Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Faith Swings

One of my favorite things about Elijah, the prophet of God, is how he goes from having an experience of God’s power and presence to an experience of fear and running away. In an epic tale, Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to a contest to see who really is God. Elijah says, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets number four hundred fifty.” (1 Kings 18:22)

Two altars are constructed and two bulls sacrificed, and the priests of Baal call to their god to send fire down to consume their sacrifice. All day they call out, growing more desperate, but nothing happens. Elijah calls on God, and in dramatic fashion, fire comes from heaven and consumes the sacrifice, the altar and the stones. The people observing this rise up and kill the priests of Baal.

Elijah should be on top of the world, full of God’s power and confidence. Instead, when the queen threatens to kill him for killing the priests of Baal, he is shaken to his core and flees, lacking any confidence in God’s ability to protect and preserve him. It’s such a human way. We so easily find ourselves pulled between poles of fear and approval. When we accomplish something significant, the good feeling only lasts until the first words of criticism come.

Living one’s life based on accomplishments and approval keeps us always on an emotional roller coaster. One minute we’re up, the next we are down. If our identity is found in externals, we never really know who we are. We have abdicated our identity to what others think about us and this keeps us always in a state of dis-ease, because different people think different things about us and emotions are so volatile and variable.

The only way we can have any sense of inner peace is to know who we are in our innermost being. This is the journey of a lifetime, but it is not a journey easily undertaken. It is a hidden way, and many are not even aware that it is the most important journey. But until it is undertaken, a person will always be tossed about by the ebb and flow of external circumstances. The inner journey gives us the anchor to stay grounded whether we are approved or attacked, because we will know who we really are. When moods swing, our faith can hold us like an anchor.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Soul-Tending in the Workplace

A question I often ask myself and others when contemplating a major decision is: Will this be life-giving or life-draining? We are often so accustomed to making decisions based on economics and other practical criteria that we are unaware of how a decision affects our soul. We treat our soul as an afterthought, or only something that matters at the point of physical death.

John O’Donahue, in his book Anam Cara, makes this observation about work and our souls:
When we perform an action, the invisible within us finds a form and comes to expression. Therefore our work should be the place where the soul can enjoy becoming visible and present.

Life-giving work is work in which the soul can enjoy becoming visible and present. That one word, enjoy, is important. A healthy workplace is one in which each person’s soul is respected and treasured for its uniqueness. Parker Palmer speaks of the shy soul and how it is like a wild animal. We don’t go stomping through the woods expecting to see a wild animal. We have to be respectful of the soul and create the environment in which the soul senses it is safe to make itself visible.

A workplace where diversity of thought and giftedness is honored and encouraged allows each person to find fulfillment. Such a workplace encourages people to grow both in their own self-appreciation and in appreciation for one another. A soul in such an environment can thrive and grow more Christlike.

When diversity of thought is not encouraged, or where the thoughts of only one or two people matter, souls withdraw, compassion flees and the ethos of the workplace becomes deadly. Workers are not appreciated for the souls they bring to work, and God-given uniqueness is treated as irrelevant and unimportant. The tension in such an environment is destructive, alienating people from their true nature and potential.

How we work is as important as the work we do, maybe even more important. If we are to shed the masks of the false self and instead allow our soul, our True Self, to become visible and present, we have to bring integrity, compassion, and respectfulness to work with us. If we are managers, we must love ourselves so that we do not treat others as objects to control but as souls deserving of compassion and Christlike inclusion. Our work environment and the way in which we engage with our work colleagues affects our souls. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Fear vs. Love

Recently I talked with someone who has been progressing in their spiritual journey but who is struggling to overcome the negative theology of his upbringing. While he has left the church of his childhood, he still has a hard time accepting God’s love and grace. When accused by someone in the church of his youth or unfaithfulness and heresy for leaving, he realizes that while intellectually, he believes that God is love, but in his heart, he is still haunted by a theology of condemnation and judgment.

Father Richard Rohr acknowledges that we need a container, a way to develop our ego as a moral, religious person. It helps us understand our self-worth to know intellectually that God loves us. But if our religion gets stuck in morality codes, in acting out of “Christian duty,” we never move beyond fear of punishment as the motivator for our acts. It’s like when we tell a small child that if they run out into the street one more time, we will punish them. Until the child is old enough to know how to discern when it is okay to walk into the street, we set parameters with punishment as a guide.

But what happens when the child is older, able to cross the street on his own? It is ridiculous to then continue to enforce a standard inappropriate for the child’s level of maturity. Why do we think it is appropriate for our spiritual lives to stagnate at the mentality of a toddler?

A fear-based theology treats individuals as spiritual toddlers. It demands obedience out of threat of punishment rather than motivating people to act rightly out of deep love for God. Most fear-based theology is more subtle than “You’re going to hell if you do/don’t do __fill in the blank__. It still operates from a threat of judgment as it encourages compliance to moral codes by asking, “What will God say about your behavior when you get to heaven?”

If our obedience is extracted from a shame and fear-based system of belief, how can we possibly love God and accept that God loves us? As John, the beloved disciple says in his first epistle: There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love. (1 John 4:18).

As we grow spiritually, we learn that the ego, while necessary early in our religious formation, becomes a barrier to transformation. Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection give us the example for our spiritual development—we have to die to self (the death of ego) if we are to experience new life. Thomas Merton spoke of this transformation in terms of shattering the false self so that the True Self is revealed. As Rohr says, the True Self is all about right relationship, not requirements. When we are in right relationship with ourselves, we can then be in right relationship with others. It is why loving self is the only path to loving neighbor.