Category Archives: Pilgrimage–El Camino

Don’t Give Up

Been struggling lately? Feeling a little confused? Discouraged? Losing motivation?
Perhaps, temptations seem to be getting more intense. Your weaknesses seem more evident. You may be wondering if you are actually moving backwards, rather than forward.
If so, let me encourage you. You have reached a critical point in your spiritual development. Don’t lose heart. And most definitely, do not give up!

Contrary to appearances, our emotional turmoil may actually be a positive sign. Our struggles may actually be a sign of growing pains in our spiritual life—we may even be on the verge of making a major breakthrough.

In contrast, when we become complacent in our spiritual life or are too pre-occupied with our own concerns or pursuing our own happiness, we may feel just fine. We may be able to successfully distract ourselves from our inner longing for God. We may be able to avoid thinking about the inner work we need to do to keep growing and maturing.

However, once we turn our attention and intention (back) to God’s calling on our life, we will certainly soon be brought back to the place where we last left off.  We may have shrunk back from the difficulty of our spiritual journey, and now that we have resumed our pilgrimage, we have to face once again what we couldn’t face earlier. We are being given another opportunity to see and feel our loss, our failure, our weakness, our longing, our frustration, our disappointment, or something else that has been too difficult or painful to face.
So what should we do when we find ourselves newly committed but struggling as much or more than ever?

The same things that are always appropriate and most helpful whenever we want to go deeper, to grow spiritually, and to serve Christ more fully and effectively in our lives. We need to…
• Face reality—ask yourself, what is true about your life and circumstances that you need to acknowledge, whether you like it or not?
• Feel our feelings—without running away from them or distracting yourself, can you let the depth and intensity of your feelings teach you something you need to learn?
• Ask God for help—are you willing to pray that the Holy Spirit will help you to see what you need to see, to have courage to face the truth, and to have enough strength to act on whatever is revealed?
• Look for signs that God is actually part of the process—can you identify ways that God is at work through your struggles? Perhaps the Spirit is helping you to identify important questions; is bringing greater clarity about what’s most important to you; is providing opportunities to grapple with something you know you need to deal with; or, is bringing others into your life at the right time.
• Thank God that we are being given an opportunity to grow—can you hold fast to your faith that God will see you through this current struggle and lead you to the place the Holy Spirit wants to take you?
• Ask others to walk with us—who could you reach out to in order to get the support and help you need to face what you need to face and work through the pain or difficulty you are experiencing?

Facing the truth about how hard our spiritual journey can be a good and necessary thing to do, providing we don’t get stuck there. As the Apostle Paul teaches us by his example, we must also hold on to our faith in the midst of our struggles so that we persevere in the midst of them and grow through them.  He writes:
“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed…Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-9, 16, NIV)

No matter how great your struggles may be, today is the day of opportunity for you. Believe it. Pray it. Live it….one step at a time.
Grace and peace in Christ,
Tim

For more on how to navigate better the spiritual journey, order my book, One Step at a Time: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Spirit-Led Living, at https://spirit-ledleader.com/?page_id=29.

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Knowing God, the Holy Spirit, Better

In Spanish art, the Holy Spirit is often depicted as a dove. The image comes from the Gospel stories of Jesus’ baptism. In all four accounts, the evangelists describe the Holy Spirit’s descending in the form of a dove and alighting on Jesus. The dove somehow represented both God’s approval and God’s filling of Jesus with the Spirit. On pilgrimage, I experienced the Spirit as both the Dove of internal peace, and even more, as the Wind of change.

On pilgrimage, I sought to come to know the Holy Spirit better by seeking help, inspiration and transformation throughout the day as I struggled with my impulses, selfishness and reactions. Every day I was keenly aware of my own natural way of being in the world. Could walking more closely with the Spirit truly change me for the better, or at least make it possible for me to respond differently in difficult circumstances?

On July 19, we had to walk nearly 30 km (18 miles) to Foncebadon. I was Mr. GrumpHead at the start of the day, after a poor night’s sleep, tossing and turning with light in my eyes, oppressive heat in the room, and being self-conscious sleeping nearly nude (because of the oppressive heat) in room full of people. Then, when it was time to leave in the morning, Jill and one of my sons got mad at me because I wasn’t ready precisely when they were. I had been helping my other son and paying for the breakfast. I felt judged and underappreciated. Rather than try to explain, I just got mad in return, and sulked.

Then it started raining, and, as we faced the prospect of a long dreary, wet walk, son Tim wanted to walk even further, 5.8 km (about 3 ½ miles), than planned, uphill. I was tired, sore, hungry and crabby by the time we got to our attic room in the albergue on the side of a mountain, in a nearly deserted, broken down village—seemingly ready for demolition. It was not a very fun day or comforting place to rest.

