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Posts Tagged ‘God

Decentered. As in “not the crux of all things.”

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A place for everything and everything in its place

I’ve put a recurring early-morning block on my calendar titled “Decenter.” The block or early morning quiet and focus has actually been on my calendar for decades, but I’ve recently retitled it based on a cue from Merold Westphal, a philosopher who teaches at Fordham University.

Westphal, writing in The Phenomenology of Prayer (NY: Fordham University Press, 2005), introduces prayer as a “decentering” activity. As a conversation, prayer takes me out of the center of my universe. Like the prayers of the old poet-king or the prayers of the inveterate letter-writer, these are conversations that recognize some other as the center of everything. Those two saw God as the center—I’m with them on that.

There is mystery beyond our convenient placeholders.

There is mystery beyond our convenient placeholders.

Of course, “de-centering” is not the way we could describe many of the prayers we pray. We send up endless lists to some imagined order-taking god, with caveats about when (“Now works for me. How about now?”) and where and how. And especially how much. But listen to Westphal:

…prayer is a deep, quite possibly the deepest decentering of the self, deep enough to begin dismantling or, if you like, deconstructing that burning preoccupation with myself. (Prayer as the Posture of the Decentered Self, 18)

Again and again I find myself at the center of all existence. Maybe you do too. We’re sorta set up for that, given eyes and ears that operate from a central pivot, constantly swiveling about to take in all we possibly can.

It seems natural enough to think everything revolves around us.

The truth is we need help to back away from this “burning preoccupation.”


Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

God-Talk and Other BS

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Do Communication and Spirituality Connect?

I say “Yes.”

And I say it manifests in the ordinary conversations of everyday life.

Let me prove it: deep down in your brain-pan, where you instantly recoil from people who snap at you; back down there where your inner child says snarky, politically incorrect, frankly obscene, stuff that your adult, outer-self edits and translates to “Hmm. I see….”

Deep down there in the hidden recesses—that’s part of the connection.

Your immediate responses to the stuff of everyday life can tip you off that things are not right—deep down in the soul. Yes—I’m talking about weird stuff. But you have an inner life, right? A place where no one visits but you.


If that inner place is full of doubt, while your outer self—the adult self in tie and loafers, who edits and translates the inner child’s voice so the rest of the world remains unaware what a low-life that kid is—if that outer self proclaims stable faith in God and corporation and the upright institutions (ha ha) that surround us—that’s where the cognitive dissonance starts. That’s the precise locus of hypocrisy.

Mind you: I’m big on doubt. Questions are good. Questioning institutions and the quick answers to life’s hard questions—I’m all for that. Talking unbelief to God makes perfect sense to me (Just read Job, my patron saint of doubt honestly-processed).

It’s the saying one thing while believing another I’m not for. It is that very place where God-talk becomes BS. And I believe most of us have sixth-sense/BS detector that goes off when outer words don’t match inner life—even if we cannot put our finger on exactly why. I am most certainly talking to myself here as well.

We need to process our bouts of cognitive dissonance together to keep our God-talk from becoming BS—rudderless words without the ballast of belief and action a life-lived.

If you don’t have a friend to be honest with, find one.

This is important.

Today is Good Friday—a day when the Christian Church celebrates (is that even the right word?) Jesus’ death. Three days later we celebrate that this dead guy is dead no longer.

I appreciate this time of year for processing doubts together with others. Quite often we come away rejoicing. And somehow more whole.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

By the way: I’ve written ListenTalk: Is Conversation an Act of God? to explore this connection. Pre-order here.

Can 78 bad sketches change your life?

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Don’t stunt your growth by reaching for fame

It’s funny we gauge personal success by numbers of followers. It’s as if we’ve adopted the business transaction as a model for every area of our lives.

Business wants more eyeballs for more attention for more revenue for more profit. And that makes perfect sense for our business goals.

What’s problematic is when we confuse business with what humans need to move forward: Doing what attracts attention and gathers “Likes” is often very different from the stuff our souls need to grow.

Your business factory is not a solid model for personal growth

Your business factory is not a solid model for personal growth

One thing I’m learning from the artists and photographers I’ve been interacting with at Dumb Sketch Daily (currently at bad drawing #78) is that while today’s drawing is (clearly) imperfect, there is always tomorrow’s drawing. And I know what I’ll do different in that drawing. I know I’ll try this technique, or that view, or this topic. I’ll do it again and create yet another imperfect representation of the world.

