How to know Jesus

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Christians will often use the term “knowing Jesus.” But it’s a term that is somewhat hard to grasp and has different contexts depending on the background and religious tradition of the person saying it. Indeed there are many ways in which one might come to know Jesus. In terms of a very tangible approach, I found the following observations by the Social Activist, Dorothy Day, quite arresting:

“It is no use saying that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.

But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that He speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that He gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers, and suburban housewives that He gives. It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that He walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that He longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.… If we hadn’t got Christ’s own words for it, it would seem raving lunacy to believe that if I offer a bed and food and hospitality to some man or woman or child, I am replaying the part of … Martha or Mary, and that my guest is Christ.

There is nothing to show it, perhaps. There are no halos already glowing round their heads—at least none that human eyes can see. It is not likely that I shall be vouchsafed the vision of Elizabeth of Hungary , who put the leper in her bed and later, going to tend him, saw no longer the leper’s stricken face, but the face of Christ. The part of a Peter Claver , who gave a stricken Negro his bed and slept on the floor at his side, is more likely to be ours. For Peter Claver never saw anything with his bodily eyes except the exhausted black faces …; he had only faith in Christ’s own words that these people were Christ. And when on one occasion those he had induced to help him ran from the room, panic-stricken before the disgusting sight of some sickness, he was astonished. “You mustn’t go,” he said, and you can still hear his surprise that anyone could forget such a truth: “You mustn’t leave him—it is Christ.” …

“For a total Christian, the goad of duty is not needed—always prodding one to perform this or that good deed. It is not a duty to help Christ, it is a privilege. Is it likely that Martha and Mary sat back and considered that they had done all that was expected of them—is it likely that Peter’s mother-in-law grudgingly served the chicken she had meant to keep till Sunday because she thought it was her “duty”? She did it gladly; she would have served ten chickens if she had had them. If that is the way they gave hospitality to Christ, it is certain that that is the way it should still be given. Not for the sake of humanity. Not because it might be Christ who stays with us, comes to see us, takes up our time. Not because these people remind us of Christ … but because they are Christ.” – Dorothy Day

Satisfaction vs. Pleasure

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Today there are no shortage of products and activities to provide one with pleasure.  The goal is to give you a hit of dopamine or numb you out a little – but most importantly the goal is to get you to want more.  The pleasure often has a numbing effect.  What felt good the first time you tried it doesn’t quite feel good enough the second.  You need just a little more . . . and then a little more after that – like a scoop of ice cream, a glass a wine, a cheap binge-worthy TV show, a quick glance at a certain website.  They can lull you in and without even knowing it you need more and more.

Pleasure doesn’t equal satisfaction.

Satisfaction is a different feeling – one where you don’t need more to feel good again.  It’s not about consumption for only your own purposes and pleasures.  It’s not that satisfaction can’t also be pleasurable (it can be) it’s that the things that bring satisfaction fill you up instead of leaving you empty when the pleasure subsides.  Satisfaction brings peace and wholeness.  It often connects you with others.   It may remind you of the story you were meant to live.  It comes from a dinner out with good friends, a time of quiet reflection and prayer, a couple hours lost in an activity that lights you up, a small act of kindness or a great conversation with your son or daughter.


A Mythical Perspective

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Modern consciousness has mostly lost it’s mythical perspective on life.  We think myth emerges out of superstition and the irrational pre-scientific mind.  We live in a world of numbers, reason and scientific validation, which leaves little room for mythic thinking – at least we suppose.  The modern mind concludes that myths may entertain us but they no longer inform us – that power was swept away by the tidal wave of thought historians label the scientific revolution.

But what if the ultimate purpose of myth was something we aren’t used to today and have a hard time wrapping our minds around?   What if the purpose of myth was (and is) to provide the symbols that move the spirit of man forward (not hold man back as many today might suggest)?   The great myth stories are more than entertainment.  They are more than a form of moral instruction.  They reveal something more profound about what it means to “participate” in creation and understand the context of our existence.  The proper myth takes us beyond words, beyond pictures and even beyond our imagination.  The myth doesn’t come in opposition of rational thinking or scientific knowledge.  It operates in a totally different hemisphere seeking to show us the world inside of us – the world that can’t be analyzed with a telescope or magnifying glass.

The mythic is all around us if we can turn down all of the constraints of our modern consciousness.  And when we allow ourselves to be moved by the mythic – the stories that turn our heart strings, bring a sense of awe and draw out the deepest yearnings in our soul – we learn more about what we were created for:   To be part of the mythic – to tell a great tale with our own lives.


