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The Interior Castle (a book by Teresa of Avila)

illustrated by Michael and Isaiah Bischoff

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In the middle of the night with Dr. King

Last month I received the unexpected news that I had a cancerous brain tumor. A few days later, I had brain surgery, and started radiation and chemo not long after that. A complication from the surgery put me back in the hospital for a week with a tube threaded up my spine.

Between 1 and 2 am on one of those nights in the hospital, I felt like I was floating in some anxiety and sadness, making it hard to sleep. Then I felt like Martin Luther King, Jr. came to hang out with me in my hospital room, reminding me of my favorite speech of his–the one he gave the night before he died. When he gave that speech, he knew that his life was especially in danger. Next to me in the hospital bed, it felt like he delivered the ending of the speech again, as a message for me:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

“And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

In talking with my primary care doctor, Mt. Nebo has been an important reference point for both of us. This is the place where Moses first saw the Promised Land, which his people eventually made it to. While on the mountain, Moses realized that he was going to die there, but that the rest of his people would make it to Israel without him. My doctor told me recently about a powerful experience he had while visiting Mt. Nebo. In my hospital room, MLK was bringing home the connections between his life, Mt Nebo, and my journey, like the preacher that he is. My imagination and emotions might’ve been partly driven by the hospital stay and meds from a couple days ago, although hanging out with MLK felt as true as almost anything to me.

MLK reminded me that the biggest gift I can personally receive is knowing I did my part in getting us to the new land that is coming, and feeling the satisfaction of knowing how my little part is part of a larger movement towards that land. That feeling of faithfulness takes away fear. It removes the sting of death or failure. Dr. King reminded me that the Promised Land, for him, is not just solving one social issue or campaign. It is living now in the reign of God’s love on Earth. He breathed some of that power into me last night, washing away the pool of anxiety that had been in the hospital bed with me.  It felt like MLK was asking each of us to continue moving towards the beloved community he gave his life for.

MLK has been an important inspiration for me for the past 25 years, but I’ve seen him from an intimidating distance. We’ve never been on close speaking terms before. Last night, though, he seemed to be quite close, frequently calling me “son.” He talked with me about a night after his house was bombed and how he had to get to know God in a new way, instead of just knowing the God secondarily through his father or through others. Dr. King told me that was true for me now, that God was with me in new ways.

The conversation with Dr. King seemed to then shift away from just the two of us, to include all of you that I’m connected with, even though I was still alone in the hospital bed in the middle of the night. Dr. King seemed to be asking all of us questions like:

What is the Promised Land you are committing your lives to get to?

Who are your people, your land?

What would make that land good and real enough that it would be worth contributing your life to the journey, even if you don’t personally make it there?

What will help you let go when your part is done, and stay at your own Mt. Nebo?

I’ve grieved recently for the ways I probably won’t be to make it to all the places I long to go, with my family, with my community, with my nation, with our planet.

I’ve said before that I want to contribute my life in service of broader shifts in society from systems of domination to cultures that sustain life:

From wealth for a few to enough for all
From security based on force to security based on the quality of relationships
From predict and control management to trust and equip self-organizing
From industrial growth to local sustainability

I also long to see my kids graduate from high school, to impatiently hope they have kids of their own that I can fall in love with, to bike across the country with my son, to befriend a dolphin in the ocean with my daughter, grow old with my wife, and much more.

I still want all those things very much. But my conversation with Dr. King last night helped me feel more deeply in my body that what I most want is to be attentive and faithful to the small parts I’m asked to do, while fully breathing in the gifts of mountain top views of where we, together, can go. None of us can go to all of those places,

I feel sobered to realize that I’ve already lived five years longer than MLK. I affirm that his life was not lived in vain, and I left the time with MLK also clearer that my work is not done.

I pray that we may all see the glory of the coming of the promised land, see and trust our parts to play, and live savoring the reality of the reign of love, even as we help it be born.
Michael Bischoff

Here are Dr. King’s own words:

In Celebration of the Inauthentic

 

I recently co-facilitated a group activity that one person said was as inauthentic as Garth Brooks trying to sing gansta rap. Another person said the activity was all malarkey. I recognized those skeptical voices. They are often within me. I have a long tradition of challenging what seems inauthentic to me, both around me and in my own behavior. When I was a teenager in church, I would make long lists about the things I thought were inauthentic about the worship service. I didn’t understand how reciting creeds from hundreds of years ago could be an authentic expression of someone’s faith in that moment. After most work I do, I often repeatedly critique myself for not being as fully present and connected as I could’ve been. I have always longed for what was more authentic, more real. Sometimes this longing has been helpful and sometimes it has been an obstacle for me.