And that’s OK.

Because the pursuit is about learning to see, learning how to draw, learning how to write. Learning how to tell the truth. Learning how to interact with each other. Learning how to be human. Perhaps even learning how to interact with God.

The goal is not fame, unless you really want to turn this pursuit into a business. But learning itself—whether crowds acknowledge you or whether you plod silently and alone—learning is its own reward.

But I still argue your growth is also a benefit to the humans around you.

And while I don’t think 78 bad sketches have changed my life, I can say with certainty that I see things differently than I did 78 days ago.



Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

Seeing Past Childish Symbols

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Step 1: See the Template You’re Working from

I’ve been trying to learn to draw and Betty Edwards’s Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain has been particularly helpful. Edwards looked at why it is so many adults say they can’t draw, which is especially odd since nearly every child loves to draw. How did we move from love to incompetence? Edwards answers that by tracing our development as artists, and here is one milestone:

By around age five or six, children have developed a set of symbols to create a landscape. Again, by a process of trial and error, children usually settle on a single version of a symbolic landscape, which is endlessly repeated. (73)

As we age we become dissatisfied with those symbols but we have not worked out new ways to put on paper what we see. And so we give up, and our drawing gets stuck in that old symbolic system. Edwards provides a much richer discussion, but at least one result is that we must set aside our childish system of symbols to begin to see.

Which is not so simple.


I still start with a circle.

Not so simple because of the confusion that sets in as we try to translate real world scenes into a two-dimensional representations. To set aside the sun as a happy face in the upper right corner means I must look at how the sun reflects off, well, everything. To look at a face and see that—no, there is no outline—is off-putting. How to draw a face without starting with an oval?

This is why Edwards starts with learning to see as a precursor to learning to draw. In my 70+ days of drawing daily, learning to set aside my childish symbolic language has proved difficult. But the answer to seeing better and especially to seeing past the old symbols is to do things badly. And maybe do them badly for a long time. To do things so bad they are cringe-worthy. But that is the price one pays to learn.

I cannot help but think this life lesson and applies across the board. Learning to see and hear, and learning to form your own opinion and make your own representation applies universally. Growth from child to adult means you find new ways to interact with parents, so you set aside some (not all) the old relational cues. The ways we interact with colleagues and bosses must change as we take ownership for our work. Even the childhood symbols that directed our understanding of life purpose and how one knows God must be rejiggered. There is a template for romance we would do well to look at again. Nearly every part of life is helped by reexamination.

"Cutie Pie" + "Let's Read" seems like a good place to land.

“Cutie Pie” + “Let’s Read” seems like a good place to land.

But make a deal with yourself : be patient and give yourself time to move beyond the immediate confusion.



Image credits, including dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

February 16, 2015 at 9:27 am

English: I still believe in you.

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Get in that job-machine, mister.

More dire news for university English departments: from the University of Maryland, English majors are bailing like mad. And faster and faster.


The humanities have been getting a bad rap for, oh, half a dozen decades or so, because they don’t lead directly to a slot in a job machine. And, as the thinking goes, without the job machine you fail at life. Or at least paying for life’s good things (like a huge TV and plenty of Lean Cuisine) (Or rent and clothing).

We’ve certainly seen this coming. We’ve wondered: Why go into college debt just to be a philosophy-talking barista? We’ve lamented the pitiful conditions of adjuncts. Colleges in my area cut budgets and then cut more, from fat to bone. And now wholesale amputation to accommodate the demands of producing souls for job machines.

True: English departments that focus solely on esoterics need to undergo change. I’ll argue that any academic program (or any institution, frankly) that promotes the inward-gaze as the end-all, top-function of the human condition is currently being rudely awakened.

Smart English departments are tuning in to this—just like businesses have been realizing people don’t really care about their product all that much. Even churches are starting to realize there is a world of people living and working just outside their doors—people not interested in joining the club but crazy-interested in the meaning of life. Speaking of churches, we used to call it “evangelism” when we invited others in. Business evangelists understand all too well the benefit of going where people are and adapting their product to current conditions.

But reaching out to the rest of humanity—that’s where the action is.

It’s because we’ll always need to reach out, to communicate something to someone else, that I’m optimistic about English, if not exactly English departments. Rather than an either-or approach (deep-thinking/creative expression or assembly line training), we need both-and: deep-thinking and creative expression that leads to more conscious assembly line work. And perhaps that thinking will help us move beyond assembly lines entirely.

