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God’s Invitations: An Exploration of Christian Spirituality

  “To realize truth our whole being has to be brought into accord with actuality, with things as they are, which requires that in communications with others we respect things as they are by speaking the truth. Truthful speech establishes a correspondence between our own inner being and the real nature of phenomena, allowing wisdom to rise up and fathom their real nature. Thus, much more than an ethical principle, devotion to truthful speech is a matter of taking our stand on reality rather than illusion, on the truth grasped by wisdom rather than the fantasies woven by desire.”   – Bhikkhu Bodhi, The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering, pp. 49-50.   This post is about spirituality. There are thousands of other posts about spirituality. What makes this one different? I don’t know: education, age, experience. It is written with addictive behavior in mind, in particular compulsive sexual behavior. It’s from a Christian perspective, although it will journey into psychoanalysis and Eastern beliefs before returning again. It’s also written from the perspective of need.   I guess that’s the biggest difference between this post and many other posts, books, or sermons on spirituality: it’s written from the perspective of need. Talking about God in the abstract can be fun and fascinating, but talking about God because you have to is another thing.   I’ll begin with a story…   Micah Micah is the son of immigrants. He grew up in Los Angeles. His parents, particularly his father, were set in the ways of their homeland: respect for parents whether they deserved that respect or not. If you didn’t respect them, whatever that meant, you would suffer corporal punishment.   Despite their faults, Micah’s parents meant well. They came to America with little and wanted for their children that which they did not have. They were Christians. Observant. Bible-based.   Micah told me the story of a time when he was eight-years old and his family was on a trip with another family. While his family was tending to car trouble, Micah went into a Kentucky Fried Chicken with the other family. “What would you like?” asked the father. Never having stepped foot into a KFC before, Micah went for the 16-piece bucket of crispy. Go big or go home. When Micah’s father found out about it he was not pleased, threw the chicken out, and spent the afternoon chastising his son for imposing on others.   Years of beatings taught Micah the lesson to appear diligent, ordered, and competent even when he didn’t feel that way inside. He was a top-notch student bred in the ways of a first-generation American living out the dreams of...

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Bucket Lists

“The secret self knows the anguish of our attachments and assures us that letting go of what we think we must have to be happy is the same as letting go of our unhappiness.” – Guy Finley     The Academy Bridge in Venice, Italy is one of only four bridges that span the Grand Canal.  It’s a footbridge, really, a 1985 replica of the 1933 replacement of the original 1854 bridge.  Its rails and cables drip with thousands of small metal padlocks inscribed with male and female names.  My son asked me what they were for.  I told him I didn’t know.  Later research proved they are “love locks,” fastened onto renowned locations about the city by lovesick youth as a sort of benign graffiti.  The Venetian police are cracking down on the tradition.  Further evidence why Paris is the city of love, not Venice.   I didn’t realize this until later but the Academy Bridge, or Ponte dell’Accademia, is one of the most photographed locations on the planet.  It shares company with the Moulin Rouge in Paris and another Italian bridge, the Ponte Vecchio, in Florence.  This came to my attention soon after visiting Italy when I stumbled across a CNN.com article about Panoramio, Google’s “geolocation-oriented photo-sharing website.”  This site quantifies the number of photographs posted for given locations about the world. Looking back on my experience at the Academy Bridge I’m not surprised to discover that it’s one of the most photographed sites.  Yes, it’s beautiful, but it also has that “site of significance” air about it.  It’s crowded, for one, and relentlessly so.  The trail of international visitors stretching across its boards is unrelenting.  And then, of course, there are the photographs.  There is a difference between taking a picture because a moment is memorable and taking a picture because it’s supposed to be taken.  This is commonplace at sites that are famous for being famous.  You’re not going to go to the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, or the Grand Canyon and not take a picture, or two…or twenty. As I stood at this location, after taking my own set of photographs (I just counted them and there are eleven), I reflected on the maddening crush of humanity.  I calculated its sources statistically, economically, and culturally.  Statistically, since there are over seven billion people in the world today, it would only make sense that a site like this would be so packed.   Economically, the growth of middle classes in emerging countries would fuel this population to travel to places such as this.  But as a Westerner, particularly an American, I couldn’t help but place significance on the role of culture in this mass...