In the group activity people that some people said was inauthentic, we asked them to talk about new things God was doing in their lives and churches. For many people, having an intentional conversation about this is inherently awkward and uncomfortable. Many people that were enthusiastic about these conversations also acknowledged that it stretched them outside of their comfort zones and made them anxious.

I’ve come to appreciate doing things that might seem inauthentic to me at first.

Crying doesn’t come easily to me. Sometimes I set aside a time to pray, knowing I need to cry, and asking God for the gift of tears. It can feel very inauthentic to me, but God often helps me get over this, and some tears often come out while I feel held by God. If I could see myself from a distance, I might be quite challenging about how inauthentic it looked.

My kids and I sometimes do laughter yoga together, where we start laughing on purpose, just to laugh, even though nothing funny happened or was said. Once we start laughing, we often keep laughing naturally. Like the tears, this is often cathartic for me. From a distance, choosing to make yourself laugh also looks quite weird.

I have sometimes made authenticity an idol, acting as if it is more important than God. Some others might be naturally authentic almost all the time. I’ve found that it sometimes helps me to fake it until I make it. My awkwardness is also a reminder to me that my efforts won’t get me to God–that only comes through grace.

I welcome what feels inauthentic, if it leads us closer to God. I pray that God use times of discomfort and awkwardness to draw us closer.

God laughing at us

“He uses complicated diagrams to make himself look really smart.” A few months my 12-year-old son offered to make a commercial about my consulting business. It turned out that my son had some fun with earnestness and use of complicated diagrams. Here’s the commercial he made:

I’ve learned a lot about spiritual formation and prayer from the author, Richard Foster. I recently heard a talk where Richard talked about one of the most transformational moments in his spiritual life–where he heard God laughing at him. Richard had been trying hard to discern an issue that he saw as an important ethical decision, about whether to wear a tie or not. In loving response, God laughed at him, which helped Richard laugh at himself.

As I’ve been very busy doing lots of work lately, I’ve had a sense that God is laughing at me, in inviting, challenging, loving ways. I can sometimes laugh at myself or others in ways that are cynical and distancing. I think God is asking me to listen, feel, and join God’s laughter–that can be unsettling, but also an invitation to intimacy and freedom. I’m leaving soon to help facilitate a gathering of 500 church leaders, where we’ll be listening for new things God is doing in their region. I pray that we may hear and join God’s disarming, healing laughter, at the conference and beyond.

 

The path of insecurity towards God

 

A couple days ago I had a bad headache and a sadness in my belly, partly because I felt like I was doing work that was harmful. I was organizing an activity for a high-energy networking event for 1,100 community leaders from the region. The activity was a network map that showed how these 1,100 people knew each other. The more connections you had to others at this event, the larger of a dot you were on the map. At times, I felt like I was helping create a shallow popularity contest that encouraged posturing. I was aware of how much self-doubt I had about my contributions to this event. As I prayed about it, I became aware of how much self-doubt many of the participants coming to the event were also bringing to this event and the potential connections they would make. Underneath the event preparation and activities, it felt like there was a strong, restless current, where most of us were trying to keep our heads above the water of these questions:

Do I really belong here? Will I be found out as a fraud?

Will my gifts be recognized and welcomed?

 

In the middle of this networking event, I was feeling drained and discouraged. At that moment, a community artist who inspires me happened to walk up to me to ask about the activity I was coordinating. In our conversation, this artist surprised me by telling me about the self-doubts he had about how he fit in this large group of leaders. As he vulnerably and openly told me about this, I felt a wave of grace wash through us.

 

I’ve spent much of my life asking myself why I was so shy, and why I had such trouble connecting naturally with people around me. The morning after the event, it felt like God woke me up early and asked me to reframe this history of self-doubt and insecurity. God seemed to be asking me to see the value of the path I’ve been on from intense shyness to choosing a career as a group facilitator that stretched my natural tendencies. Looking back, it appeared that God had been helping prepare my awareness of and compassion for these insecurities. I felt called to a new way of facilitating connections and collaboration–a way that acknowledges and redeems our insecurities about belonging. I felt God offering to heal my habit of believing that I can’t deeply and naturally connect with others. God was inviting me to continue my facilitation work, but from a place of compassion for those hidden insecurities about belonging that are in me and many others I work with.

 

What does it look like to build large networks that do effective work together, while those relationships are also grounded in healing and compassion? I think God is asking me to find out.

 

As I’ve been recovering from networking event I helped organize, I’ve been repeatedly reminded of this passage from Teresa of Avlia’s poem, “He Desired Me, So I Came Close” (translated by Daniel Ladinsky):

 

**

A thousand souls hear His call every second

but most everyone then looks into their life’s mirror and says,

“I am not worthy to leave this

sadness.”