However, along the way, I experienced a transformation in my attitude. I didn’t become superhuman, adopt a Stoic attitude or nonchalantly let everything roll off my back. I was still worn out and edgy by day’s end. I still wished my family understood me better. But, early on, my perspective suddenly changed and my spirit softened, changing my experience of the day’s walk significantly.

As I walked in solitude early in the day—too angry to want to walk with the others—I asked God to help me connect to the Spirit better—to let go of the anger and to be filled with love, joy, and peace. I wanted to be free from the power of the turmoil, so that I could focus better on the walk and on others. That day, praying worked. Somehow, my desire for transformation and my prayer swept the anger away. I stopped getting rained on, emotionally, even while my clothes were getting completely soaked.

Through that experience, an image presented itself that now represents the Holy Spirit to me. Instead of the dove, it was the wind. (Jesus used the same image in talking about how people are spiritually born again in John 3.) As we walked in the drizzle and rain, I noticed times that rain clouds were quickly swept away from us by the wind. When that happened, the rain was short-lived. At other times, rain clouds hovered overhead, and the rain kept falling on us. The Holy Spirit is like the wind that can chase away my anger and foul moods, if I let it. When I don’t pray, and I don’t want to be changed, the clouds hang there, and I get more and more wet.

Throughout the pilgrimage, I struggled with my own moods competing with walking in the Spirit. Many times, my fatigue or hunger or desires seemed to be the greatest influences on my mindset and behavior. Caffeine and sugar had their affect, too. Yet, no matter what the cause for my pre-occupation with myself and my condition, sometimes I wanted the Holy Spirit to just “take over,” but it rarely happened that way. Dominating, controlling, eliminating selfishness and sin, or permanently filling me with the fruit of the Spirit does not seem to be what the Spirit does.

Rather, as I wrote at the end of another long, hot walk, “the Spirit is more like the breeze I’m feeling at the moment, suddenly springing up to blow cool air over my hot, tired body, then ceasing. I can try to put myself where I think the wind will blow, but I cannot start or stop the flow.” (7/21/06, Villafranca) My experience on pilgrimage truly was helping me to get to know God, the Holy Spirit, better, as I sought to connect with the Spirit in the midst of daily struggles.

I was learning to recognize the Spirit’s activity in other circumstances, too. At times, I suspected that the Holy Spirit was at work when I suddenly got a timely idea, reminder, question or other prompting in my head or heart. I might recall a Bible verse of reassurance that fit a troubling situation, or suddenly think to take a different approach to handling a problem with one of my sons, or get an inspiration to talk to Jill or one of the boys about an important subject at a very opportune moment.

For example, one day I suddenly realized that I hadn’t been doing much to help Tim and Dan reflect on or grow from their experiences. I prayed for an opportunity to broach the subject, without intimidating or frightening them. That afternoon, their mother had an emotional meltdown after a very strenuous walk that left her in great pain and distress. The boys and I found ourselves at dinner alone—a perfect opportunity to play cards, which we enjoy doing a lot. Yet, I realized we also were being given an opportunity to talk at a deeper level. Because I had thought and prayed about talking to them about spiritual issues, I had been prepared for this moment.

We began by talking about today’s traumatic event, and moved to talking about how to use crises as learning experiences. We can ask ourselves, “How do I respond? What can I reflect on? What can I learn? What do I want to do differently now?” Their mother’s ordeal might have remained an uncomfortable experience that we moved quickly to distance ourselves from. Instead, we used the incident as an opportunity for reflection and connection with one another. I sensed it was the Holy Spirit who had prompted me to be ready to take better spiritual leadership in our family. The Spirit helped me to resisting become self-absorbed in my own coping instincts, so that I could offer the counsel and guidance needed that day.

On pilgrimage, the physical and emotional challenges force us to face what is real—our limitations, our selfish desires, our attachments to our emotional responses to conflict and adversity. Simple textbook answers to the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives are irrelevant. As we walk, we are forced to seek the real thing or abandon the search altogether. It would have been easy to assume that God was not present or available to help in the midst of the struggles and pain. But by choosing to seek God and remain open for God to act according to his own times and ways, I often experienced the Holy Spirit’s gracious “wind” that refreshed, revived, and changed me. Though I could not summon the Spirit on demand, I learned that praying with my questions, concerns and desires, and then listening, watching, and waiting helped me to come to know the Spirit better and walk more closely with and by the Spirit.