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The Devil Made Me Do It

I’m doing one of those Bible reading plans where you read the Bible in a year.   Each day you read something from the Gospels, Epistles, Psalms or Proverbs, and the rest of the Hebrew Bible.  It’s helpful for me to do this on occasion due to my tendency either to soften my memory of source material or, much worse, invent it.  If I’m going to have scripture guide my spirituality it’s a good idea to come to terms with it as it is instead of how I remember it to be.   A few days ago Mark 2:15-17 and I Corinthians 5:9 were up on the same day.  In the Mark passage Jesus and his disciples have dinner with tax collectors and sinners.  When the Pharisees ask him why he is doing this, Jesus replies,  “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (NIV).  In the I Corinthians passage Paul discusses the case of a man having sexual relations with his stepmother.  To this Paul advises the Corinthians, “You must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler.  Do not even eat with such people” (NIV).   You’ve got to love the contradictions inherent in the Christian Bible.  In the same cannon Jesus proclaims that everyone is welcome at His table while Paul, supposedly speaking for Jesus, says that only the righteous are allowed at his.  So whom do we believe?  Is the church a school for sinners or a society of saints?   Theologians trying to make sense of these contradictions have spilled no shortage of ink.  It’s enough to keep you perpetually curious, confused, and dizzy all at the same time.  Of all of the theologians who have wrestled with these issues one of my favorites was Martin Luther.  Although I have gained quite a bit from him theologically, it was his ability to let God be God that has always encouraged me.  Whenever he seemed to run out of plausible explanations for his adversaries – and it was usually his adversaries for whom Luther wrote – he would pull the God-card.  “I don’t have an answer for that,” he would explain.  “But God does.  I’m trusting Him.” *   Regardless of where we land in our Christian walk, we all must contend with these seeming contradictions.  We can ignore them, pick and choose, adopt systematic theologies that try to unify that which seems incapable of unification, create our own theologies, or, in some cases, when the tension between these discrepancies and our consciences get...

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Jesus’s “Third Way” and “The Wall”

“We should be non-attached, but non-attachment must not lead to apathy; we need to be concerned with justice, but we must not meet injustice with anger; we should be ready to act, but action must always take account of the conditions which lead people to act in unwholesome ways, and be motivated by compassion for both oppressed and oppressor.” – Rose Drew, Buddhist and Christian?: An Exploration of Dual Belonging, p. 159 Whenever I’m uncertain about a direction I must take in life I ask God to show me what I am supposed to do.  OK, not always, but usually once I discover I’m not getting anywhere on my own I’ll do this.  If I assume an attitude of mindfulness I will undoubtedly have my answer by the end of the day.  Often it is not the answer that I wanted, but it’s always the answer that I need.   A few weeks ago I was in just such a position.  It wasn’t a major life decision that I was unsure about but I was wondering if a topic I really wanted to write about was not only relevant, but also if how I wanted to discuss it wasn’t too “out there.”   The topic in question had to do with the language that we use to describe our life experiences.  As I discussed in the post The Crucible of Vulnerability the language that we use does more than just describe life; it determines it.  If we use language like “wall,” “battle,” or “war” to describe emotional experiences we run the risk of creating internal struggles instead of alleviating them.   In that post I noted that it wasn’t going to be there where I discussed the language that we use to describe our life experiences but it would be in the next post.  This happens to be that next post.  But how was I going to discuss the language that we use to describe our life experiences without being too, as I said, “out there?”  That was the question that I had for God that morning.  From there it was my job to pay attention.   That night I led the X3LA Men’s Recovery Group.  It was a particularly successful group with around 12 men attending and filled with open sharing and a great deal of personal revelation and growth.  After the meeting ended I walked out onto the streets of Hollywood with a friend of mine, a man who has been coming to the groups for the past three years.   “I’m coming up on that point,” my friend said in reference to “The Wall,” that stage in recovery two to three months after sobriety where the...