 

When I first heard His courting song, I too

looked at all I had done in my life

and said,

 

“How can I gaze into His omnipresent eyes?”

I spoke these words with all

my heart.

 

but then He sang again, a song even sweeter,

and when I tried to shame myself once more from His presence

God showed me His compassion and spoke a divine truth

 

“I made you, dear, and all I make is perfect.

Please come close, for I desire you.”

 

**

 

 

I’m a 40-something man who is ga-ga about his 2 kids and wife. I also feel warmly about bikes, mountains, and Jesus. I do consulting work with religious and secular organizations, walking with them as they look for where there is the most life and vitality in their work. My occasional blog posts are at:http://spiritofinstitutions.blogspot.com/.

 

 

 

 

 Religion-less Christianity?

 

Both as a child and as an adult, church has been a very large part of my life. Shortly after my kids were born, my wife and I helped start a Quaker congregation that was a foundational part of our family’s life. In the last two years, however, my family and I have found ourselves on a journey outside of any formal church. We’re feeling called to experiment with new ways of doing faith community. It has been confusing and lonely at times, and also satisfying and life-giving.

 

My family is not alone. A recent report says that the percentage of people who attend formal worship services at least once/month is down to 43 percent, from 53 percent in 1983. Yet 57 percent of people said they pray at least once a day, up from 54 percent in 1983.

 

Many of us are leaving churches, but still practicing faith. We still need community to support that faith, and to support each other. How do we do that?

 

In his despair with the German church’s lack of response to Nazi atrocities, the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer started looking for what a religion-less Christianity would look like. He boiled it down to two essentials–prayer and righteous action. As a Christian who had seen himself as a pacifist, this led Bonhoeffer to the radical act of plotting Hitler’s assassination.

 

What might religion-less Christianity look like for us? Here are a few hints I’m seeing.

 

My family has dinner with some family friends every Monday. After we eat, we read a Bible passage from the lectionary and our families act out the passage. Last week my 12 year old son was Jesus just before he was killed and I was a soldier helping arrest him. I felt the power of the story in ways I never had before.

 

Last month I was facilitating a day-long work event that was a stretch for me. I asked 5 friends that I pray with to pray for me and the others at the event. I felt more relaxed, confident, and trusting in that work than I had before. I felt upheld by their prayers and attention.

 

I know a man who was homeless earlier in his life and now has a business selling soup. He wanted to give back to the community by offering a free community meal each weekday. A local Lutheran church offered their kitchen and basement for the meal, and it started this winter. Now people in the neighborhood who are hungry for food and community gather each day for lunch. When I was there recently, someone at my table said they were looking for a secretary job. Someone at the table next to ours that we didn’t know said their organization was hiring a secretary and they talked about how she could apply. It felt like church to me.

 

Janet, our host for this blog, says that church for her is “intimacy with God and God’s people.” I love that definition of church. For me, the essence of church is the ongoing practice of paying attention to that intimacy and following where that leads us.

 

Organizational churches can support or get in the way of religion-less Christianity. The church that offered its basement for a free community meal is cultivating community without the requirement of religion.

 

For me, it isn’t as simple as just getting rid of the institutional church. For religion-less Christianity to thrive, it needs many things that churches traditionally offer–space, spiritual education, continuity and tradition, accountability, and more. My journey with religion-less Christianity is very incomplete. I’d love to hear what you are finding. I’ll post an update on my experiments next month on this blog.

 

 

 

Unexpectedly Falling in Love with Lutherans

 

A few months ago, a colleague of mine asked me if I’d be interested in doing a consulting project with her, supporting discernment and renewal with a large group of Lutherans. My first responses revealed some of my biases–that I see most mainline, U.S. churches as declining creatures without much vitality. I said I’d rather help them die than try to prop them up. My judgments are often a barrier that God needs to break through.

 

I’ve spent a fair amount of effort pushing away many of the United Methodist traditions that I was raised in. When I first heard about the opportunity to dive deeply into the Lutheran world, it seemed like what I wanted to keep pushing away.

 

God had other things in mind. As I wrote on this blog last month, I’m seeking to leave the cult of self-development, a mindset I can get stuck in, where I can see the process of improving myself and my community as idols above all else.

 

After I talked with my colleague about this Lutheran group, she passed on some of my provocative questions about what is dying and needing to be let go of to the leadership of the group. Since that time, I’ve been amazed many times at how much these leaders have boldly leaned in to those unsettling questions about what is dying and what disruptive new things are being born. To my surprise, my colleague and I have now started a two-year long consulting process with this group, which I’m finding very enjoyable and energizing.

 

Mainline, declining, white Christians in the Midwestern U.S are my people. I can try to run away from this, or I can find surprising life as I turn towards what I’d been afraid of.