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Knowing God Better–As Son

We can know a fair amount about Jesus, the Son of God, through the Gospels. Yet most of realize that knowing about Jesus is not the same thing as knowing Jesus. Furthermore, as New Testament scholar Wayne Meeks articulately points out in his recent monograph, Christ Is the Question, historical research is inadequate to come up with a clear, consistent picture of Jesus anyway. He argues that, instead of relying solely on researching historical documents, knowing Jesus requires the personal engagement of each individual, community and generation. Knowing Jesus is not a static historical endeavor, but an ongoing, dynamic, spiritual process, rooted in history but developed existentially and communally through time. In other words, the various biblical accounts of Jesus call us to develop our own knowledge of Christ by interacting with the biblical narratives and testimonies available to us and by seeking our own personal connection with Christ.

So, how does anyone get to know Jesus Christ better through experience? I mean, as distinct from God as Father (Mother) or the Holy Spirit? As I reflected on this question on pilgrimage in Spain, my attention kept being drawn to the symbols of Jesus everywhere—on hillsides, in the villages, around the public squares, and, of course, in every church. Though in recent decades Spain has become decidedly more secular, it is still predominately a Roman Catholic country. This means, for example, crosses are displayed in public places in nearly every town. An image of the body of Christ is paraded through many towns during Easter week with elaborate rituals carried on throughout the nights. And in nearly every church, Christ is prominently displayed, hanging on the cross, usually in the front of the sanctuary, behind the altar, often above Mary, Queen of Heaven, who holds the Christ child on her lap. In addition, sometimes we find the crucified Jesus in a glass casket, affixed to poles, allowing the people to carry him through the streets on Good Friday.

James Michner, in Iberia, discusses the thoroughly Catholic character of Spain, at least from the time of the expulsion of the Moors in the fifteenth century through the mid-20th century, when he wrote his book. I could see for myself that through symbols and special rituals, alongside regular mass and religious holidays, many of the people of Spain have developed an ongoing, significant relationship with the Son of God. I spoke to very few individuals to find out how any one individual might articulate that relationship, but it was clear to me that the Christ held a very significant role in the culture.

How do they know him, then? How do any of us know Christ in present experience? Our knowledge with him grows as we more fully appreciate his character, his priorities, his passions, his service to humanity, and his ongoing role in the world. Though the crucifix is the primary way he is depicted in Spain, Christ is also portrayed in art, stained glass windows, and sculptures as the Judge of the world, the Savior of those who put their faith in him, and the ultimate Redeemer of the Universe. To know Christ is to appreciate what he has done for us in history, what he offers us now by way of forgiveness and promise for the future, and what he will bring to the world at the end of time. In a word, Christ symbolizes hope to believers, because he himself is Hope in so many ways.

In many towns, I would spend time in the church there, sitting at length in front of the crucifix. For one, it was a relief from the blistering mid-day, summer heat—the churches were often the only cool places in town. But even more, the visual depiction of Christ at the moment of his greatest personal sacrifice would lead me to the Son in a way that powerfully engaged my mind, my heart, and my spirit.

As I have written elsewhere, for me the crucifix communicates Christ’s sacrificial love more than anything else. The visual depiction of his suffering and death reminds me that it cost Jesus a great deal to fulfill his God-given purpose. By contemplating his sacrifice, made with real flesh and blood, I grasp better the extent of his love and devotion to God, whom he called Father. I can feel the intensity of his passion more fully. The implications of his commitment to a prophetic ministry in the face of hostile opposition, culminating in his dying out of his faithfulness to God, overwhelm me—yet draw me to him more strongly than ever.

Thus, by contemplating the crucifix, I believe I actually “know” Christ better. By reflecting on the many symbols and rituals found ubiquitously in Spain, I came to know Jesus more profoundly as Hope—not just for me personally, but for all who would put their faith in him; and for the world, which will one day be redeemed. I did not learn one thing about the Son of God that isn’t already explained in Scripture, but my experience of seeking out a greater understanding through experience has profoundly deepened my appreciation and love for him, all leading to a powerfully felt devotion to him.

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Knowing God Better–As Father

Surprise! Seeking to know God better is paying off already.

 As soon as I opened myself more fully to the mystical path of knowing God–looking for what I can learn about God through intuition and experience–new insights and deeper convictions started emerging. Now, it´s not as if I´m starting from scratch. I  can draw on  the Bible for a list of God´s attributes and as a way to evaluate the ideas that pop into my head. What´s new is that I´m asking God to teach me through what happens in the course of my life–on pilgrimage and in normal everyday life. I´m praying for a gut level assurance of truth that grounds and moves me more powerfully than just intellectual knowledge.

