Monday, August 14, 2017

The Know of Yes (Listening)

“Why do musicians compose symphonies and poets write poems? They do it because life wouldn’t have any meaning for them if they didn’t. That’s why I draw cartoons. It’s my life." Charles Schulz
Our calling engages our passions. When we come to the path that makes sense for us, there is an inner yes that resonates and energizes. Clearly this is not always easy—because often the path has difficulties—but, at the same time, it’s not toilsome because it’s the right path. And that rightness brings with it energy and creativity. There’s an inner drive that leads us to change the world for the better. 
The well-known author and pastor Frederick Buechner describes the right calling, hearing our yeses, as a beautiful duet of voices.
The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done…. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC
Buechner uses the term “work,” but I will replace this with “calling,” which arises at an amazing intersection of personal interest and external need.
With Buechner in mind, I’m going to change this slightly and phrase it more succinctly:
Our yes is where passion meets mission.
It’s where what we want most to do coincides with what God wants done in the world. It’s that itch we have to scratch. What we “need most to do” in Buechner’s definition reminds us that there is something (or perhaps a few things) that we “most need to do,” that has in it an inner “yes.”
But how do we know what we really care about? What does the experience of finding your passion feel like?
This brings me to a psychologist with a remarkable name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (For what it’s worth, I once heard someone comment that he prefers “Mike” and that his last name sounds something like “Chick-sent-me-high-ee.”) In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi presented a key idea for grasping how we find our passion. In the state of the mind he named “flow,” we experience deep enjoyment, challenge matched by our skills, creativity, and a sense that time is moving in a different, and fuller, way. How can “flow”—or “optimal experience”—be described?
“‘Flow’ is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
One key example for Csikszentmihalyi is the work of a surgeon, who operates within certain limits (defined by keeping the patient alive), for a specific goal (the improved health of the patient), with a task that's entirely demanding and rewarding. Although paradigmatic, surgeons don’t exhaust the experience of flow. In fact, flow is actually a reasonably universal experience.
But how did he find this out? He developed a new form of research, the Experience Sampling Method, in which hundreds of subjects wore pagers that beeped at odd intervals throughout their days. When paged, the participants had to quickly fill out a brief survey that noted what activity they were engaged in and a series of questions of whether they were more or less in the “flow.” Were they in “optimal experience”?
Csikszentmihalyi’s research indicates some surprising results: for example, human beings experience flow more often when they are working than when they are at leisure. In fact, 54% of the participants who were “in flow” were paged at work. And although television requires mental processing, very little else mentally, like memory, is engaged. “Not surprisingly, people report some of the lowest levels of concentration, use of skills, clarity of thought, and feelings of potency when watching television.”
Ultimately, he asserts, optimal experience makes life worth living. When we’re in the flow, we want to do nothing else. And we don’t really care about much else. 
“An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous." Csikszentmihalyi.
So if your “pager” beeped right now, would you be “in flow”? Take some notes throughout this week at random intervals and see when you’re in optimal experience, whether you’d keep doing that activity and “are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it.” As the fabulous book Designing Your Life reminds us, it may take some "trialing" or testing--which is the theme of the next section--to find your passions. Still, the key for this post is that your passions will lead you to yes.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Science of Gratitude

U.C. Davis psychologist Robert Emmons has studied the science of gratitude. In his very approachable book entitled Thanks, Emmons tells about a study he and a research team conducted with participants whom he divided into three groups and who keep three types of journals for ten weeks—and I’ll restate this in my own words—one where daily the participants grumbled (describing what’s wrong in their lives), one where they stated things without sorting out positive and negative, and a gratitude journal where they simply noted what is positive in your life.

During this practice, he asked the participants to note their subjective levels of happiness. In other words, how would they rate their own happiness?

His findings? In contrast to the other two journal keepers, participants who kept the gratitude journal 
“felt better about their lives as a whole and were more optimistic about the future than participants in either of the other control conditions.”
According to the scale he and his research team used, 
“they were a full 25% happier than the other participants.”
Gratitude results in happiness because we are designed to be thankful.

Incidentally, John Templeton, the financier who later put his money into engaging life’s “Big Questions”—like the relationship of religion and science—had a very simple rule: start your day, immediately when you wake up, by noting two things you’re thankful for. And as a result, I’m told that Templeton, was an extraordinarily happy man.

