Are you Asleep or Awake: The Dilemma of the Spiritual Life

At that moment, open eyed and wide-eyed, they recognized him.”—Luke 24:31 MessageWaking up is one of the necessary movements of the spiritual life. We can live our lives asleep—going through the motions of work, family, sex, friendship and church without ever being awake—ever really noticing what is really happening around us and in us. We can go through the motions of our lives without ever really waking up.Mike, a successful business owner came to me and said, “I feel like I’ve missed out on my life.” He continued. “I’ve shown up for my work. Married my wife. Raised my kids but deep in here (he pointed to his chest)—something is missing. I feel like I have been sleep walking and calling it my life.” Can you relate?Mike was showing the first signs of being tired of being asleep in his life. The ancients called Mike’s issue: a holy discontent. Mike’s own confessed discontent were the first signs of his own awakening. There can be no waking up until we acknowledge that something is wrong—something is missing—that we’ve been asleep far, far, far too long. There is no awakening until we confess that we are discontent.We live asleepAt some of the greatest and profound moments of Jesus’ own life—those around him were asleep—unaware of what was happening around them, in them or to them. Luke documents the sleepy existence of those early followers of Jesus in the story of the Transfiguration.( Read the story in Luke 9:28-36).Jesus took three of his closest companions mountain climbing. Incredible and life-altering events began to happen but Luke is clear to tell us that even those who were closest to Jesus missed out. They were asleep. We’re told, “Peter and his companions were very sleepy” (Luke 9:32).C.S. Lewis wrote in his published book, Letters to Malcom,:“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God.The world is crowded with God. God walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labor is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”When we live “very sleepy” we are not awake. We are not aware of life as God intends us to live. Living life “very sleepy” is being blind to a life that is teeming around us—brimming within us. We are not aware. We are not attentive. We are not awake.When we live “very sleepy” lives we are in that strange and unsettling place of living in the in-between. We are not there. We are not really here either. We are not yet fully asleep. We are in-between--not fully here or there. It's how many people describe their lives to Gwen and me. Being “very sleep” means we are actually in a phase of transition—not yet over to the other side we are headed toward.Symptoms of Living AsleepHalf awake or half asleep is how most of us live our lives. We are not really conscious to all that is happening around us—much less inside of us. The evidence of being half asleep and not full awake is all around us. Here are some observations I’ve found helpful:

  1. We can drift in and out of conversations not really paying attention; not really understanding how a particular conversation or event is affecting us or impacting us inside. There’s not time to reflect. We don't have time to feel. We have to survive.
  2. We can live bored. We stay bored. We work bored. We try to vacation but we are bored. We are bored with God.
  3. We can live our lives by the ingrained habits of our scheduled and programmed lives. We live to survive and are asleep to the notion that we could thrive—that to thrive is really a possibility that is God ordained.
  4. Religion has made us sleepy. Church contributes to our sleepy state. Nothing is alarming. Nothing feels really important. Same ol' --same ol....It is predictable. Programmed. Automatic.
  5. We have rejected the notion of a transcendent God who desires to break through inside of us to wake us up. Perhaps we've given up that God even wants us to wake up.
  6. We can make love but are asleep to the mystery of the soul of the body we just slept with.
  7. We have grown sleepy to mystery and have preferred a linear, left-brain, rational approach to God if we seek to approach God at all. Facts bore us. But we need a rational approach to God not mystery.
  8. The dimming of our consciousness has made us live numb like lives, asleep to the possibilities of waking up.
  9. We have abandoned mystery and preferred Powerpoint and want a line by line way of "doing" God. It is how we are educated in the West, afterall. We do not know any other way of being "educated" to waking up.
  10. We assume there is no other way to live than asleep so we stay asleep and some of us die asleep--having never really lived at all.

