where most of the preachers constantly questioned whether people had properly prepared for eternity. That was the extent of their beliefs about salvation. They would never admit this. But, if their preaching were an indicator, all they were really concerned about was getting people “saved,” as they called it, so they would go to heaven and avoid hell when they died.

Eternity was not my enemy, however. My enemy was the same as Saint Paul who described death itself as “the last enemy” (1 Cor.15:26).

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Death or dying or both frightened me.

They still do.

Over the years, I think I have used my obsession with running and fitness as a means of running away from this fear. You can imagine, therefore, what consternation struck me on July 13, 2014, the day I experienced a heart attack myself but at an age younger than the fatal stroke that stole my Dad’s life twenty years before.

This was not supposed to be the outcome to my fitness devotion. I had been running for four decades to avoid something like this. For months now, I have been on a quest to go deeply into my fear of death, as well as my other fears, and actually understand them, deal with them, and ask the hard questions about how to cope with them. And while I am at it, I have been seeking to know what my faith, if anything, has to say about the fears with which I have struggled for most of my life.

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The following is the procedure I have been following on this journey into my inner world. The good news is, I actually think this process is helping me cope with my fears. Maybe something here will helpful to you and your management of fear.

1. I no longer feel I am failing at my faith just because I live with fear. I made this mistake through much of my spiritual life. I would tell people, “Jesus said, ‘Do not be afraid,’ (Jn 14:1) so, if you are ever afraid, just know that means you’re not living by faith. Why? Because fear is the opposite of faith.”

That’s a crock of you know what!

Jesus was afraid from time to time. How could he have been human and not be afraid? To assume he was not because of his divine nature, or worse, to say that he was not ever afraid because he was God is not honoring his divinity but robbing him of his humanity.

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Big mistake.

What makes Jesus so accessible to me is not his divinity. I am divine. So are you. If that is not what “image of God” in us means, what does it mean?

His humanity makes him accessible.
His unconditional compassion makes him approachable.

Jesus knew fear. What else could he have been feeling in the Garden of Gethsemane? (Matt. 26:36ff). What else could his words have possibly meant: “Why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).

Yes, he knew fear.
Yes, I know fear.

It is part of what it means to be human. I showed up in this world, just as you did, as an eternal, divine being having a temporary human experience, as the Christian philosopher, Teilhard de Chardin, loved to remind us.

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My task, and your task, too, is not to escape my humanity, mistakenly believing there is something inherently depraved or evil about it. Instead, I am to live into my humanity as fully as possible, which is what makes Jesus’ life so remarkable. He showed us how.

It does not mean, therefore, I am less Christian or less divine because I live with fears. It means I am affirming my humanity and accepting its limitations.

2. When I am afraid, and that is more often than you might think, I try to be aware of it. I try to acknowledge and watch like an observer the fear in me. I try to locate the trigger of the fear, too – as in, what might have precipitated it?

I ask myself questions like, “Why am I feeling afraid? Can I name the fear?” And then, I get quiet and watch my inner world, much like a watching a drama on a stage. By doing this, it is as if I’m turning a spotlight on the dark places of my soul. I usually see, too, what it is causing me to feel afraid and I name it, which is half the battle, is it not?

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In the past, whenever I have been afraid, I would pretend I was not afraid instead. Or, I would judge myself for feeling afraid as if I were failing. Neither approach worked to eliminate my fears.

In fact, those ways of coping only seemed to feed my fears, the way fuel feeds a fire, making them all the more acute. Inner awareness, therefore, is the key I am using to unlock the mystery surrounding my anxieties. Naming my fears helps, too. Try this approach yourself but let go of self-judgments.

3. Once I am aware of the fear and have named it, I seek to step squarely into it, much like stepping into the shower in the morning. Can you imagine turning on the shower but, instead of soaking yourself freely in the warm shower, imagine trying to dodge the multiple streams of water?

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“What would be the point?” you ask.