Or maybe the word “extraordinarily” was ill-advised because Emmons research suggests that any of us—even those not born with a “sunny” disposition—can become happier through the practice of gratitude.

And this leads me to a question: if thanksgiving is fairly directly related to happiness, then why aren’t we more thankful? Don’t we want to be happy?

With this question, we arrive at the greatest problem in our culture, even though we probably have heard the commandment, “Thou shalt not covet,” our whole consumption-based society is founded on the idea that we can’t be thankful with what we’re given, that we always need more. As much as I can enjoy the craft of advertising, I know that its aim is increases our desires for what we don’t have. This makes it easy to be thankless in our society—to complain, to mutter under our breath that we could be happy “if only.” If only I had more money, I could buy that car, which would drive me past a stunning beach view, and I’d be accompanied by a beautiful person, who—because of car—would be sitting next to me.

As the proverb describes it, money can’t buy happiness, and I’d add this: wanting more money to buy more things positively makes us less happy.

My own goal out of all this is to be thankful for what I am receiving and not bitter for what I’m not receiving.

It seems that according to the science of gratitude, this has some marked positive benefits.

Monday, July 31, 2017

A Progression to Yes (#2 in the series, A Time for Yes)

Recently, I've been looking at how we discern God's will for our lives, and this produced bit of conversation in social media. All of which brought me back to A Time for Yes, the book I wrote in 2012. I figured it might be good to serialize a few entries as a way of keeping the conversation going.

Finding the time for Yes proceeds in a three-step progression, which we move through in order to live a beautiful, excellent, and successful life. These three steps are “key” in the sense that they unlock the doors that lead us to what is best. They represent what experts on happiness since the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle have called “human flourishing.”
As I’ve reflected personally and read a variety of ancient and contemporary psychologists, business gurus, theologians, philosophers and the like, and as I’ve interviewed acquaintances and people I’ve admired, here’s the progression of yes
Listening, Testing, and Grooving. 
First of all, to discover the life just beyond our nos, we listen for a deeper Voice, calling us. This involves becoming quiet and seeking to hear the God who calls. It’s what Naomi Wolf described well (and which I’ve already cited in Say Yes to No): we “listen to an inward voice one recognizes as wiser than one’s own, and transcribes without fear.” Or biblically (as the prophet Samuel said in 1 Samuel 3:10), “Speak, for your servant is listening.”
We begin by listening for God’s call, and I will offer several ways to do just that. Along the way, I offer this essential guideline: Our yes is where our passion meets God’s mission. Our Yes implies that we hear the Voice of God calling us uniquely and specifically to do God’s mission of love and justice in the world. This listening may seem automatic with guaranteed results, but in fact, it requires that we learn to change and prepare ourselves, that we learn how to tune our ears.
The second step in the progression of yes is testing. This is a transitional and shorter section in this book, and I begin with a question: Are you hearing some yeses? It’s time to test them out. We only listen through our intuition, and the results can be profound, but they’re frequently inexact. (By the way, I could have used “noodling” or “jamming” for this section to keep with the musical motif, but I like the poetry of “testing the yes.”)
Among many examples, I think of the great physicist Albert Einstein, who first knew the answers to general and special relativity theory intuitively. But then he and others still had to work hard to prove these theories mathematically and experimentally. Testing is a process that verifies the validity of we’ve heard.
This results in the third movement, grooving with a healthy rhythm of yeses and nos, where notes and silences, beats and spaces, produce beautiful music and where we move with the heartbeat of life. Here I’ve learned from the insights of researchers and writers who emphasize that our lives produce excellence when there is a rhythm of rest and a rhythm of work. As a percussionist would say, then we groove. (Since I’m a percussionist, I guess I can say it.)
This progression of Yes plays out in our personal life, our work, and our relationships. In our personal life, we say yes to what makes sense for the way we are created. In work, we seek to make the world a better place by using our particular gifts and passions for what God wants in the world. In our relationships, we learn how all this makes a lot more sense—and becomes a lot more fun—when we do it with others.
I call this the Triangle of life, work, and love. (I don’t often use caps, but the Triangle represents one of the few places I’ll play my License to use Caps—there I go again, but the Triangle is that important.) To live a healthy life, this Triangle needs some level of balance among the three sides. For example, we can’t seek our own personal and career success without good relationships. It makes a flat Triangle where we feel flattened in the process because we are created to love.
Saying Yes to God’s call is about all of life, not just our work (and for Christians, certainly not just what we do for the church). In the U.S. we are too focused on what we do in our jobs. Besides that, sometimes the best a job can do is provide for our, and perhaps our family’s, financial needs. And that’s a worthy goal. It is not yet, however, a calling.
Finally, when we live our Yeses, we realize beauty (or the synonyms, excellence, true success, and happiness) in life. I mean “realize” somewhat literally here—beauty becomes real for us. Through listening for our calling we find the One who calls. I believe God is faithful in calling us. There, with God, will be creativity, beauty, excellence, happiness and true success.
These are the qualities that come together when we move through the progression of Yes and thereby when we find the right time for Yes.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Believing in God After Hume and Kant