 Could some of us be in a coma—not really aware but somehow being barely alive?As human beings, we enjoy the longest process of maturation of any other species. We are told it takes years, perhaps even decades for a baby boy to mature or a baby girl to grow up and be fully developed. As infants we sleep a lot and some adults still sleep a lot.We can sleep through our jobs. We can sleep through marriage. We can sleep through the parenting. We can sleep through God.Bob came to me to work through a marriage that was bottoming out. He came believing “it” was over. As we talked about his story and his boredom in his marriage, we both came to realize that he had been asleep much of his married life. He invested most of his energy, time and passion into his work. He had a demanding job but had little --to nothing “left-over” to offer his wife. As this went on for twenty years, he began to wake up inside and recognize that he had been asleep though he thought he had been awake. The threat from his wife that she was considering leaving him seemed to wake him up--a bit.Many of us can recall times in our church life when we were asleep. We’d move through the motions. We’d serve on committees, attend small groups but inside—we knew—yes, we knew that we were not really awake to a dynamic relationship with God that inspired us; motivated us to grow or challenged us to transform dead habits that kept us asleep. Many of us have lived asleep to the God that really is—perhaps for most of our lives. We have believed in a God who we feel is asleep also. How could an awake God be awake to all this mess we're in right now.By remaining asleep we live in peril not really understanding—not grasping a deeper, richer and more full way of living.A woman in her mid-40’s lamented to me recently: “I get up. I go to work. I eat. I come home. I watch some TV and do some stuff on my computer. I go to bed. Is this my life—is this the life I was meant to live?” Her questions become our questions. She speaks for many of us.Are we aware that Jesus said, God’s true kingdom is within us? Are we asleep to the Kingdom but awake to church attendance? Have we numbed out on performance and sacrificed intimacy with God?Our Real DilemmaHow can we fathom such a profound truth when our kid’s diaper needs changing; dinner needs to be prepared and the bills are waiting to be paid? Do we accept this half-way kind of spiritual awareness; ignoring the emotions of our lives—living more flat-lined than fully alive; attending church but finding ourselves day dreaming of something more pressing—more urgent—more attention grabbing.Just as those early disciples awakened to a greater reality of life—so are invited to awaken. Until we awaken—until we wake up to what is true and what is genuinely being offered to us in this life by our God who loves us and truly is for us, then we will live our lives unaware; filled with illusions about what we think is true about God but actually is not true at all.One of the greatest problems of Christianity in today’s world is that we are so very comfortable. When we live cozy lives and live with a faith that does not challenge and does not inspire us we become like the frog in the kettle. The frog in the kettle is where someone drops the living, moving and croaking frog into luke warm water. Then the heat turns on and slowly—ever so slowly heats the water so that the frog is not even aware of what is happening. Before too long, the frog is being boiled alive. Here’s the process: too much comfort brings too much sleep and too much sleep brings death or a death-like—catatonic existence that we are calling the “abundant life.” Jarred into being AwakeBeing discontent is the soul’s stirring to wake us up—to get us to pay attention—to get us to become more fully awake.  This soulful discontentment often happens uninvited and unwanted.We move out of our comfort zones when something happens in our lives—to us or to someone we care about and everything changes.-A car accident leaving a loved one dead on the side of the road.-A phone call in the middle of the night with the most horrid news.-A doctor announcing the diagnosis you most feared—most did not want to hear and you simply cannot believe “it” was said.-A boss announcing that you are fired!-A letter in the mail you open-- informing you of news you never wanted to hear.These things and more are like sticks poked into our souls to wake us up from living asleep and from remaining in that liminal space of in-between.I have felt those jarring prods and sticks arousing me many times in my life. When Gwen was diagnosed with breast cancer….that news came at what I thought was the most horrible of our times to hear such news. The moving truck was in our driveway to transport all of our earthly belongings to Colorado where we were going to begin again our lives and work. As the movers were moving our couch into the massive eighteen-wheeler container, Gwen drives up into the driveway; gets out of her car and says, “I have cancer.”It was a terrible interruption to my life to hear such news. My plans where thwarted. We didn’t have time for cancer. We had to move; had to get started; had to get there to begin my new job—a job I was thrilled to begin.The stick of cancer woke me up. I was jarred into seeing life, health, our marriage—the possibility of being a single dad and more in a whole new way. Thankfully, Gwen is a cancer survivor to this day but for me; for Gwen and for us—everything started to change. We woke up to the brevity of life. We were awakened to how precious and holy life really is. The things I took for granted began to take on new meaning—a deeper meaning. I had my own transfiguration right there on that driveway. I woke up.  But I can go back to sleep.After 37 years of marriage, Gwen and I are waking up to each other in a whole new way. We’ve both chosen to do interior work through counseling and spiritual direction to face some buried and hidden issues that seemed to hijack us from time to time—perhaps a whole lot of time—perhaps more time than I may admit. But in the last three years, we’ve worked hard on childhood wounds that have awoken us to the hearts of each other in a way we never really embraced before. We are courageously walking into each other's story to be awake to what was really going on. We've needed to wake up? Have you?Waking up is not easy sometimes. Waking up demands that we choose to do the work we need to get out of a trance where we believe a myth that everything is well—when in fact, it is not well at all because we are not well at all. But we can choose to stay in a comma or we can choose to keep waking up. It really is that simple.In some ways, it feels like living in coma, aware that someone is speaking in the room we are in but not being able to respond well; not being able to really understand; not being able to feel anything at all because we are become numb. It's time to wake up.Waking Up Can be UnpleasantAnthony De Mello reminds us that waking up is unpleasant. Who wouldn’t want to remain fully asleep? Who wouldn’t want to remain under the covers on a chilly morning? After all, some of us get annoyed—even angry when the alarm clock rings awakening us to another day of the same old—the same ole life that we’ve been living for all these years.Waking up is a work of God—perhaps one of the first works God does in our lives. God uses the sticks, the jarring phone call; the unexpected “interruption” to rouse us from our sleepy lives. God knows that life is not meant to lived while remaining asleep. There is MORE and realizing that there is MORE becomes a kind of inner alarm clock to get us up and to start living a life defined by abundance not survival.---------------------------------I'll be continuing this theme in future blog postings. I'd invite your comments here.