 

My father’s health is slowly declining in a nursing home, where he rarely gets out of bed unless he has to. The lack of vitality and connection with the world that I see in my father’s life is one of my greatest fears. It is hard for me to be fully present with my father in the level of disconnection and depression that he lives with. It is hard for most people. I still love him and keep reminding myself to turn back towards him.

 

When we are living in clear decline, either in our health or in our organizations, how do we find life? When I’m with both my father and the Lutheran church, I’m reminded that self-improvement and trying really hard won’t get us there. Lutherans are reminding me that renewal comes from death and resurrection, and through God’s grace.

 

I’ve heard the Lutheran catch phrase “saved by grace, not by works,” many times. It didn’t really start sinking into until these past few months, when I saw that approach embodied by Lutheran pastors and lay leaders I’m working with. I’ve been moved by their willingness to face decline, let go of identities they’ve held closely, and be remade by the Spirit. Their Lutheran theology keeps reminding them that renewal comes as a gift of God, not by our best efforts.

 

In my quest to leave the cult of self-development, I’m finding unexpected medicine in Lutheran theology. The fact that the denomination I’m working within is rapidly declining in the U.S. (29% decrease in attendance from 2002 to 2012), while still doing lots of great outreach and service, helps remind me that human effort alone is insufficient.

 

Nadia Bolz Weber summarizes Lutheran theology in this way:

“God’s grace is a gift that is freely given. We don’t earn it, we just try to live in response to it… Nobody is climbing the spiritual ladder. We aren’t continually self-improving like Tide Detergent. Nobody is just getting better and better and better. God always comes to us and makes us new, and then makes us new again, and again. It is called death and resurrection. God is always coming to us. We don’t make our way to God.”

 

Thank you, Lutherans, for reminding me of my own limits and the necessity of God’s grace. Lutherans have also led me to the radical vision of a religionless Christianity that Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes about. Stay tuned for more about that in next month’s blog post.

 

I’m a 40-something man who is ga-ga about his 2 kids and wife. I also feel warmly about bikes, mountains, and Jesus. I do consulting work with religious and secular organizations, walking with them as they look for where there is the most life and vitality in their work. My occasional blog posts are at: http://spiritofinstitutions.blogspot.com/.

 

Trying to Leave a Cult, by Michael Bischoff

 

I am an earnest man. Sometimes it is embarrassing.

A year ago I called all my friends together and gave a formal presentation to confess that I was in a cult, and to ask for my friends help in getting out of the cult. I told them that I had been in the cult of self-development.

I had been talking with my kids recently about what is unique about each of us. My 8-year-old daughter said, “one thing that is unique about you, Daddy, is that you like to try to improve people’s personalities.” It was ouchy when my daughter pointed this out, but she was right.

I love self-development. I’m a part of men’s group, and we do long personal check-ins and provide support and challenge to keep growing. I love talking about personality types, like the Enneagram and Myers-Briggs. I especially like to try to guess and analyze someone else’s personality type, which I know you aren’t supposed to do. I like to list my shadows and talk about them. I’m a part of many groups that really value talking about how we’re feeling and the dynamics between us. Even though I love it, sometimes seems to me that I’m in a cult of self-development that is hard to get out of. I think that I, and sometimes we, prioritize personal growth and development above everything else, make it an idol. Like a religion, focused on things that make us better, happier, and kinder people. We can use many things for this goal–emotional intelligence, therapy, small groups, personal boundaries, spiritual practices, journaling, mindfulness, yoga, etc.

In my presentation a year ago, I asked for help from my friends and from God in moving beyond this cult in three ways, by surrendering to the source of life, surrendering to community, and surrendering to being used in social transformation.

 

Now, a year after my public confession, I haven’t fully left the cult. I’m more aware of my temptations in that direction and I feel more moments of freedom and grace, but I still take many compulsive drinks at the bar of self-development. But in the past few months, I’ve found unexpected help in my long-term exit from the cult—Lutherans. I’m a Quaker who has developed a sudden infatuation with 60,000 Lutherans. It is a little unsettling.

Janet, your regular author and host here at this blog, is a dear friend and inspiration for me. She’s invited me to submit a blog post here once a month for the next six months. Next month, I’ll tell you some of the story about my romance with the Lutherans and update you on my journey out of the cult.

 

What role does self-development have in your spiritual path?

What is more important than that to you?

 

**

I’m a 40-something man who is ga-ga about his 2 kids and wife. I also feel warmly about bikes, mountains, and Jesus. I do consulting work with religious and secular organizations, walking with them as they look for where there is the most life and vitality in their work. My occasional blog posts are at: http://spiritofinstitutions.blogspot.com/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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