Category: Journal of the Spirit


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Yokes have become more like decor than vital equipment in industrialized cultures. Yet Jesus’ metaphor of taking on a yoke remains helpful for spiritual practice today.

Reprinted with permission from Darkwood Brew

Something that never ceases to amaze me is the way that scientific findings continue to converge with spiritual wisdom these days. They’re like two streams that keep flowing in and out of one another in a river delta. The more the volume of understanding increases in one stream, the more new insights flow back and forth between the two channels.

Take this week’s topic, “The Yoke of God.” Naturally our first inclination is to focus upon the section about taking on the “yoke” portion. The yoke has become an almost-lost metaphor for industrialized cultures. We’re out of touch with yokes, with how they’re made and what they do. In Jesus’ time, as in most developing countries today, a yoke forms a vital piece of equipment because it transforms a pair of carriers – be they oxen, cattle or human shoulders – into a single force for hauling loads.

As a spiritual director, I see Jesus’ words as an invitation to do two things: to make relationship with God the focus of one’s life, and then to practice those spiritual disciplines that maintain a focus on the divine. By “yoking” ourselves with Jesus, we tap into the wisdom of his spiritual teachings that offer practices for bearing the burdens of life.

Sounds simple enough, right? Yet we spiritual directors are taught, and we teach others, that spiritual discipline requires letting go of one’s ego, forsaking the thoughts and actions that put self before Self. Years ago, I heard a prominent African American United Methodist pastor, the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell of Houston, define ego as “edging God out.” Personally, after 40 years in the hard-driving profession of journalism, I’ve decided that ego creeps into a sense that one is indispensable – the idea that if one takes time off to rest and recuperate, the world will fall apart. This sense of indispensability often manifests as “busy-ness” or, in today’s parlance, multi-tasking.

Multi-tasking has been a buzzword in business and technology circles for decades. Workers are urged to increase their productivity, to accomplish as many things as possible during their shifts. People who are “goal-oriented” are held up as role models. While giving a fair day’s work and completing assigned tasks are worthy pursuits, within the contemporary predilection for multi-tasking lurks the demon of indispensability. Therein lies the rub – that is, the place where the “yoke” doesn’t fit properly, to use our scriptural metaphor.

Recently a publisher’s note came to my email box (I’m a devoted bibliophile) about a 2009 book on the topic of multi-tasking: Your Brain at Work by David Rock (Harper Business). The email contained this excerpt from pages 35 and 36, which I’ve abridged:

“The idea that conscious processes need to be done one at a time has been studied in hundreds of experiments since the 1980s. … A study done at the University of London found that constant emailing and text-messaging reduces mental capability by an average of ten points on an IQ test. … ‘Always on’ may not be the most productive way to work. … The wear and tear from this has an impact. As [another scientist] says, ‘This always on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace era has created an artificial sense of constant crisis. What happens to mammals in a state of constant crisis is the adrenalized fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in. It’s great when tigers are chasing us. How many of those five hundred emails a day is a tiger?’ “

That’s where the “yoke” rubs these days, even in churches, synagogues, temples and mosques. We fill our calendars with so many programs and activities that we forget why we come together in the first place: to experience God in our midst. In order to be attuned to a communal experience of the divine, I believe we also must practice personal attention to God that Jesus described as his own: “humble and gentle in heart.”

With a healthy sense of self, a humble person can more easily let go of the ego that edges God out. Humility offers a great defense against a soul-and-body destroying sense of indispensability and the anxiety that comes from the hyper-alertness of being “always on.” I often wonder if the anxious state of American society these days stems in part from the fact that we’re “always on” our tech toys. That’s not a criticism of others, mind you; I have to be strict with myself about getting off-line on weekends as much as possible.

In the end, reconnecting with an unhurried God may require courage – the courage to let go and the courage to say “no.” Perhaps if strive for these traits in ourselves, we’ll encourage others to “yoke” with us on the journey.

Cynthia B. Astle, OSL, of Dallas, TX, is a certified spiritual director and longtime religion journalist. She blogs at Water-marked.com.

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Wild and Dangerous

Reprinted with permission from Darkwood Brew.

