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The Alban Institute

A Grounded Life

Triacastela, Spain. 145 km (87 miles) to go to reach Santiago. Both of Jill ´s ankles are wrapped to get her through the remaining week, my sons are more than ready to go home now, and I ´m fantasizing about The Original Pancake House, American movies, and sleeping in my own bed.

Yet  the pilgrimage is having the effect I hoped for and pray for every day. The heavy packs and 25,000 or so steps we take each day are  making  us very  conscious of the ground under  our feet. The experience is intensely physical, but the meaning of it is profoundly  spiritual.

The concrete, physical realities of my own bodily limitations and needs mean  I have  to choose my path carefully, and soberly weigh options before deciding to take a detour to pursue an interest. The choices I make matter greatly for myself as well as for those who travel with me on the journey. I cannot ignore the pain in my feet indefinitely or my needs for water, food, shade, rest, encouragement, conversation, friendship, or hope.

How far can I truly go in a day? What will be the cost of waiting for the sun to come up before starting out? How do I need to adjust  my plans to adequately care for my wife ´s needs as well as my own and my sons ´? When do we need to slow down and rest so that ultimately we can go further and get more out of the experience? How will we negotiate our competing values and interests?

All of the questions and issues stemming from our pilgrimage experience are helping me to become more grounded in my life–which simply means recognizing better the real world in which I live, and the implications for my decisions as I live out my life. As opposed to dwelling in the realms of ideas, hopes, dreams and imagination (where I love to live), being grounded focuses my attention on what is real–on myself, others, situations, and the world around me as they truly are in the present moment.

Being more grounded allows me to see my wife ´s agony and need for rest and support better. I am able to accept  one son ´s fear and distress, and the other ´s boredom and longing, and respond to  each one  more constructively. I can notice what they truly enjoy and appreciate, as opposed to what I want them to care about and value. I can better see what their faces are expressing, and hear what they are not saying with words. Being well grounded requires slowing down, paying attention to details, shutting my mouth, listening, asking thoughtful questions, feeling my feelings, trying to articulate what is going on inside my heart and mind, and continually asking God to help me to see what I need to see, to have courage to face the truth, and for strength to act on what is revealed.

Being more grounded in the present is a stepping stone to becoming a better person and spiritual leader, as frustrating as having to admit my own limitations may be, and as painful as aching physically is, and as disappointing as experiencing my own weakness and self-centeredness can be. ¨Who am I? ¨ and ¨Who might I become? ¨do not yield the same answers. Yet by honestly facing the realities that come from exploring the first question, I have a better chance of creating a more satisfying answer to the second question. The more I can face what is, the more I can pursue what might be–and expect fruitful results.  Being well grounded in  reality also helps me to lead and serve better, teach and inspire more effectively, and encourage more powerfully.

I am learning much about myself–some of which is painful, some of which brings me peace and joy, but all of which is giving me greater clarity and hope for my life. As I anticipate continuing to pursue my calling to know God better, to teach, and to offer spiritual leadership and guidance to others, I see how much depends on being well grounded.

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Pilgrimage–El Camino 2006

Leon, Spain. Over half way to Santiago de Compostela. We ´ve walked over 250 miles, starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, France. We crossed the Pyrenees, through dense fog and at times heavy rain, reaching Roncesvalles, Spain, wet, sore, and exhausted. What had we gotten ourselves into?

Over the centuries, the greatest spiritual leaders in the Christian tradition  have often  described spiritual growth in painful terms. Suffering leads to new insights and depth in our relationship with God. Therese of Avila, among others, describe the three fold mystical path as one of purgation, illumination, and communion. One type of experience leads to the next. Yet, the process is often cyclical throughout our lives.

I was drawn to El Camino (the pilgrimage pathway), because I wanted greater understanding about my life, my future, and God. I understood that first I might need to undergo some “purgation” as part of the process. I don’t like suffering any more than anyone else, but I was willing to do whatever it may take to move forward with my life. And if purgation could mean being freed a little more from the things that are holding me back, from anxiety, fear, self-centeredness, anger or any other self-defeating or wrong attitude or behavior, I was all for it.

Most days so far have been long trudges over rocky paths, up and down hills, or through arid wastelands–though we have seen some beautiful valleys and mountains along the way. The temperature the last few days has hit 100. Our feet blister, ache or swell. Getting up at 5:15 a.m. has gotten old. Today, we are taking a rest day. We ´re that exhausted.

Still, the walking has been an incredible, grounding and illuminating  experience. Most of the time, I ´m not aware of what is happening internally while I ´m walking. Then, all of a sudden, emotion will surge out of me–anger, longing, sadness, frustration, disappointment, regret, relief, hope. (More than a few gangly weeds along the Camino are no longer standing, because of a sudden thrashing from my walking stick!) Then, clarity and conviction. We ´ve had a number of difficult, but very fruitful relational conflicts and  conversations as well. Other times, we ´ve laughed, poked each other, teased, and felt really close.