As I prepare my next set of writing classes for college English majors, I am beefing up the entrepreneurial end. Because the way out of a soulless slot in a job machine is to invent your own job machine.

That’s something we should train writers to do. And some of those writers will be English majors.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Not Resolutions: New Year’s Experiments

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What will you try next?

Another way to approach the beginning of the year.

Science constantly tries to rid experiments of bias and prejudice. Medical researchers set up double-blind, randomized studies in an attempt to remove personal bias and to avoid the temptation to game the results according to how we want to see them. Bias always and forever creeps in—it is part and parcel of the human condition.

But what if, instead of looking for work-arounds for our basic subjectivity, we embraced our very human bias and used it to move forward? Not so much in science experiments and medical trials, but in our personal lives?


A theologian tweeted the other day about the lack of research and experiments in theological studies. He was right, in theological research you do not see big multi-center clinical trials running across the country. Partly because pharmaceutical companies are not lining up to fund such studies. And when they do, we’ll have an entirely new class of worries about drug-induced faith.

But, in fact, we each experiment constantly. Each of us in our own way. We experiment with ways of living. We experiment with belief systems: trying this or that to solve those deep questions. We allow ourselves to be deeply affected by what our friends, family, colleagues and neighbors believe. These experiments are a simple fact of how the human condition works. We game the system all the time and it works.

Or not (and even then, we know something new).

Some of us make resolutions this time of year. Others of us try to set direction (versus resolutions) for the year in an attempt to avoid the dismal reality of resolutions quickly broken.

But how about running your own set of experiments this year?

My friend suffers acute anxiety. It’s not a clinical condition, just solid worry as a way of life. She would like to not be such a worrier. My suggestion was an experiment in trust. Pick up nearly any of the poems by the poet-king and simply do what he did. In plain, persistent, passionate language, exclaim and define with agonizing precision the current situation and ask for release. Or help. Or mercy. The poet-king talked frankly to God—which seems like a solid experimental idea for any of us.

Experimenting with our dissatisfactions is not that bad an idea. Last year I tried to write a novel in a month (National Novel Writing Month) and I tried to make a sketch a day. Both attempts were wildly unsuccessful. But as experiments they announced solid directions by the end: write more fiction and keep practicing drawing. Last year I also experimented with following the poet-king’s example. My subjective results were mixed and positive and pointed in a direction: more trust. And more gratitude.

What subjective experiments will you run this year on your guinea-pig self?


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

January 2, 2015 at 10:45 am

Please Say More, My Radical Lesbian Feminist Friend

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Mary Daly: Voice from the Fringe

Well, “fringe” for me.

I’ll confess: I’ve not been so conversant with feminist theology or philosophy. And this: it had not even occurred to me to think about it.

Sometimes a different perspective helps cut the fog.

Sometimes a different perspective helps cut the fog.


But then I read our daughter’s college paper on Kierkegaard and his potential exclusion of women. Our daughter’s reference to the self-described radical lesbian feminist Mary Daly and her Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1973) was something like click-bait for me and I had to order the book. I’m glad I did. Mary Daly’s voice has been a playful, combative, eye-opening excursion into seeing things differently. I’m only a chapter in, but already she has named patriarchal theology and turned it on its ear. Ms. Daly has suggested all sorts of thought-exercises that would never occur to anyone living in the usual theological/philosophical grid system:

For example, women who sit in institutional committee meetings without surrendering to the purposes and goals set forth by the male-dominated structure, are literally working on our own time while perhaps appearing to be working “on company time.” The center of our activities is organic, in such a way that events are more significant than clocks. This boundary living is a way of being in and out of “the system.” (43)

You don’t have to be a theologian or philosopher (or even a radical lesbian feminist) to appreciate the different way of seeing things Ms. Daly offered. A quick glance through her Wikipedia entry suggests there was personal a cost to seeing things differently—especially in the male-dominated structures she worked within.

What I like about this particular quote is how it points beyond authority to the organic or self-directed work each of us knows as our own. Much has changed since Ms. Daly wrote this in 1973. We still have male-dominated structures and maybe those are changing, though too slowly for many.

But think about “structures” for a moment.

Reading the quote as a freelancer and entrepreneur, I cannot help but notice how exactly her description fits anyone with a growing sense of their own work or mission—especially where that work or mission differs from the work or mission handed down from authority.