I begin with a story I’ve told before, but it’s worth retelling for the sake of the theme of this post.
At age seventeen, having grown up outside the church, I began college at U.C. Berkeley and not too long after, I became a follower of Christ. I admit it—“Grow up in a secular home. Go to Berkeley. Become a Christian”—is an almost laughable oxymoron. But that’s what happened. I certainly didn’t have every answer clearly figured out, but still I had enough—by reading the Gospels, studying other religions, talking with intelligent friends, and just thinking it through—that I committed my life to following him.
This means I find myself often balanced between a faith I’ve practiced now for decades as an adult and a secularism I learned from the cradle. (Although, to be honest, I’m not sure I ever spent time in an actual cradle.) Even today, it’s not hard for me to imagine the mindset of Nones (those who reply “None” when asked, “What is your religious affiliation?). Nones often look for anything that offers a convincing way to deny God’s existence—and for many science does as a satisfactory job. For others, it’s a scientifically-informed philosophy.
These guys don't look too scary, do they?
Like many, I heard at Cal that there’s no way to put together faith and science, and this brings me to a particular evening during my junior year. I had invited one of my favorite professors, a visiting scholar from Germany, Friederike Haussauer, to have dinner with my parents, who had come to visit from Menlo Park about fifty miles south. We had just enjoyed canapés as we sat across from one another at Upstart and Crow Café and looked out at Bancroft Avenue. (Actually I’m not sure it was canapés—I just like the word because it sounds refined). Our discussing turned to various topics about Germany and the States (my mother’s side of the family is German so the motherland was a topic of common interest), Dr. Haussauer heard an incidental remark that I believed in God. Almost immediately, she presented a challenge (which we could even call the Hausser Problematik),
“What possible sense does that make after modern science and the Enlightenment? How could you believe in God after Hume and Kant?”
That comment right in the middle of eating our quiches and hamburgers! I, not really thinking there was much conflict because of Hume and Kant and still a bit stunned, had little to say. The conversation continued, and later we said our goodbyes. In her class on Enlightenment literature and thought, it wasn’t many weeks later that we read Voltaire, d’Alembert, the other philosophes, who joined their French voices to my Deutsch professor’s—true intellectuals of the Enlightenment concluded that science presents decisive reasons for not believing in God.
I wish this were simply my experience. Over the past few years, I’ve interviewed students who similarly experience antagonism from other students and their profs and other students. As one of my current students told me, 
“The world doesn’t want to mention both religion and science in the same sentence. But it shouldn’t be that way.” Eliana (age 19)

I have answered these challenges a time or two on this blog—and certainly will do so in the future—but for now I want to let the question dangle in the air a bit, 
“What is it about an age of science and technology that challenges our faith in God?”

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Time for Yes (#1 in a series)

By an act of faith, Abraham said yes to God’s call to travel to an unknown place that would become his home. Hebrews 11:8, The Message
Recently, I've been looking at how we discern God's will for our lives, and this produced a bit of conversation in social media. All of which brought me back to A Time for Yes, the book I wrote in 2012. I figured it might be good to serialize a few entries as a way of keeping the conversation going. As a ramp-up, it seemed worth recounting why I wrote the book in the first place.