About 100 miles southwest of where I live sits the town of West, Texas. Until the evening of April 17, West was known for its vibrant Czech heritage, which includes an annual folk festival with plenty of mouth-watering stuffed rolls called kolaches.

Now as I write on April 19, West is known as the town where a fertilizer plant exploded with such force – equivalent to that of a 2.1 magnitude earthquake – that the blast concussion was felt some 50 miles away. A fire at the plant set off containers of the main ingredient in its fertilizer, anhydrous ammonia.

For me, what happened in West has grown beyond its human tragedy, because the substance that exploded symbolizes the wild and dangerous nature of God and the Creation called “good.”

Farmers everywhere know the benefits of anhydrous ammonia. According to a helpful factbox at MSN.com’s Science and Technology page, farmers use it as a fertilizer to boost soil’s nitrogen levels. It’s readily available and easy to apply when compressed into a clear liquid. Once applied, it converts to a gas in the soil and helps to “fix” or increase nitrogen, which adds to soil’s ability to grow food plants, especially corn.

The chemical’s description, “anhydrous,” means that it readily combines with any moisture. In fact, this benefit is also its bane, for anhydrous ammonia sucks up water so efficiently that it will dehydrate human skin, freezing the skin and causing severe chemical burns. It will dehydrate mucous membranes and dehydrate the respiratory system as well. Those exposed to it must be treated with large amounts of water to counteract its injurious effects.

For all its benefits, anhydrous ammonia is hideously dangerous to contain. The chemical boils at -28 Fahrenheit, says MSN.com’s factbox. Above this temperature, to be kept liquid and safe it must be stored under pressure in high-strength steel tanks because of its corrosive ability. It’s no wonder that a fire at the West fertilizer plant would set off an explosion.

Anhydrous ammonia has one other claim to notoriety: It is the fertilizer used by domestic terrorist Timothy McVeigh to bomb the Paul Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. McVeigh’s reckless, unrepentant hated abused something that, when rightfully applied, causes the Earth to produce food more abundantly, a sign of Creation’s goodness. If there exists a better definition of sin, I’ve yet to find it.

Make no mistake; I don’t mean that God is the ultimate cause of the tragedy in West. I believe that God is suffering with the people of West even now. Yet we must not ignore the deeper reality evident in this disaster, that God’s Creation remains as wild and dangerous as the Divine Self, because it contains within it a spark of the Divine that is beyond our control.

This fallacy that we control the world of which we are a part is the sin of hubris, of the self-delusion that we are the Masters of the Universe. There is only one Master/Mistress of Creation, and we are not S/He. When we forget that, we run smack into the wildness against which the Divine tries to protect us, endangering ourselves and the world that God loves.

Creature Features

Reprinted with permission from Darkwood Brew

Sheena the Wonder Dog, my darling companion.

Sheena the Wonder Dog, my darling companion.

Each morning, barring inclement weather, Sheena the Wonder Dog takes me on our morning “walkies.” Our street abuts Prairie Creek, so we start out walking along the grassy strip of park that our family calls the Greenway, like in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. A feisty Border Collie mix rescued from the city shelter, Miss Sheena loves the Greenway because it’s filled with delicious, traceable smells from feral cats, squirrels, rabbits, birds and the excretions of other dogs.

I love the Greenway, too, because it reminds me of childhood ramblings in Florida, gamboling over a lush green carpet beneath a blue-sky canopy. My parents undoubtedly had no idea what freedom they granted me with my “big girl” bicycle, a blue-and-white Schwinn given for my tenth birthday. In fact, I’m sure that my mother would have been terrified to know some of the wild places my bicycle took me. Sometimes today I marvel that I wasn’t eaten by an alligator down by the lake, or bitten by a rattlesnake in the woods. As it is, I have only cherished memories of a magnificent paradise of palmettos, tall pines, flowing waters, bright red and pink hibiscus, and lush greenery.

Today that paradise is lost, buried under too much concrete and too many humans. Wide-open fields have been covered with houses; dense pine groves have been invaded by roads or cut down altogether. Barrier-island beaches where we once gingerly tiptoed over pine bristles to swim in the Gulf of Mexico now groan beneath the weight of sky-high condominiums, the contemporary epitome of Jesus’ s parable about foolishness building houses upon sand. As the great Southern novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote in “Look Homeward, Angel,” one really can’t go home again, because “home” is as much an experience as it is a place.