I don’t expect to suddenly discover new qualities of God that no one ever thought of before. Rather, I´m looking at what I experience through a theological lens. I´m asking, what do my thoughts, feelings, observations, realizations, changes, lack of changes, interactions with others, sights, smells, tastes, and every other dimension of my human experience suggest to me about God?

For example, on one long,  solitary stretch of  El Camino, about three and half weeks into the pilgrimage, I asked God to show me something about Father, Son or Holy Spirit through what I  had experienced so far. Still feeling a bit skeptical of the mystical process, I didn’t expect to come up with much.    What could I know about God, the Father, from a 500 mile walk across northern Spain? What could I learn about Jesus the Christ that I didn’t already know from studying the Bible? Knowing the Holy Spirit better seemed more likely, but my list of questions  seemed to be growing longer, not shorter.

However, I have been surprised by how much I am learning.

Take God, the Father. As I contemplated God as loving parent, I felt led through a reflective process that helped me to see God in a new light, with greater appreciation and inspiration.

My mind immediately went to my experience with my sons. For nearly a month, I had been trying to use this unique pilgrimage opportunity to become a better father. I wasn’t working off of a checklist of do´s and don’ts, but was trying to stay engaged and to pay attention to what my kids needed from me and to what I most had to offer them. I didn’t want to call attention to what I was doing. I just want to be the best dad I could be.

For example, I consciously tried to…

  • be a good leader, from everything to trip planning to facilitating conflict resolution
  • offer spiritual input and guidance
  • be transparent
  • serve them and not just look out for my own interests first
  • love their mother, my wife
  • reach out to them
  • delight in them
  • play with them in ways they enjoy
  • invest my time, energy, mind, heart in what matters to them
  • listen to them, even when I ´m tired or want to do something else
  • model self-discipline, perseverance, humility, graciousness…
  • admit weakness and failure, ask forgiveness, try again…
  • keep a sense of humor
  • love them in action, not just words or in my heart

Now, I didn’t say I have been successful doing all these things consistently. There are many times that my kids readily can point out to me how far I  am falling short of my own ideals and of what I  have taught them to do! Rather, I ´m talking about  attributes that  I value and want to demonstrate in their presence, day in and day out.

Then it occurred to me to ask, ¨How is God like this ideal parent? ¨ ¨How could I know God in these ways better? ¨ ¨How can I become more like God the Father? ¨

God doesn’t fail as I do, but so much of what I aspire to be as a human father, God does by nature. God loves, forgives, serves, sacrifices for me, cares from his heart and loves in action, offers guidance and wisdom, invests in me, engages me, draws me close to himself. Just pausing to realize some of these things, made me feel closer to God, and inspired me to want to find other ways God is a good parent to me, and  ways I can become more like God in my fathering.  

The next day following writing down these intial musings, I had a chance to take the road less travelled with my oldest son, Tim. He and I took an alternative route over the mountains and met up my wife and other son 12 hours later. The scenery was spectacular. Poorly marked trails; long, steep  inclines; mid-summer heat; and a painful, final stretch downhill, all made for a fabulous adventure. Hours of silence or simple conversation, hardly seeing another soul, in such beauty, created a peaceful, joyful feeling that was so deep that neither of us could imagine ever feeling otherwise.

Yet, the best part of the day for me was simply being with my son. The joy did not come from what we did or said, as much as it came from being in  his presence, when we both were at felt completely free to be ourselves and to enjoy the experience together. I watched as  Tim stopped to photograph the sunrise slowly splashing light into the valley hundreds of feet below us. I smiled when I heard joy in his voice,  while marvelling at  centuries old tree trunks, or stooping to pat a dog that ran out of nowhere to greet us. I laughed when we had to  duck to get out of the way of a horned cow that suddenly took an unhealthy interest in us. I growled with him as we inspected the long scratches and bleeding legs that came from treacherous thorn bushes after being forced off trail on our final descent into the third valley of the day ´s hike.

Then, at some point, I suddenly realized  that  I was learning something about God the Father from my experience with  Tim.  If God loves me as I love my son, surely he delights in just being with me.  If I can feel such joy just seeing Tim so happy and peaceful, I have to think that God–whose capacity to love must far exceed mine–must be thrilled  to be with me  at such times, too.  He loves me all the time, but delights in and with me when I am experiencing the abundant life he intends for me, because that ´s  the nature of a  Father ´s (and Mother ´s) love.

What a different kind of knowledge of God, the Father–and different way of gaining it. What I knew in my head from reading the Bible, I  had experienced through my time with my son. Now my heart can freely affirm, what I have been taught to believe in my head. God delights in me, just because I am his child.

More on God, the Son, and God, the Holy Spirit, later….

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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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