Precisely.

It is similar with fear. You can no more live free of fear than you can shower without getting wet. To be afraid from time to time is the stuff of living. You cannot avoid it. Nor should you. Fear is necessary.

What is not helpful is the obsessive, compulsive nature of fear. This is what I seek to guard against. And, you must, too.

My approach to avoid the compulsory nature of fear is to step squarely into it…to feel it, not judge it or, worse, try to run from it, as I literally did for years with the fear of dying. I seek to feel my fear instead, much like I would feel the warm water running over my body in the shower. Not because I enjoy feeling afraid. I do not. But I am learning that for me, this is the only way to temporarily cleanse myself of the ill effects of fear.

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4. As I fully feel my fears, I then ask God to free me. This is what having a savior means to me. I do not need Jesus for the future. I need Jesus now. I need my faith now, as I recently posted regarding faith. The future, whatever and whenever it shows up, will only appear as another now.

That is true of eternity, too. Whatever lies beyond your last breath is really just another now.

I do not mind admitting either that I need Jesus. Maybe you do not. Good for you. I do, however.

Why? There are times I am weak. And, too much of the time, I am scared.

But, in all such times, I need my faith, which is why one of my favorite stories is that of Simon Peter walking on water. He does so well but then, all of a sudden, he sinks beneath the tumultuous waves.

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You perhaps remember the story (Matt. 14:22ff). I like it because I have been right there where he was and more than once.

Sometimes, it seems as if I can walk on water. In fact, I fortunately feel this way most of the time. But there are those days, and moments, when the wind and waves are beyond my control. I feel overwhelmed, scared and even sick right in the pit of my stomach. I can neither explain this nor control it without feeling a need to call on God.

So, I do. And, it works. Is it all imaginary? Maybe to you. Not to me. Whatever God is, I feel she responds to my pleas for help. I get through, too, and go beyond the fears and return to a place of joy and inner peace.

And, it lasts for a while. Sometimes, for a very long while…

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And then, the process outline above needs repeating because they return and I repeat it.

Could this be what the spiritual masters meant when they spoke of a spiritual practice?

I think so. But, in any event, it has become my spiritual practice.

Daily.

Dr. Steve McSwain is an author, speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World’s Religions. His interfaith pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith respect or charitable living.

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Contentment…In Any and All Circumstances

posted by smcswain

The spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, once wrote, “Accept this moment as if you had chosen it.”

That’s not so different, is it, from what the spiritual teacher, Saint Paul, described, when he wrote, “…I have learned how to be content with whatever I have” (Phil. 4:11)?

Contentment

Contentment

Contentment.

How does one learn to be content? Our advertising world…indeed our entire system of economics…would likely morph into something quite different if suddenly advertisers were no longer permitted to promote products without the clever capacity of creating discontent in consumers.

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Contentment is not complacency.
Contentment is not laziness.
Contentment is not avoidance. Nor is it an aversion to goal-setting.

Some measure of discontentedness is, therefore, necessary, isn’t it?

I think so.

Presently, for example, I am not content with where I am professionally and, as a consequence, I am evaluating, setting new goals, and moving my professional life forward.

Contented and Discontented

So is this discontent a failure on my part to live contentedly?

Maybe. That is to say, it could be. Certainly, the potential is there for the displeasure I feel to steal from me the peace I should know.

“So, how do I know when the discontent I feel with where I am in life is a dangerous discontentedness I need to avoid?”

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The answer might lie in the question itself.

Consider…

“When the ‘discontent’ you feel

becomes a state of ‘discontentedness’

let that be to you a warning sign”

Then, what is contentment?
What is it Saint Paul and Eckhart Tolle are saying?

Contentment is Acceptance

Contentment is acceptance of what is.

I no longer seek to blame God, for example, or the Devil or anyone or anything else for that matter, for showing up in my life. Why would I? What could possibly be the point in seeking to attribute to God something so trivial as my situation? Which is why I shudder every time I see an NFL player, or fans, attribute to God such trivial matters as who wins the Super Bowl.