The more I study the Holy Bible, the more I come to understand that this longing for home lies behind much of scripture. It’s here that Celtic Christianity, in my view, has an edge over the Roman version of Christian faith that has shaped the Western church. The difference between the two perspectives on faith has come down to a dichotomy: “descriptive” versus “prescriptive.”

The Celtic Christian view is descriptive: It sees the wonders of creation and embraces humanity’s “creatureliness” – that is, the reality that humans, for all our evolutionary skills, are still creatures of the Creator. The Roman Christian view is prescriptive: It seeks to impose order on a chaotic creation, granting humans both stewardship of God’s handiwork (the true meaning of what is commonly translated as “dominion”) and dominance (control or the power to determine other creatures’ fate).

These same lenses can be applied to the scriptural passages often quoted as justification for humans’ desecration of the Earth. Genesis 1, where this series begins, offers us a glorious hymn of life that too often is misused as a wedge against what science tells us: that somehow, in ways beyond our understanding, our universe, our planet, our species were created with the ability to adapt to changing environments, thereby assuring the continuation of life in its infinite diversity. Genesis 1 describes the universe as it appeared to humans so long ago, and still appears today even as our means of comprehending it become more far-reaching and sophisticated.

On the other hand, the Roman Christian viewpoint sees Genesis 1 as “prescriptive,” that is contending that God created the universe “ex nihilo” – out of nothing, like magic. This theological perspective prescribes that humans are charged with imposing order upon unruly nature. This prescriptive interpretation of scripture lies behind the propensity of Western civilization to lie in opposition to, rather than in collaboration with, the world around us.

Roman Christianity sees Celtic Christianity as heretical, for it dethrones humans from their mastery of creation and makes them nothing more than creatures. Yet the more we delve into biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy and other sciences, we find that we are creatures, made of the same star-stuff that comprises the rest of creation. It is only our own hubris that sets us apart from the creation into which we are born. It is that same hubris that causes us to desecrate our natural world – to despoil its inherent sacredness – for our own greed, as in the recent tar sands oil spill in Mayflower, Ark., from Exxon Mobil’s Pegasus Pipeline (“Raw Aerial Footage Shows Extent Of Exxon’s Pegasus Pipeline Spill”).

Descriptive and prescriptive interpretations of Christianity intersect when humans are called upon to defend nature against our own predations. In other words, a more complete understanding of description of creation should engage us with the prescription to truly care for it. We will explore this more as our series proceeds, but for now I find that much that I hold sacred about our beautiful world can be summed up in Wendy Francisco’s evocative ballad “GoD and DoG”:

I look up and I see God.
I look down and see my dog.
…God thought up and made the dog
Dog reflects a part of God.
I’ve seen love from both sides now.
It’s everywhere. Amen. Bow-wow.

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For your further edification, I highly recommend Darkwood Brew, which describes itself as “a groundbreaking interactive web television program and spiritual gathering that explores progressive/emerging Christian faith and values.” I’ve been a guest blogger there for about three months, and have learned much and been greatly blessed by its programs. It’s Christianity for those of us wrestling with life in the 21st century. Worth a look at 5 PM CDT Sundays.

Reviewing all the various spiritual direction emails and newsletters I receive, it seems that most of us have a greater need this year for a Lent of somber reflection and yes, even grieving. In fact, I’m so personally burdened this year in heart, mind and soul that I’m not able to join in the revelry of Mardi Gras. The spirit of celebration has departed.

My heart’s burden stems from new awareness of how bloody American society has become, and of how little we believers are doing to stop the carnage. Let me try to explain.

On Feb. 2, two men, Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield, were shot to death at close range by a third man, a mentally troubled veteran named Eddie Ray Routh, who police say has admitted to the killings. The three men had gathered at a shooting club outside of Glen Rose, Texas, a town some 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

The full nature of this tragedy deepens when one learns its circumstances. Chris Kyle was an ex-Navy SEAL, a celebrated marksman known as “the most lethal sniper in American history” for his killing of some 160 enemies during the Iraq War. He wrote an autobiography called “American Sniper” that became a best seller.