Regardless of gender.

The point is not to agree with everything Ms. Daly said. The point is to begin to hear. And to begin to see—so then we can begin to name the framing system we live within. By noticing and naming, potential solutions may begin to appear.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Brian McLaren’s Poke at Orthodoxy

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Our blindness is one thing the emergent church may have right

Syncretism is the melding of different philosophies or religions or schools of thought. The term (“syncretism”) becomes a pejorative that casts some practice in a negative light. My Christian missionary friends will talk about, say, Hindus who have converted to Christianity. And they’ll notice that some of the Hindu practices have found their way into the expression of Christianity—maybe harmless. Maybe not.

Once upon a time fundamentalist preachers would decry drums as a pagan beat that has no place stirring up emotion in a church service (somehow they missed the use of percussion instruments in Old Testament singing—and dancing).OregonLighthouse-06082014

Are those examples of syncretism? Possibly. I doubt there is a black and white standard about such things—there’s no on/off switch for what’s right and what’s wrong. More likely there is a continuum. And at some point along that continuum we decide (that is, someone claiming authority arbitrarily decides based on their understanding) this other person has crossed the line. The convert has gone too far and now that person has mixed the gospel with paganism.

You're doing it wrong?

You’re doing it wrong?

Brian McLaren might say: “Not so fast.”

McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith points out that modern reflections of Christianity (even/especially modern evangelicalism) may themselves owe a lot to this syncretistic impulse. In A New Kind of Christianity, McLaren argued that the reading of the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament) and the New Testament have been overtaken by platonic thinking. He describes a six-step formula that many Christians immersed in the Bible would subscribe to—and then he goes on to point out that formula owes much more to Plato than it does to the Torah. Some argue that McLaren’s is a naïve reading of Plato, which may be accurate: whenever we reduce this to that, we lose nuance and insert our own biases.

McLaren’s notion that we are at cross-purposes with the Bible when we read it as a constitutional law document rather than diligently seeking out (and sticking to) the purposes for which the documents were written also rings true for me. I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of too many interpretations that conveniently keep the people in power in power. But McLaren’s notion has lots of layers that require extensive teasing out and discussion.

Brian McLaren is a lightning rod. People love him. People hate him. It’s not hard to see why, when he accuses the entire ecclesiology industry of syncretism.

I like McLaren’s book because it is a beginning of trying to strip away our syncretistic impulses. Especially those impulses we are so embedded in that we can’t see them, sort of like the fish who doesn’t understand the concept of water. Sure—McLaren’s book has flaws. It turns reductionistic every so often. It makes huge leaps. Yes.

And yet we need real help to see where we have inserted our own thinking into a holy document and called it God’s word. Because this happens over and over again. And I think God doesn’t dig that tendency on our part. I would guess he would prefer the attitude behind, “I am blind. I would like to see.”

McLaren points out some of our blindness.


Image Credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

June 8, 2014 at 12:36 pm

Listening has an Ugly Step-Sister: Waiting

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Surprise: She Has a Lot to Say

The problem with listening has always been the other person talking. When will they stop talking so I can talk about myself and my interests? You know—the important stuff.

And so we wait.


Turns out there are lots of opportunities to wait in life. Beyond waiting for our turn to talk or the sheets to dry, there are lines at the grocer, lines for on-ramps, waiting for Netflix to load, waiting to get a job/spouse/house/liver/reprieve/break/two-bedroom spot in the nursing home.

What we do while we wait—that’s key. Some say stay busy. Some say pray (seems a good strategy to me). Some say stay curious. Some say pursue your passion.

And then there is listening

Listening while you wait.


Deep in the spinning cogs and meshed gear-works of waiting there is a mechanism that also tunes interest. If I listen intently I may just see my desire shift ever so slightly. I scraped and saved for years for a new car but when I had the money, I realized desire shifted: I didn’t want to spend it on the new car. A used car does fine, and I’ll spend that savings for the other thing that became important in the meantime.

Is this partly how prayer works: deep desire and constant asking followed by shifts in desire and asking that turns to listening?

When we wait we are ripe for deep listening.

What are you hearing while you wait?



Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

April 28, 2014 at 9:36 am

The Francis Effect

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Check out The Economist on Francis as turnaround CEO at RC Global:



Written by kirkistan

April 20, 2014 at 10:40 am

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