Becoming Who We Really Are: The Journey of Being Human

We are always becoming. From the day we were born, and really before that—we embarked on a journey of becoming. We do not stay who we were and we will not remain who we are at this very moment.Who of us would ever want to remain our 6 year old self? Is there anyone who wants to go back and remain 13 for ever?We morph. We change. We grow. We transform. This is the story of our lives.Take a look at me and my grandson, Charlie. He’s just six months old in this picture. Every parent knows that the terrible two’s are coming. But that doesn't matter to me. I'm his grandfather--his Pappy.He’ll go through adolescence; go through puberty; challenge his parents, go to school; get a few jobs, date a few girls and marry someone when he’s ready. He will try on vocational clothes—trying on one job, another role—yet another position until he, at lasts can say, “For this—I was made.” It will be a journey.  Sometimes, we seem to lose sight of the fact of our formation. As Charlie's Pappy, I consider it to be my chef--role to help him know his story and claim his story and live out of his story. I don't have to raise him. But I do want to help him understand his story.Then, there is Charlie’s spiritual journey. A person's spiritual story is really EVERY chapter of their life-story: health, past, relationships, vocational journey, fears, dreams, failures, sin, glory and more. Charlie, like all of us has a spiritual story—a sort of flowing and winding road where he will learn about God. He will hear about his original glory—that deep place within his soul that is all good and full of light. I honestly believe that the most important role of a grandparent is to re-enforce the original glory into our grandchildren. I say this because the parents are so consumed, like we all were, with survival, diapers, driving the kids around and discipline. He will be told about his sin—Lord knows, so much emphasis is on that part of his story that most of us have never even considered our original glory. Before there was sin, remember--there was glory.  He will be shaped by love, hurt, rejection, passion, longings and failure. All of it will shape his little soul that you see today.Charlie, like everyone of us, will be soul shaped by geography and place, good people and hurtful people. He will encounter mystery, facts and figures and be drawn to one or more of those shaping realities.  He will have his own distinct dreams and longings separate from his father and mother and his grandparents. He will make his own choices—some good and some not so good that will all shape his soul.Gifted writer, Madeline L’Engle pens these true words for us:“I am still every age that I have been. Because I was once a child, I am always a child. Because I was once a searching adolescent, given to moods and ecstasies, these are still part of me, and always will be... This does not mean that I ought to be trapped or enclosed in any of these ages...the delayed adolescent, the childish adult, but that they are in me to be drawn on; to forget is a form of suicide... Far too many people misunderstand what *putting away childish things* means, and think that forgetting what it is like to think and feel and touch and smell and taste and see and hear like a three-year-old or a thirteen-year-old or a twenty-three-year-old means being grownup.And Spiritual author and mentor, David Benner writes, “Identifying and embracing your lineage is an important part of any pathway to greater wholeness because it involves remembering your own story. All the parts of your journey must be woven together if you are to transcend your present organization and level of consciousness. For myself, the great challenge was re-embracing traditions that I have grown beyond and that offered—even at the time—an oppressively small worldview. I did not want to be an ex-evangelical or an ex-fundamentalist. Too many people live that life of dis-identification, and I did not want to share their anger and “stuckness.” It was essential, therefore, for me to identify and embrace the gifts that had come to me from these traditions. This was the way in which I came to know that everything in my life belongs, that every part of my story has made important contributions to who I am. And the same is true for you.Charlie will have chapters of his life that he will have to make sense of. Each of us have chapters—some we like and some we don’t. There are sad chapters of failed marriages, broken relationships and following our prodigal hearts.  But what sense can we make of these shattered pieces of our story--these illusions that are so hard to die in us?When I look back at some of my chapters, I’ve noticed that as I’ve “moved on” or “moved through” a particular season or chapter, I had no real way of integrating THAT particular chapter into my story or soul.  At times, I felt like I was shedding old snake skins so that something new could come out.  I felt the need to "get rid" of the old skins rather than embrace them.  How about you?For many years now, I have called myself an “Re-Covering Baptist.” That always gets a good laugh in most circles I speak in except when I am among the Baptist themselves.   But truthfully, there were things—boxy things; narrow things, and some things I could never quite figure out that all seems to be informing me, “This is not you, Steve.” “This is not who you are. Pay attention.”  