There have been many times in my life, and truth be told there still are times, when I feared I may be missing the entire point of the journey. Perhaps this is why I became a pastor, a poet, a writer, a spiritual director - it seemed to be the most logical path to follow in search of Wisdom; a way of taking the confusing mish-mash of the joy and pain of life and forming out of it something coherent, a solid place in which to stand.
What I found is that despite our world’s preference for strong convictions, the Elders teach us again and again that uncertainty is not at all a bad thing. In fact, it can be a very good thing when it comes to spiritual growth.
In my search for Wisdom, I found something I had not expected to find - that all of the Elders, all of the great Wisdom teachers and deepest souls from every culture, place, religion and era, teach the same Four Essential Truths about life. I doubted this could be true at first. If it was, why hadn’t I heard of it before? And why wasn’t everyone talking about it?
But the more I’ve searched for Wisdom, the more I’ve found it to be true. There are Four Essential Truths and together they form what is known as The Way.
I dare not attempt to come straight out and tell you what The Way is, for that is foolishness. Though I will share with you many things I’ve learned about The Way, in its essence The Way cannot be put into words. It always points us to something “more.” It is a Wisdom beyond description. It can only be seen through a slow and faithful process of revealing. The great sculptor Michelangelo said, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” Following The Way exists to give you the tools to chip away at The Block of life until you unleash from within it the beautiful masterpiece that is your own story.
My own journey of chipping away at The Block began, of course, when I was young. It was formed deep in the belly of a Baptist church in rural Missouri where I stood beside my grandfather as he sang the hymns of his faith in bass tones that reverberated in my bones. It was there I was introduced to the concept of God. As limiting as that initial concept might have been, I remain grateful for my foundation. Every person must learn to walk before they can run, and to run before they can fly, and to fly before they can be still. (Yes, stillness is the end goal here.) It is hard to learn to walk on shifting sand. And the faith given to me at my Baptist church, if nothing else, claimed to be solid ground. Indeed, in many ways it was.
However, with time and experience, I came to find my concept of God and what it means to live a life of faith changed significantly. That’s not a value statement or judgment. It is just a part of my story. I have the Episcopal church to thank/blame for this. There they did not teach me the answers, only to ask deeper questions. The Episcopal church showed me it is more important to be taught how to think than taught what to think, which is the basic level of most religious traditions and, unfortunately, the place too many presume is the final destination of their journey.
Later in my teens, at an Episcopal youth conference in Wyoming, I remember sitting in the pews alone before a worship service and looking out the window at the sunlight hitting an icicle hanging off the eves of the building. It was melting, drop by drop, and it was beautiful. I saw holiness in it. I think it may have been an image of what God does for us, melting our coldness drop by drop, with the warmth of Love - allowing us to return to the source-waters, no longer dangling on our own and separate from all the other drops, but rejoined as One.
Or maybe it was just a beautiful icicle. Either way, it touched my soul.
Fast forward many years and one day, about halfway through seminary, I was sitting in front of a computer trying to write a paper. I was learning what the stories of the Bible were all about. I was learning what leading worship was all about. I was learning what theology, and ethics, and pastoral care, and the business of administering a church were all about.
But I still was’t sure what life was all about.
Exhausted by the struggle, one day I prayed and I asked God to show me the answer to that question, what is the meaning of all of this? This prayer turned into a mystical experience that startled me and started me out following The Way. Though some people will always be suspicious of such mystical experiences, I will go out on a limb and share mine with you. It was real and changed the direction of my life.
As I prayed, I began to feel as if I was being caught up into something much larger than myself. My body gently leaned back in my office chair and I felt as if I was floating. I’m sure that, from an external perspective, my body was still firmly in the chair. But from my internal perspective, I was floating above it. I suppose some people call this an out of body experience. My mind was filled with a sense of complete openness and transcendence. It was as if the universe were expanding in concentric circles replacing my own previously limited consciousness. It was both brilliant light and cold darkness all at once, in complete harmony and balance. My spirit expanded infinitely beyond the concept of my finite body. I felt At One. I felt complete peace for the first time. And in the middle of that experience, this image presented itself to me:
I did not know what it meant at the time other than a sense of familiarity with it and a recognition that it resembled the form of a Celtic Cross. I’ve since come to realize it is the great Sacred Symbol, found in religions and cultures across history. Though this image remained, too soon this experience was over. I have at times been touched with a similar sense of peace and transcendence, but it has never again been so powerful and so profound.