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The Crucible of Vulnerability

Friends, when life gets really difficult, don’t jump to the conclusion that God isn’t on the job.  Instead, be glad that you are in the very thick of what Christ experienced. This is a spiritual refining process, with glory just around the corner. (MSB)   – 1 Peter 4:12-13   If you’ve been in any of my recovery groups lately or read my posts, especially Stages of Recovery (Change), you are well aware of the concept of “The Wall.”  “The Wall” is the third stage of recovery from substances of abuse.  It looms after two to three months of sobriety.  Many have approached “The Wall” but few have breached it.   I write that last sentence tongue-in-cheek.  The term “The Wall” sounds so foreboding, like “Swim at Your Own Risk” or “Abandon hope, ye who enter here,” but the truth of the matter is “The Wall” is merely a term given to a concept.  This stage could just as easily have been labeled “The Transition Point” or “The Shift,” something softer and more mundane.  Yet for many “The Wall” feels exactly like a wall so it may as well be labeled as such.   Regardless of this fact, “we do well to choose our metaphors wisely” as spiritual leader Parker Palmer offers in his brief but profound book Let Your Life Speak, (p. 96).  The language that we chose does more than just describe our life experiences; it determines them.  If we use language like “wall,” “battle,” or “war” to describe what is essentially an emotional experience we run the risk of fomenting an internal struggle and begin to see change not as growth but as destruction.   This post isn’t about the language we use to describe our inner experiences, however.  The next post will be.  This post is about what is really going on within us as we approach and move past “The Wall.”  My hope in these two posts is to demystify “The Wall” and if not aid you in breeching it then certainly help you in dissolving it so that it no longer exists.   Recently I was working with a client who has been addicted to sex, not to mention alcohol and drugs, for the majority of his life.  Pornography was not his thing as much as anonymous sex and sex with prostitutes.  This man had spent over forty years of his life managing his emotions through sexual fantasy, affairs, and booze.  Fortunately, both physical and relational circumstances had cornered him to the point where he needed to change or else he would literally die.  In essence, he was at rock bottom.  At least I hoped he was.   I had spent six months...

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God, Community, and “The Wall”

“Repentance…demands a radical turning away from what was and a trusting in the unknown journey of faith.  It means acknowledging one’s implication in the sin of the world and a beginning to live as if God were real.  Repentance means giving up control and learning to trust God enough to feel certain that whatever God decides will be just and fair.” – John Swinton, Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil, p. 141   I received two significant emails recently.  Both were from men who had reached “The Wall” stage in their own personal recovery from pornography use.  “The Wall” is at the second or third month of sobriety.  It sounds ominous.  I don’t know if it should or not, but it does.  Essentially, “The Wall” is the point where the recovering person starts to face him or herself.  And then there’s some physiological issues thrown in there.  Joy…   The first email I received had to do with “The Wall” but it was in regard to a post I had written entitled Fear.  In that post I had explained how facing our fears holds the key to our sobriety because it is precisely our substance abuse that aids us in avoiding our fears.  Go sober and you face your fears; face your fears and you are sober.  They are one and the same.   Because of the very nature of the relationship between sobriety and fear there is a spiritual dynamic to all of this.  If by definition there is nothing we can take into our fears, that means that when we face our fears we meet God since God, as a non-object, is all that remains.  Go sober, face your fears, meet God.  Easy enough, right?  Not exactly, and that’s why it’s called “The Wall.”   The man who had sent me an email regarding my discussion of fear could sense that this wasn’t easy as well and so he inquired, “How do I push into fear and the unknown?  What does that look like?”  Since I knew this man and he knew me he offered his own answer, “I know you’re going to say I have to find out and it’s different for everyone.”  He was right, but more on that in a moment.   The second email I received was in regard to something I had written in the post Stages of Recovery (Change) in which the concept of “The Wall” was first introduced.  In that post I wrote,   I often think, in regard to the men and women who come to addiction support groups in church settings, what it would be like for them if they were in rehab, if...

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