I'm wondering if in my telling you this about me, what might stir inside of you?  What or who are you "re-covering" from?Some of us will be recovering from some thing; some group; some political affiliation, some denomination or some person. Some of us will have addiction in our story—a lot of us. Some of us will have abuse. Some of us will discover we were abused not by what was “done” to us but by what was not given us—that every human being created in the imago Die deserves, requires and needs to be whole and healthy.I have heard the stories of thousands of souls—and the stories that bother and confound me the most are those that go like this:-I don’t have a past.-My past was buried and all I have is a present and a future.This past Saturday, I took a long drive and came upon a church with a big sign which read, “No one has a past—only a future.” I sat in the parking lot so disturbed by that sign that I had a quiet protest with my coffee, then drove on.What a lie—to say “no one has a past.” Here’s the deal. Charlie is living his past every single day right now.  And so are you.  So am I.So much truth and so much light is in our past that it’s really shocking. Our challenge is that so many of us don’t really know our story. We say, “We can’t remember.” Or, “That was so long ago, I’ve forgotten it.” I doubt it. The mind stores up all of these gold memories for us to mine and find the nuggets of gold that will enrich our lives.  Gwen and I have been working with a gifted therapist who is trained in helping us unlock the memories we can't dredge up--but have "bothered us". It's been such a helpful investment--particularly in our marriage. We felt the need to finally unlock the door of  each of our past that had gone unexplored and unexamined. We did this because we were hitting some impasses--all about our individual formation stories. It felt like our individual "past" stories were colliding and creating friction.  After 37 years, we felt like it was time to dig in and see what was "there".  We are both enjoying the fruits right now of such work--more peace and contentment than ever in our marriage.The apostle Paul reminds us, “We see through a glass dimly but one day, we will see face to face.” I think there’s far, far, far more to that verse than we can ever quite imagine. Our stories and Charlie’s story is already dim. We just don’t quite get or understand the power of people who shape our souls. We have not had enough science to reveal how our memories—our traumas—our beautiful experiences make us who we are.As I review my own story from time to time, I am realizing the power and significance of the shaping experiences of having a dramatic conversation on January 21, 1972 in my university chapel. Later, I was deeply shaped by flaming charismatic friends and one amazing Lutheran Pastor (Herb Mirley) who helped me break out of my boxes and experience an inner life where Jesus lives. Having a creed was not enough for me. I wanted it all. These friends helped me speak in what I though was “tongues”—but gave up after feeling like I forcing "it" to convince my friends, “I had it.” I was discipled diligently for four years by an Inter-Varsity staff worker who singled me out and poured massive time, books and memorizing Scripture into my soul. Some of what he "taught" me, I know now is wrong and not correct. I tried then to make a break from my denominational roots but did not have the courage to do so, so settled in for twenty years until I could find the words and muster the courage to say, “This is not me.”Like Benner, I am learning to embrace all of my chapters—all of my story into one, whole and integrated story that has shaped me.  It feels as close to what David wrote when he prayed, "Give me an undivided heart, that I might praise your name." For many years, my heart has been divided by doctrine, boxed by fears and marshaled by an energy that now I see was man made--not God shaped.Even now, I am still becoming. I am not done. There are still some things I need to lay aside in order to grasp hold of what is ahead of me. Some labels don’t fit me anymore and I want to grow in my gratitude for these chapters rather than be held hostage by them. I want to thank the Lord for the good I got wearing the label and courageously be willing to keep moving forward.How would you tell your story?  Who knows your story?  It would be a good goal in the the year ahead and find some trusted, safe and loving friends to listen to your story--and you listen to their story. Here are six suggestions:

  1. Use my book Soul Shaping to explore your past shaping events and people.
  2. Read or re-read my book The Lazarus LIfe where I tell me story through the story of Lazarus. You'll be given language and vocabulary to dig into your own story. There's a work book also for more and deeper work.
  3. Develop a time line in five year increments where you note the people, places, events and internal awakenings you experienced including abuse, trauma and rich and wonderful events.
  4. Make a time with 2-5 friends and give each person one hour to tell their story uninterrupted and unedited.
  5. Be kind to yourself as you dig into your story. Most stories have chapters and novels of guilt and shame. See if you can find the light and grace in each chapter of your story—for God has been with you all along, just has it is with Charlie right now.