However, Kyle left his military career a few years ago in order to spend more time with his wife and their two children, now ages 8 and 6. Upon his return to civilian life, Kyle helped create a foundation that seeks to aid other veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder by providing counseling and exercise equipment. As those who suffer many ailments know, physical activity can be a good antidote for mental distress, thanks to the release of pain-relieving chemicals called endorphins.

In keeping with this idea, Kyle took Routh to the shooting range as an act of physical and mental therapy. Apparently, according to one of my knowledgeable clergy friends, the seemingly counter-intuitive therapy of shooting can help veterans with PTSD by giving them an outlet for their lingering fear, anger and depression.

Unfortunately, in the case of Chris Kyle and Eddie Ray Routh, this intended act of assistance had the opposite effect. Routh has told local law enforcement and his family that he used the semi-automatic weapons the three men brought for sporting purposes to kill Kyle and Littlefield.  Then Routh escaped in Kyle’s pick-up truck.

From my spiritual perspective, the story worsened with Chris Kyle’s memorial service held at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where 7,000 people gathered Feb. 11. I wasn’t put off by the military honor guard, nor by the many veterans and service members who came to pay their respects to a fallen comrade. I was distressed that among the funeral flowers there was a display of Kyle’s battle helmet, flak jacket and weapons, yet even that was consistent with his work.

What really sent me over the edge, however, were local news reports of a mother who brought her eight-year-old son, dressed in clothing of desert-style camouflage design, to the funeral. She said she brought him because he wants to be a Navy SEAL like Kyle when he grows up.

The words “appalled” and “nauseated” only begin to cover how her actions made me feel. I have no idea if any other parents did the same thing, but for a mother to bring her child to a public event in a manner that glorifies warfare strikes me as simply horrific. Not even the proud boast of Roman mothers to their legionnaire sons — “With your shield or on it” — can compare. The words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew keep ringing in my ears: “… All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:53).

Thus I am facing this Lenten season of self-denial, prayer and repentance with profound, burning questions:

What will it take for us Americans to see that we perpetuate a murderous society? What will it take for us to repent of our terrible lust for violence? Where can we find the strength and courage to say, “No! Stop! No more guns! No more blood!”

Some readers may be offended by my reaction. Many Americans see Chris Kyle as a hero, and he was undoubtedly a man who loved his country enough to go to war for it. He believed that what he did to fight his country’s enemies was a noble, patriotic calling. He even believed that shooting, as a sport, had the power to help heal those still suffering the mental anguish of warfare. That belief was Chris Kyle’s fatal mistake, and something to be deeply mourned.

There are so many bloody trails that reach back from the murders of Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield, back to the shooting death of a teen-age band member in Chicago just days after she performed at President Obama’s inauguration, back to that horrible day, Dec. 14, 2012, when another mentally ill young man took a cache of weapons and ended the lives of 20 children, six educators, his own mother, and himself. I feel as though my hands are drenched in blood because I haven’t done enough to stand against this epidemic of violence. I can endure this pain no longer, and I plan to devote my Lenten observance to contemplating how to respond to this evil.

It may seem strange that someone devoted to prayer and contemplation should be so moved to activism on this matter. It’s true that many mystics find their efforts at union with the Divine lead them away from the travails of human life. Yet many contemporary spiritual masters such as Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, Helen Prejean and Joan Chittister teach that spirituality which connects us with God should also propel us toward greater love for our neighbors. As with Jesus, Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration, we cannot stay upon the illuminated peak. We must go back down into the valley.

This year for many of us, the valley of Lent bristles with weapons whose only purpose is to kill humans. Our task is to repent of our cultural belief that such weapons bring us security, and to find ways to rid ourselves of them as much as possible. We begin this journey with the prayer we Christians have spoken for two millennia:

Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.

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Necessary Lessons

Despite being aware of a heightened spiritual sensitivity since I was a child, it has taken me a long time to learn some of life’s necessary lessons. In fact, some of them I keep learning over and over, because they don’t seem to stick.