When you find yourself on a path you didn’t want

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Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you also were meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

This is one of my favorite exchanges from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. Frodo has been thrust into a quest he had not sought. He is a most unlikely character, a young Hobbit with a sweet disposition, to find himself as Middle-Earth’s best chance of saving itself from the evil Sauron.

He turns to his mentor and Super-Natural guide, Gandalf, in discouragement. Frodo is almost ready to surrender and go home to the peaceful Shire. And that is when Gandalf provides a new perspective on the journey at hand.

Sometimes we don’t get to pick the mission or the adventure that is laid out in front of us. Often the mission picks us. Some adventures start out of our own inspiration but some begin out of disappointment, loss or pure necessity.

And every Adventure worth pursuing will challenge us – leaving us with moments of doubt and even regret just as Frodo experienced throughout his journey to Mordor.

There are forces at work in each of our lives – forces we can’t fully comprehend. When we find ourself on a journey we hadn’t intended and we feel like it is unraveling us and we wonder what the point is anyways, it would be helpful to remember that his is what every great Hero faces. There is a point and if the mission has chosen you, then you do have the resources you need to make it through. You won’t be able to see it all clearly in the midst of those dark moments of doubt. You may cry out, “Why me Lord?” So until you can look backward on the journey with clarity from experience, take comfort that you aren’t alone. This is part of the process of every Hero’s Journey. It wouldn’t be a great Story without it.

Wired for Stories

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Humans are hardwired for stories. It’s in our DNA to interpret the world through the lens of storytelling. In fact, we need stories to even begin to make sense of all the information and data confronting us each day. Storytelling is so ingrained in us that we spend our entire life narrating events without conscious awareness we are doing so.

Stories are like the operating system for our life. We make judgements (about ourselves and others) based on the narratives running through our heads. We choose spouses, careers and where we want to live base on the stories we create about those things. It’s something we have been doing since the beginning of mankind.

We don’t have a choice about whether we will filter life through stories. But we do have a choice on the direction of the stories we tell ourselves. In my book the Truest Story Ever Told, I contend that if we don’t like the way things are going in life or we simply would like to find more meaning in our day-to-day existence – considering the stories we are telling ourselves each day could really help us to create a better filter for our life.

As we head into 2019 and you begin to consider your goals and resolutions for the New Year, it might be more helpful to consider the story you want to tell about 2019. Instead of just writing down I want to lose 15 pounds or eat healthier, consider the narrative you want to live out for the coming year. You already know what makes for a great story – adventure, conflict, challenges and persistence. This time next year, what do you want your story to be about? Instead of just chasing discrete goals – chase a story. A story will keep you far more inspired and help you to see more clearly when you stumble – because the Hero rarely goes without some setbacks along the way.

Defeat the Threshold Guardians

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In my book, The Truest Story Ever Told, I talk about how to write your own true tale with your life, you have to be willing to engage risk and adventure.

Often before you can even set out on the adventure that is calling to you, there is a “threshold guardian” standing in your way – barring your departure. They are the voices (real people or in your inner-monologue) who say “No.” You can’t or shouldn’t do this because: it’s not safe, you’re not qualified, it’s too risky, you might fail, you might get hurt, you might wish you hadn’t.

Sometimes the Threshold Guardian comes in the form of friends and family members or a teacher or a boss or some gatekeeper in an industry, group or profession in which we would like to contribute. Sometimes the Threshold Guardian is our own psychological baggage we haven’t defeated.

The challenge is being able to see clearly enough to distinguish between a Threshold Guardian and a person who is not trying to block you but is indeed trying to help you make the right journey (the one that is meant for you and not the journey meant for someone else).

Two questions might help resolve whether you are dealing with a Threshold Guardian or an Ally for your pending journey.

  1. What is the motive of this person’s input? To help me, protect me and help me write my authentic story or is their input disguised and really about their own doubts, insecurities and need for control?
  2. Is this person someone who has wisdom in general and/or knowledge specific to the domain of your adventure?

We all need help and wise counsel along our way. It would be foolish to ignore it, even if it seems to be slowing us down in pursuing the Calls to Adventure laid down for us.

On the other hand, it would also be foolish to never get started because someone disagrees with us or challenges us or says, “they just want to make sure we are safe.” We need to identify those that are Threshold Guardians and deal with them swiftly. But we don’t need to be so rash that we dismiss every warning, signal or sage advice that comes our way as being some obstacle being thrown in our path. Some are just that and other’s are blessings that will truly help us advert disaster. Knowing the difference can sometimes be the challenge. Our paths will be best alighted through maturity, humility and asking the right questions.

Measuring Affluence

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In my last post about Defining Affluence I asked if we should reconsider our meaning when we think of Affluence.  The typical definition of Affluence is the state of material abundance or wealth.  But material abundance and wealth is a subjective measure.  It changes with each generation so what we think of as average today might have been seen as a symbol of extraordinary affluence just a few generations ago.  For example, we take indoor plumbing for granted when not all that many years ago, only the “affluent” would have had been able to afford such luxury.