I had written Say Yes to No with a period of struggle in 2001 (and finished it around 2008) where I had said, and tried to live out, too many yeses. I’m happy to say that I’m no longer enmeshed in the stress outlined in the first chapter of Say Yes to No, but now the struggle is subtler and never fully leaves. Healthy practices that fight the gradual onset of what I earlier described as “schedule obesity” (an over-fed commitment to tasks) are habits that take time to cultivate. And then dogged insistence… I keep working on the right rhythm of yeses and nos and realize that this is an ongoing project. (You won’t believe how many times friends have quoted to me, “Greg, I think you need to learn to ‘say yes to no.’”)
The global economy also helped my cause a bit, or at least made the need for no even more apparent. The serious economic crisis of 2008 and its continuation over the past four years, the meltdown of the stock market, the crisis of confidence in our banks and Wall Street leaders, all led us to the recognition: we had declared too many yeses for too long—yeses to buying things we can’t afford. The United States government has spent too much without sufficient revenue. We’ve bought houses we couldn’t afford and too many HD TVs on lines of credit.
There is also one additional, subtler element:  With the public relations campaign for Say Yes to No, I began to focus more on the marketplace. I found myself engaging more business-related topics and commenting on’s blog, in interviews on Business News Network and, as well as the American Management Association’s publications like MWorld and Executive Matters. I began to ask why and realized that calling—or to use a bit more expensive term, vocation—is critical to what I’m doing with yes and no.
This experience led to one conclusion about calling and yes: it’s not just about work, it’s about how we respond to the whole Triangle of life—our personal life, work, and love.
Finally, yes is basic to faith. As the noted author Kathleen Norris has written in the introduction to Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, human infants “build a vocabulary, making sense of the chaos of sound that bombards the senses.” She continues, “Eventually the rudiments of words come; often ‘Mama,’ ‘Dada,’ ‘Me,’ and the all-powerful ‘No!’ An unqualified ‘Yes’ is a harder sell, to both children and adults.” Actually I had always thought that nos were harder, that setting out boundaries in a world of seemingly infinite possibilities posed the greatest challenge. But Norris ties saying yes to realities of faith.
To say “yes” is to make a leap of faith, to risk oneself in a new and often scary relationship. Not being quite sure of what we are doing, or where it will lead us, we try on assent, we commit ourselves to affirmation. With luck, we find that our efforts are rewarded. The vocabulary of faith begins. Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith 
Yes is also central to understanding Jesus Christ, at least according to the early Christian writer Paul who declared,
In him [that’s Christ] it is always “Yes.” For in him every one of God's promises is a “Yes” (1 Corinthians 1:19-20). 
By that, I believe Paul is leading us to see that God’s final word in Christ is an affirmation. Our nos, as it were, are to make way for yes. And yes is the main message of this book.
One final note: faith is also basic to saying yes. The shift in emphasis from no to yes has required that I become more explicit about God in this pursuit of finding the time for yes. I realize that we can say yes “to the Universe” and say yes “to the way we are made.” If you translate my references to God in that way, I won’t quibble. I have always wanted to communicate to those who are spiritually open, but not religiously identified. But I do write as a Christian. And, as Kathleen Norris pointed out, yes is a bit of a leap of faith, and it opens us up to their being a greater Yes behind this universe. Or perhaps put another way, saying yes to our calling implies that someone calls us. In my mind, this means God’s call, expressed definitively in Jesus.

Monday, July 10, 2017

On God's Will, Free Will, With a Bit of Science Thrown In

Recently, on a Facebook page dedicated science and faith (which I manage), there's been some discussion of whether science allows for us to have free will. Is there a place within scientific research for true human agency, where our decisions actually affect the world and our lives? Or is life, and particularly our actions, fully determined? Some, like Francis Crick, conclude that science, and especially the cognitive sciences and genetics, indicate that we are "nothing but a pack of neurons."

That's fairly bleak, but a similar kind of anti-free will thinking can enter into Christian conceptions of life. It's the conviction that somehow God has an iron-fisted will that determines our life like automatons.

These two modes of thought led to some questions that raced through my head when I preached yesterday on Proverbs 3:5-6. 
Are we free in any sense? What does it mean to "trust in God" and "submit to him," or as another translation (NRSV) puts it, "acknowledge him"? 
To answer those questions, I stepped back to my core conviction and worked from there: Our lives flourish when we follow God’s will. Sometimes our misconceptions of how to follow God’s will get in the way of God’s simple wisdom for us. It strikes me that this verse and others like it (e.g., Psalm 37:5-6) lead us to a gracious and interactive God whose will is (at some level) simple.
(A sidebar: We often let misconceptions that get in the way. First of all, we think that God’s will is decided by us individually, outside of community; and secondly, that God’s will is a detailed roadmap instead of following a Person, Jesus Christ.
My mind then journeyed to two images: First of all, a rigid view of God's will, as well as the deterministic view of our live as "nothing but" our neurons, that set us on a railroad track view of life. Either we somehow find this rigid will of God, get ourselves on the track and stay there. Woe to those who get derailed! Or we're stuck on a very similar track by our biology and it's "nothing buttery," and we're not getting off. 