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I seek instead to respond to what shows up as if I had ordered it myself, like ordering a dish from a menu in my favorite restaurant.

Now, do not misunderstand. It is not that I regard what has shown up as the consequence of some unconscious wish on my part. Rather, what I am saying is this: whether I like what has shown up or not, is no longer the first and foremost matter.

The first order of business is accepting the fact that what has shown up has shown up. I have the choice of facing it, therefore…of living into it…of accepting it…

Or, I have a choice of resisting it. And, if I do, and I usually do, then I have just created another problem. Not only do I have the situation at hand which I am resisting, but I have now my resistance with which to wrestle as well.

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What Contentment Is…

Whenever, therefore, something unpleasant shows up, and it isn’t long before something usually does, I seek to embrace it as much as I can and as soon as I can. I do this by seeking to know and name what I’m feeling about it, accept that feeling, instead of resisting it, and then move on to the situation I am facing.

If all of this sounds infinitely easier than it really is, then you’re reading between the lines correctly. The fact is, I live with much resistance to what is. I am often discontent to the point it becomes a state of discontentment. Which is what I must learn to avoid, and I am learning it slowly, and it is the one thing each of us, to varying degrees, must learn, too.

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Now, I should add that, while contentment is acceptance, it isn’t giving up. Sometimes, people mistakenly think that “acceptance” is rolling over and giving in when everything else inside you cries out to fight back.

Contentment is Making Peace with What Is

For example, I did not think I would have a heart attack at fifty-nine. I resisted, and still slightly resist, the reality that I have heart disease. Even to admit this is not a little rattling to me. But it is a fact that impacts every other area of my life and for the rest of my life.

Now, I can accept this…live into it fully…understand the changes I must make so as to prolong my health and life…

Or, I can live in denial of it, which usually expresses itself in the continuation of those behaviors, lifestyle and habits, etc. that likely were contributing factors in premature heart disease.

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If I were to choose the latter course of action, which I am not choosing, the possibility of a repeat performance sometime in the not-too-distant future is probable.

I intend to change that outcome. Discontent with what is the state of my health, I choose to act responsibly, not roll over or live in a state of perpetual discontentedness or depression over it.

I will not say, “This was God’s will,” or worse, “God’s trying to teach me something,” or, worse still, “God is punishing me for something.” What good would any of that do? Besides, the theology behind such statements is primitive, puny, and pathetic.

What I do say, however, is that “I am learning to be content with cardiac issue…” and, for me, that means…

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  • I am learning to accept myself, my condition, while, at the same time, doing what I may to improve matters;
  • I am learning to forgive myself for ignoring my inner voice, a voice that warned me on multiple occasions to let go of some lifestyle habits I had been practicing for much too long – your inner voice knows.
  • I am learning to relax more and be more…to be more self-reflective and to ask before I impulsively act on things, “Is this really needed?” “What in me desires this so much?” “Is it something I need or want?” “Is this feeding a deeper need about which I am presently unconscious?” “What might I learn from this to take me deeper into life…my life…and, deeper into contentment?”

This is contentment or the acceptance of “this moment as if you had chosen it.” It is the pathway to peace and Your Best Life Now!

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Dr. Steve McSwain is an author and speaker, counselor to non-profits and congregations, an advocate in the fields of self-development, interfaith cooperation, and spiritual growth. His blogs at BeliefNet.com, the Huffington Post, as well as his own website (www.SteveMcSwain.com) inspire people of all faith traditions. Dr. McSwain is an Ambassador to the Council on the Parliament for the World’s Religions. His interfaith pendants are worn by thousands on virtually every continent, sharing his vision of creating a more conscious, compassionate, and charitable world. Visit his website for more information or to book him for an inspirational talk on happiness, inner peace, interfaith respect or charitable living.

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