Early on, as I was praying for clarity about my calling, I heard a response that made sense: “This pilgrimage is about preparing you to hear your call–not to tell you what your call is.” Though I like easy answers when they ´re available, I realized that I needed to be changed internally first in order to be able to understand and, more importantly, to accept  God ´s next call. Otherwise, I may keep trying to pour new experiences and insights into old wineskins.  

The most surprising revelation so far came during one of my times of solitude–when I walk for long stretches by myself. Out of the blue, I heard myself tell God that I was fairly satisfied with my spiritual life as it is, based on what I know about God and spirituality. Maybe a 9 out of 10. I know there ´s an infinite universe worth of knowledge about God out there, but I suspect that most of it is well out of my grasp. Futhermore, don’t the huge needs of the world call for Christians to roll up their sleeves and devote themselves   to concrete, this-world concerns, as the hands and feet of Christ?

Well, yes, generally speaking, it ´s true: Christians are needed everywhere to meet human needs and to be actively engaged in developing solutions to local and world issues. Nevertheless, almost as soon as I announced my intention to become more practically minded, I knew I was being led down this line of thinking for a different outcome than I had imagined.

Paul ´s words to the Philippians came to mind. He said that nothing mattered more to him than knowing Jesus Christ and the power of his suffering and resurrection. Paul was very involved in the “real world” as a church planter, evangelist, fundraiser, author, public speaker and teacher. Yet, his heart and passion was first and foremost for his relationship with God through Christ. His words struck home.

Does God want me to risk “wasting” my life, my time, my energy, pursuing a deeper spiritual life? It seems the answer for me is “Yes.”

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Spiritual Retreat in Chartres, France (1 of 6)

The Chartres Cathedral

If you haven’t ever been there, you have to go some time. But expect to be changed by your visit.

Chartres is a town, one hour by train, southwest of Paris. In it is a huge, beautiful cathedral, built at the beginning of the thirteenth century. My wife, Jill, and I journey to Chartres once a year for a ten day spiritual retreat.

  • I go to connect with God on a deeper level
  • I go to rest–from all my striving and drivenness
  • I go to listen to God
  • I always hear something I don’t want to hear, but need to hear
  • It’s always a hard time
  • It’s always the best time of the whole year

When you walk inside of the cathedral, you are immediately struck by the immensity of the sanctuary. The pillars stretch up into grand arches that lift your eyes and heart toward heaven. The stained glass windows are breathtaking. The labyrinth on the floor is intriguing.

My favorite thing to do in the Chartres cathedral is to quietly walk around, hum the Lord’s prayer, and pray. I like to spend hours sitting in front of a statue of Jesus. This year I gravitated to a life-sized crucifix–a cross, with a figure representing Jesus nailed to it. Each day I took time to simply look at him and think about his love and self-sacrificial death. At times, I did my Bible study there, looking up from my Bible periodically, remembering to silently ask Jesus how the verses apply to my life.

Often, I just sat there in Jesus’ presence, letting my mind wander and thinking about what’s going on in my life. I know God is present everywhere, but it’s different there. Somehow sitting in such a grand house of worship, with a figure of Jesus on the cross in front of me, surrounded by stained glass windows and sculptures telling biblical stories, makes me more aware of God’s presence. I find that I want to pray. I want to connect. I want God to speak to me.

This year, I have been reading and thinking a lot about differences among Christians and differences between Christianity and other religions–especially, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and New Age beliefs. I’ve been deliberately seeking out people whose faith is different from mine. I want to understand them better.

I’ll admit, I originally mostly wanted to make myself feel better about being a Christian. I wanted to find the faults in others’ beliefs to strengthen my own confidence in mine. But I’ve been discovering a surprising thing. The people I’m meeting are a lot like me, and share many of the same values I hold. They’re often people who love their families, want to honor God with their life and practice, and want to do good and make the world a better place.

So my search has changed. Instead of just looking for the differences, now I’m also looking for how God is working everywhere in the world, in different traditions, through and in spite of official dogmas and traditions. I’m amazed at what I’m finding, and eager to stay on the journey. I’m more glad than ever to be a Christian, and my love for Jesus keeps deepening, but I’m also amazed at the people I’m meeting and what I’m learning from them.

I discovered that the crucifix had been positioned inside of the ecumencial chapel in the cathedral. As I wrestle with deep spiritual questions, I was being drawn to sit with Jesus, in a place devoted to celebrating points of common faith among divergent traditions. I wonder what God is going to show me next….

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Spiritual Leadership

Our world is crying out for better leadership in all spheres of life–government, church, schools, NGOs, you name it.

What is really needed, though? Do our existing leaders lack knowledge? wisdom? sophistication? skills? diplomacy? humility? courage? faith?