Neither option sounds much like the "abundant life" that Jesus talked about (John 10:10) nor the "broad place" that psalmists celebrate as God's redemptive work (e.g. Psalm 18:19). 
Image two (I'm a jazz drummer): the God who improvises with us by the Holy Spirit, and we are called to follow God’s will in a dynamic, improvisational way. 

This is God who didn't let the the persecutor of the church, Saul fall off the track and get derailed, but who met him on the Road to Damascus, changed his name to Paul (Acts 9:1-9), and then led him in dynamic ways in his mission journeys. (Read the final eight or so chapters of Acts to see how many unexpected twists and turns God takes Paul on). It's this gracious God who doesn't set us on a narrow track, but in a broad expanse in which we can listen and try out and even make mistakes. As Psalm 18:19 declares, "He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me because he delighted in me."

From God's perspective, the Eternal One who is able to transcend time while still being intimately involved it, we might say it all looks a perfectly organized scheme. But from our perspective, we experience the One who "works all things together for good" (Romans 8:28), even in and through our mistakes, our attempts, and our decisions. It's the God who leads us in a truly free life. This is at least part of what Jesus means when he tells us that he will make us free indeed (John 8:36).
And all this strikes me as both good science and brilliantly liberating theology. And it's a great life to lead.

Monday, July 03, 2017

On Climate Change and Christian Faith

I was reading The New Yorker this weekend, and I came to a remarkable quote from the senior David H. Rank, the senior American diplomat in China. He was contemplating President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Actually, I should have written, “the former senior American diplomat in China” because he resigned over Trump’s decision, a decision he would somehow have to sell to the Chinese:
“I’m not a great theologian, but, just in my gut, I thought, We’re stewards of creation and the world. As a parent, I’ve spent my life trying to make my children’s life O.K. And, finally, in terms of national interests, it’s just dumb.”
As Rank put it quite simply, global climate change represents a pressing issue that we cannot avoid, but global stewardship even more. We need to concern ourselves for the poor who bear the brunt of climate change. We also need to think about the future, for our children. What earth will we leave for them? When the planet is threatened by our actions over which we are stewards, we have to re-evaluate all these calculations. 
So why do we resist?
Frankly, the resistance to climate change does not strike me as primarily scientific. As a member of the largest scientific organization in the world, the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I can affirm that I hear the call to take climate change seriously and urgently.
Money is one big issue. I remember my church business administrator expressing more than a modicum of resistance to the sustainability committee I started by saying “The only greening in the church we need to seek is saving money.”  Some resist for economic reasons—and those motivated by greed need to be openly rejected. “Put to death,” is Paul’s command to his fellow Christians about a list of sins that ends with “greed, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). (On the other hand, others truly fear a livelihood in industries that are threatened—like coal—and I believe that we need to be sensitive to these concerns. That’s not my focus here.)
Following the connection Rank makes between climate change and stewardship, I’ve argued for a particular strategy: Let’s move away from a focus on climate change to the broader concerns of stewardship (or, if you prefer, creation care). Partly, I advocate this change because “climate change” has literally become politicized—with more Democrats subscribing to its reality and more Republicans expressing skepticism. In all this, I don’t want to lose all the other ways that pollution, and recycling, and lowering our carbon footprint—i.e., “greening” our lives—are simply good Christian spiritual practices.
What can we do? We can learn to decrease our carbon-based footprint. We can make changes in our congregations. Many churches, like my own Presbyterian Church USA have a zero-carbon neutral statement. Others have adopted creation care as a part of their ministry.
This is the flip side of my central concern: Let’s not expect too much of science. Let’s not expect science to make the change that we’d have to imbed in our lives as (generally) wealthy United States Christians who are often wedded to consumption. That’s something the transforming work of the Holy Spirit has to do. It is the hope that I hear in Paul’s stirring words, “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 3:18).

Finally, we believe as Christians that Jesus might return at any moment, but when he comes like “a thief in the night” according to 1 Thessalonians 5:2, I want to be found caring for a world that our children—my daughters and their millennial colleagues—will inherit. (Back to Rank’s comments one more time.) It’s not hard for me to imagine that one of Jesus’s questions will be this: “How have you taken care of this planet that I entrusted to you?”