I suggested there might be another side of the equation and that Affluence could be thought of as the absence of want.  In other words, someone might not have as much by way of material possessions but if they were generally satisfied with what they did have – that could also be considered Affluence.  In other words, Affluence could be reached by either gaining more or wanting less.

I believe we can take this line of reasoning a step farther and say that when we think of someone or a group of people who are Affluent we might ask in what way they are Affluent.  Modern Western culture is Affluent in material possession (we have more than we really need and more than any other society in history by far) but we are generally impoverished in time and relationships.  

What we saw in the last post is that because Hunter-Gatherer societies (who we would view as near destitute) don’t care too much for material possessions beyond what they need to survive. Because their needs are met in a few hours of labor each day they have built cultures where time and relational connection is abundant.  They might not be as materially affluent, but they have affluence of time and relationships.

My intent in raising this point is not to knock material belongings or the progress of commerce, but to suggest that our cultures limited view of Affluence keeps us from valuing other forms of Affluence as much as perhaps we should. 

We envy the most materially Affluent, but we often forget to ask at what cost did that Affluence come.   It would be interesting to see how our views would change if Affluence of time and Affluence of relationship were also celebrated the way Affluence of material wealth is in our culture.  

What if Affluence was viewed as a cumulative measure of Wealth, Time and Relationships and the most successful groups of people were not evaluated one dimensionally in terms of Wealth?  Instead, what if we looked at success as the delicate act of balancing these three dimensions together, and then pursued Affluence of time and relationship as persistently as we chase Affluence of material wealth? 

What do you think?  Have you ever considered how Affluent you are in 1) Material well being 2) Time well being and 3) Relational well being?  Would you dare to measure your success in a multi-dimensional with a culture that relentlessly pushes #1 above all else.   

What is Affluence?

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Compared to other societies throughout history we might say that today’s Western culture is one of “Affluence.”  At the same time, ironically, it’s a culture of great want and dissatisfaction.  Everyone seems to need something else, something newer, something bigger. We spend the better part of our lives working so we can afford things that most people in history didn’t have – or even know about.

It’s not enough to have one house, we need a 2nd one near a great vacation spot too. Or if you prefer a more trivial example.  How many people do you know who only have one pair of jeans or one pair of shoes?  There was a point in history not all that long ago where most of the population in the world would have been quite content with one pair of nice jeans and good shoes – and wouldn’t even considered that someone might own a different pair for nearly every occasion.

So what exactly is Affluence?  I like the definition I read recently in Marshall Sahlins book, Stone Age Economics.

 “An affluent society is one in which all the people’s material wants are easily satisfied.”

In other words Affluence is achieved by either producing more material goods or wanting fewer material goods.  Sahlins book, written in the 1960s, challenged the anthropological assumption that ancient hunter-gather societies lived at a barely subsistence level.  While studying small Hunter-Gatherer societies that have survived to modern times, Sahlins made a stunning discovery.  In many ways Hunter-Gather societies are more affluent, as measured by the above definition, than most of us would ever imagine.  Sahlins called them “The Original affluent society.”  Sahlin writes,

“Hunters and gatherers have by force of circumstances an objectively low standard of living. But taken as their objective, and given their adequate means of production, all the people’s material wants usually can be easily satisfied.”  

So the material wants of the tribe are easily satisfied, which translates to a lot more time for leisure, social activities and sleep. Part of Sahlins surprising finding was how little time was spent securing the basic needs of the group such as food and shelter and how much time was spent on these other activities.   This is why he label’s them Affluent.

We might have more material comforts than our primitive ancestors, but our material comforts create a burden they didn’t know.  We have to pay to store, insure, fix, maintain, replace, transport and finance all this stuff.  We work far longer hours and endure greater stress than they did to support our ever-growing hunger for more.  We might pity their circumstances but they might pity ours.

So what is affluence?  Is it getting what you want or wanting what you already have?

Three Days of Thomas Merton – Day 3

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Day 3: A Few of Merton’s “Seeds”

Thomas Merton, the scholar and monk, was at his core a comtemplative- a deep thinker. He produced a massive quantity of written work in his 53 years. If there was a theme to his contribution it was most likely his efforts to communicate how to live a full and meaningful life through contemplation.  In other words, how to connect to God in a way that transforms a person from who they think they are into the person God created them to be. And no one embodies this personal transformation better than Merton himself.  Agnostic to Trappist monk, no one can deny he practiced what he preached. He shared his wisdom less to persuade his readers to believe his beliefs, and more to plant a seed in a person’s thoughts that require that person to tend to and water.  I love Merton because I believe he believed himself to be less the master gardener that the masses should listen to and learn from and more simply the sharer of his personal gardening experiences and gained wisdom for the purpose to motivate others to become their own master gardeners.  Here are a few of his seeds of contemplation…….