There’s obviously not one answer that fits every leader, and the list of how any individual leader could grow may be endless–having room for personal and professional growth is part of what it means to be human.

But something fundamental needs to change that applies to every leader–for the sake of the Church, our society, and our world. That something is how we understand who we are and why we are alive in this world at all. The more leaders could see themselves as precious children of God, created to experience the love of God and live out their calling in love, the more leaders would be able to function powerfully and effectively–the more leaders would be capable of meeting the incredible challenges in today’s world.

When I say experience the love of God, I mean having a sense of loving embrace by God. For some the experience may come as a gentle calling of their name; for others, there will be an overwhelming conviction that they are being called to bend their knee to their Creator. In the dynamic relationship that is formed, there is acceptance, forgiveness, submission, and cooperation. There is release, joy, lightness of being, and love. There is life.

When I say live out their calling in love, I mean leaders will see all that they do as an opportunity to bring God’s love to bear on their sphere of influence. There will be justice, compassion, mercy, and intelligent systems that serve the people well. There will be courage, strength, and a fierce opposition to any force that seeks to undermine the good of the people. Leaders will value life, preserve life, and promote the fullest expression of life.

What we need, then, are leaders who see themselves first and foremost as spiritual leaders. They value their relationship with God above all else, and then see their vocation as an outgrowth of their spiritual life. More, they both consciously and subconsciously draw on God as the wellspring for their entire life.

Leaders today need many skills, abilities and resources to lead effectively. But, in my opinion, the greatest lack is spiritual depth and vitality.

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The Sacred Love Flow

One day this winter, I had a waking dream of the sacred love flow. My experience has led me to a powerful vision of living life completely immersed in the love of God.

I was standing on two rocks, straddling a flowing stream of water. I sensed God’s love flowing under me and around me. I could feel the energy. I started to shake. The power was immense.

As I contemplated the prospect of God’s love expanding, I was suddenly catapulted into the air by the surging fountain. I almost fell over, the sensation was so powerful.

Then, I laughed. I pictured myself as a little comical figure on my back being held up in the air, helpless to do anything but flail my arms and legs. All I could see was water stretching out in every direction beneath me, and a pale blue sky. I knew God was all around me, but I felt alone and empty. I realized that there was only option for me to escape my present state. I had to dive beneath the surface.

I was afraid I would drown, but I intuitively grasped that my only hope was going forward. It was dive, and take my chances, or remain on the surface, surrounded by God, but completely unsatisfied.

I chose to trust. Instantly, I found myself underwater, swimming freely and looking at the beautiful fish and coral, lit up somehow by God’s light. I could breathe by some miraculous oxygen source. I am completely at peace, and full of joy.

I want to live in the ocean of God’s love, and be filled and overflowing with it. I want to others to experience this sacred love in their encounters with me. I want every thing I do to be an expression of this love.

The sacred love flow is a vision. It’s a calling. It’s a way of being in the world. It’s far from a reality in so many ways, but it has become my guiding light. It is Christ in us, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)

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A Relationship with God

A radio caller asked me last week what I meant by a relationship with God. On one hand, the answer seems so self-evident. On the other, I realized that each of us has so many different kinds of relationships in our lives–some joyful, some blasé, some dangerous, some fulfilling, some disheartening, some painful.

I have gone through many dark days in my life time in my relationship with God–times when I felt that God abandoned me or was unfair to me, or simply didn’t care. At other times, I’ve feared that God was angry at me for my sins or meting out just punishment. Sometimes, I feel so empty and despair that life seems meaningless and unbearable. Nearly everyone I know can talk about times when they could not say they had a good, personal relationship with God.

But in my relationship with God, I have also known a tremendous sense of love, of comfort, of peace, of joy, of strength, and power. So, today, when I talk about relationship with God, I think of the good experiences, without forgetting the depth of the pain and “lostness” I have felt at times–and still feel on occasion.

So, what is a relationship with God–that’s worth talking about and promoting?

For the radio caller, I simply said, it is our sense of connection to God. A “personal” relationship goes further. Personally relating to God goes beyond believing that God exists or being vaguely aware of God’s presence. It is connecting in a way that seems personal to us–we can talk to God, we believe God hears us, we sense God is responding to us in one way or another.

A “good,” personal relationship with God involves even more. Not only do I feel connected and believe God is involved in my life, but I also cherish the relationship. I believe God loves me…personally. God knows my name, and cherishes me, too.

In spite of all the dark moments in my life, I’ve discovered a connection to God that has given me so much life, love and hope–all the while knowing that I have only had a small taste of all the God has in mind for those who seek a personal relationship with their God.

A few months ago, a friend asked me “who are you?” What a question! Then, from somewhere deep within me a simple answer suddenly emerged. “I am loved,” I told him. Somehow, that says it all for me.

Who are you?

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