  6. Ask God to help you remember and consider sitting with someone gracious, non-judging and who can deeply listen to your story.

Our Sabbatical Journey:

rekindleimagesDuring the next 30 days or so, both Gwen and I want to process our Sabbatical journey with you here in this blog. It is really a way of organizing our thoughts around what has happened in us and to us in the past season of this season of being off. Bear with us as we both try to find words to express a shifting in the tectonic plates of our souls. It really does feel as if some major shifting has happened. We've regained a new perspective. We both feel renewed. We have rested, studied, read books and received wise counsel. All of this has helped us re-kindle the flame within---yes, re-kindle. That's the word. Re-kindled with God; with our own souls and with each other. It's been a rich and rewarding time despite walking through the shadow of death to release our grandson into the arms of heaven and taking another son down the aisle to be married. We've had highs and lows and most of all, we've had the time to process our journey by both looking back and looking within. We've looked up; press forward and renewed our love of life, God and each other.A sabbatical literally means “a time of ceasing.” It is like a vacation in that you literally are “vacating” your work but it is extended. A sabbatical is a season to do three things: rest, renew and re-tool. We did all three of these necessary movements and the benefits feel rich and rewarding. We said tonight over dinner that we would not change a thing in our sabbatical. We'll tell you more over the next month.I read, just this week, that only 42% of Americans take all of their allotted time off from work. For us, we were in that people group who seemed to never take the time we were given. This false arrogance all caught up with us. It always does. I felt like I was needed. I felt like I couldn't do what I was asking, coaching and telling other leaders to do. It massaged an inner sickness within me that caused demons, I long thought were asleep to wake up inside me. These demons were inner-addictions I thought I had long faced and walked away from. It was not the case.This costs us dearly. We had grown thin in our ability to care. We greatly underestimated the wear and tear to our own souls as we attempted to care for leaders in both the ministry and marketplace. It was as if my soul had a slow leak in it. Drip by drip, I felt my life flowing from me. By the fall of this past year, we knew we were in trouble. We needed to do what we needed to do. It was that simple. Since, we're not ready to retire, we both intuitively knew that if we were to finish the journey ahead...a necessary respite simply had to happen. And I would have to muster up the courage to take and extended time off. I would take a sabbatical. We'll both write more about the struggle and resolve to finally dig in and say we were going to do a sabbatical. Our choice to do so is one of the best decisions we have made in our journey thus far.The roots of a sabbatical are found in the Bible (Genesis 2:2-3; Lev. 25, Deut 5:12-15). Since the beginning of time, the Creator of this world knew that everyone and everything ought to cease from time to time because something happens in a season of ceasing that cannot and will not happen at any other time. Unless we learn to cease, we are setting ourselves up for dead-ends; burn out and flame outs. Even farmers allow a field to lie fallow for a season. They do this so that the field might be nurtured back to life by being dormant.What can grow here? But this kind of thinking is almost extinct in the modern world. With this extinction we are now seeing the price we are all paying by always being on; always being available and always being wired 24/7. There is a high price to pay and many of us our mindlessly living our lives without taking into account the bankrupt nature of our souls. We live our lives on empty and have the audacity to call this life--the abundant life. The busy life is not the abundant life. Busy can be for a season, but not for more than a season.I see this error in living and thinking every day of my working life. And let me just tell you this one insight: When you burn out, it takes a long, long time to come back to life. You don’t burn out in one day. It’s a slow, steady leak in your soul that drains you. You run your life on empty and give left-overs to everyone and everything—including your self. I believe the thinness in so many leader's lives today is leading to a thinness and shallowness in our churches, in our books and in our songs. It's become dreadful to see how we are living and sharing our shallow lives on social media and more.Now, after having coached scores and scores of leaders in the marketplace and ministry to take a sabbatical, I finally took my own. It took me 40 years to muster the courage; face myself in the mirror and confess: “Steve, you are bone tired and you’re not going to make it to the end of your vocational journey unless you stop, cease and renew yourself.” Each word in that sentence is important and one you might think to underline and sit with.Is this the case for you?I took a entire 2 years to plan our sabbatical. I read everything there was in print and sadly found most of it shallow, hallow and worthless. A few lone voices in the wilderness became like prophets to me and Gwen calling us “This way—take this path and you’ll recover your life.” We listened to their voice. Heeded their advice and planned a four month season—equal to ¼ of a calendar year to be “off.”Questions to Consider:What would being “off” really look like? Where would you go? Who would you want to go with? What would you do? What would you do?