“Perhaps I am stronger than I think I am”

“We stumble and fall constantly even when we are most enlightened.  But when we are in true spiritual darkness, we do not even know that we have fallen.”

“The BEGINNING of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not twist them to fit our own image.  Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves in them.”

“We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.”

“The least of learning is done in the classrooms.”

“If you want to study the social and political history of modern nations, study hell.”

“When ambition ends, happiness begins.”

“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

“What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves?  This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it, all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”

“We have what we seek, it is there all the time, and if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.”

“The more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt.  The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most.”

“Our IDEA of God tell us more about ourselves than about Him.”


Three Days on Thomas Merton – Day 2

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Day 2: Who was Thomas Merton…

“We stumble and fall constantly even when we are most enlightened.  But when we are in true spiritual darkness, we do not even know that we have fallen.”

I’ve shared this quote because, to me, it personifies Thomas Merton, the man.  He was real. He understood and communicated that a spiritual journey is not one that leads to enlightened perfection but rather leads to a real life well lived.  That is the quality that made Merton an overnight “sensation” but then produced a body of work that is still relevant 50 years after his death. His ability to share his deep introspective thoughts in a way that was REAL is interesting and approachable to a broad audience.  He was down to Earth yet wrote on topics that are academic and philosophical (way deep). He was clearly brilliant but was so grounded and secure in who he was and what he believed that his writings show no signs of being conceited or inflated. He wasn’t writing to convince or persuade others to believe what he believed.  He was simply writing to share his point of view…… to share his “Seeds of Contemplation” –his thoughts on how to live life well.  

So who was Thomas Merton?  Born in France in 1915 to two artists, Merton’s upbringing did not carve out the path toward the spiritual enlightenment he would experience and share in his writing.  Void of religion and stability Merton’s youth resembled that more of a vagabond than a monk. His mother died when he was 6 years old. His father often traveled for long periods of time leaving him with grandparents or friends to raise him.  His father died when he was 15 and thus began a season of self indulgence which Merton declared that “I believe in nothing.”

Academically astute, Merton went to Cambridge University but graduated from Columbia in New York. He desired to stay in the world of academia as an English professor, a path which he began walking down not knowing a higher power had another path in the works for him.  As Merton tells his story in The Seven Story Mountain what stands out is the way he communicates his total transformation from agnostic to monk as one that called to him instead of one he choose for himself.  Throughout his story it is as if an external force was calling him to himself; calling him to the path of becoming “the famous Thomas Merton”. As a teenager he traveled to Rome.  He could not shake the beauty of the architecture of the cathedrals and explored many without showing interest in the liturgy. A little later, the interior life of the church began calling and as he explains it, he felt an urge he could not explain to get baptized, but was still firmly secure that his path was in education not religion. 

Later Merton was prompted to visit the Abbey of Gethsemane and begrudgingly went. The life within the walls of the monastery could not have contrasted more to Merton’s extroverted life and personality. The Trappist monks he encountered inside vowed to live a life in silence and strict discipline. Merton was not one bit interested in this way of life, until well…. he was.  The next visit he made to Gethsemane was a permanent one. After the prompting of a senior monk to share his story, he wrote and later published his autobiography and his life of silence took a sharp turn as his ultimate path proved to be one that combined his earlier love of teaching with his new passion, God.  The teaching he had a solid grounding in while the God part, he was quickly learning. The year following the publishing of his autobiography he became an ordained priest and officially began his season of the act, writing and sharing of his contemplation.

The reason that Merton speaks to me so deeply is that he was a “seeker” not a “knower.” He shared his thoughts. He didn’t persuade others to believe his thoughts. I’d guess his goal was to light a fire of contemplation in each of his readers that encouraged them too to seek knowledge and wisdom about what it means to live a life well lived.  For it is one thing to be spoon fed information and something entirely more rich to discover it on our own. That is what his words do for me. And his path also deeply speaks to me. It is unexpected, one Merton himself couldn’t dream up. One that called to him as he listened and dared to follow.  What is the path God has for us that we can’t ourselves think up. The path that would surprise us just as much as Merton’s surprised him. Maybe when we plan out our life and hold tightly to that vision we miss out all together on another, more epic story that is wanting to be told? Maybe that unknown path begins with some contemplation?  And if one wants to learn about contemplation, I know of a man that wrote lots and lots on the subject.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.” – Thomas Merton