Not until I studied with the Rev. Joe Stabile, one of the co-directors of Life in the Trinity Ministries, did I have broad categories for the lessons that kept confronting me. Here is Joe’s list from our class on the theology and practice of spiritual disciplines:

  1. Life Is Hard.
  2. You Are Not That Important.
  3. Your Life Is Not About You.
  4. You Are Going to Die.
  5. You Are Not in Control.

Think about these five statements for a moment. How do they compare with the messages that we get from the world around us? Perhaps this side-by-side comparison will help:

  1.  Life Is Hard vs. Life Is Easy When You Get a Lot of Money.
  2. You Are Not That Important vs. What’s in It for Me?
  3. Your Life Is Not About You vs. I Got Mine; Sorry About You.
  4. You Are Going to Die vs. You Can Live Forever with Enough Exercise, Tofu and Money.
  5. You Are Not in Control vs. This Product Will Give You Control Over Your Life.

Christians who read their Bibles frequently will find these five necessary lessons echoed in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount from Chapters 5, 6 and 7 of the Gospel according to Matthew. Many today believe that Jesus’ teachings from these three chapters form the true heart of the Christian faith. Here’s one example:

 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” – Matthew 5:38-42.

The Five Necessary Lessons of the Spiritual Life, as Joe Stabile titles them, are all about one thing: Learning how to let go. In fact, the idea of letting go may be the most reliable gauge by which to assess the authenticity of any spiritual path or theological system.

At the same time, these instructions are shocking, and they are extremely hard to follow in everyday life. For instance, the baptismal rituals of many Christian denominations today include a vow to “resist the power of evil by whatever means God gives you.” That is clearly the opposite of what Jesus teaches in Matthew. How do we reconcile these two statements? For that matter, how are we to know what is the right action at any given time?

Discerning right action in a situation develops from practicing spiritual disciplines. By spending time apart with God through prayer, contemplation, journaling and other means, we can review our actions and our relationships in the light of what God would have us do and be. In particular, we can test both what we’re told and how we respond through the lenses of these five essential spiritual lessons. In this way, we learn to let go of the false ego that always must be justified in its actions, and give ourselves freely to God’s loving correction and improvement.

 Today’s Thought: What kind of messages am I getting from the world around me? How am I responding to them?

New Year’s Day, Jan. 1, 2013

Starting off on a journey for me is usually exciting. I’m a very seasoned traveler after decades of practice as a working journalist, so I can travel well.

Today, however, I’m starting a different kind of journey. After two years of study and work, I’ve been certified as a spiritual director. God called me to this ministry for some 10 years before I quit resisting the call, and then God arranged it so that I could receive the education I needed despite adverse financial circumstances. In this respect, I’m already a witness to God’s miraculous mystery. Now I’m embarked on a new phase of this journey as someone equipped to help others find their own paths to God.

For those unfamiliar with the ministry of spiritual direction, which dates as far back as third-century Christianity, I would describe a spiritual director’s purpose as threefold:

  1. To listen carefully to another person’s life story;
  2. To watch for and point out signs of where God is at work in the directee’s life; and
  3. To suggest ways the directee can improve their own awareness of God’s presence through specific spiritual disciplines.

A responsible spiritual director never recommends a spiritual discipline that he or she doesn’t personally practice. Otherwise, how would the director know what to look for in a directee’s own spiritual account? Hence, I’ve decided to start 2013 by establishing the new Spiritual Direction section of Watermarked.com.

Journaling regularly offers one of the best spiritual practices for people in today’s warp-speed world. It gives time and space to capture the most remembered moments of one’s day, providing the opportunity to recognize God at work in human circumstances. Posting frequently about spiritual topics here will give me the opportunity to practice one of the disciplines I most suggest to those I counsel individually.

In addition, I plan to use this spiritual journal as a place to discuss and refine curriculum that I’m writing for two workshops I plan to lead in the near future. One, titled “Blessed Is She,” is a two-day workshop intended for women to explore, craft and share their spiritual histories. The second, tentatively titled “Teach Us to Pray,” will explore the many ways that we can enter into regular encounters with God, which is the true nature of prayer.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey.

Today’s Thought: No matter where you are, you are in the holy presence of God. Can you perceive it?