I’m still not sure if this was the first day of my journey or just another important step along The Way. But it certainly was a fork in the road that helped shape and determine everything that has happened in my life since.
I have come to realize on new levels the ancient roots and meaning of this symbol of The Way. I have come to find it illustrates the deep Wisdom of the Elders. And I have come to find it sets before us the pathway of The Four Essential Truths that leads us into Life.
“I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.” - Jesus
It took these words of Jesus and freed my mind to understand them in ways I might never have imagined unless I’d had this symbol to anchor them to. I came to realize this is not an exclusionary statement, as the Church often abuses it, turning it into some kind of proof-text that Christianity is the only way. But rather it is a signpost pointing us in the right direction, the one Jesus sought to exemplify in his own life.
And most importantly, this mystical experience that concluded with the Sacred Symbol pointed me towards the Four Essential Truths, the great articulations of The Way found in the Shema of the Jewish scriptures, the Great Commandment of Christianity, the Eightfold Path of Buddhism, the Five Pillars of Islam, the Four Directions of Native American spirituality, and the Tao of Asian traditions.
In Christianity, my own faith tradition, it is revealed this way:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your Heart, and with all your Soul, and with all your Mind, and with all your Strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question. Mark 12:28-34
There it is. The answer. Someone asked Jesus what the meaning of life is and Jesus answered with the words of the Shema from his own faith tradition, Judaism. Always remember that Jesus was a Jew. Maybe still is. Probably still is.
For centuries before Jesus, the Jewish people affirmed the words of the Shema as their central statement of faith. The Shema was, and continues to be, a central component of Jewish belief, worship and life. It is recited by many faithful Jews at the beginning and end of each day. Jewish children commit it to memory the way Christian children memorize the Lord’s Prayer. They are found written inside mezuzahs, which you will find at the entryway of many Jewish households. It is considered the perfect last words before death.
These few words are intended to be the center of every faithful person’s life. They are to be the container for everything a faithful person does. They are what we are called to pass on to the next generation. There must be a reason God calls us to see everything through this lens.
The meaning behind these words “Heart . . . Soul . . . Mind . . . Strength” also reveal to us the four major expressions of what it is to be a human being, urging us to devote each area to God. The Four Essential Truths say that we will only find our true purpose and meaning in life when we direct each of these four aspects of who we are to loving God and loving others:
Heart (greek: καρδίας). This means to love God from the center of our being, the source of our desires, the place from which we act. It is about our vocation, or more literally our calling (vocation and vocal share the same root word). As we explore this you will find your calling and purpose.
Soul (greek: ψυχῆς). This means to love God with our whole spirit, that place from which we have genuine relationship with God and with others. As we explore this you will come to understand yourself and others in ways that allow you to truly be free to love.
Mind (greek: διανοίας). This means to love God with the center of our understanding and worldview. As we explore this you will find that our way of seeing and responding to the world is deeply flawed due to the influence of our culture’s dispositions. There is another way.
Strength (greek: ἰσχύος). This means to love God with all of our physicality and presence, with all of the force we have within us. As we explore this you will find that it directs you to a new sense of presence, awareness, and residence in your own body.
Overlaid on the Sacred Symbol, we can visually depict this four-fold pattern of Heart/Soul/Mind/Strength as this:
In living a life around the Four Essential Truths of The Way, we find our ultimate purpose. For example, Jesus clearly lived out his life according to the Shema/Great Commandment:
Jesus loved God with all his Heart – and this led him to a life of serving others. He teaches us that to love God is to love neighbor as self and that to serve the least is to serve him. All are One.
Jesus loved God with all his Soul – and this kind of deep love allowed him to forgive and offer grace to others in a deeper way than anyone has ever known.
Jesus loved God with all his Mind – and he chose to see the world as God sees it, with the lens of a different kind of kingdom, and taught others to do the same.
Jesus loved God with all his Strength – and he spent much of his ministry being present to and healing others and giving their physical and spiritual strength back to them. It restores us to life.
Throughout the following The Way® journey, we will continually explore the deeper meaning of Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength. I will share how the Four Essential Truths have deeply formed and informed how I have chosen to live my life. There will be space for you and others to share you own understanding and discoveries. I will also tell you how these four pathways interact with and counterbalance one another to provide the framework for a balanced, integrated and harmonious life.
I think it will blow your mind the way it blew mine. It is truly beautiful, speaks to the deep presence of God in our lives, and gives me goosebumps every time I show it to someone new.
following The Way,
This Week: The Shema
Since this week is a deeper dive into the Shema/Great Commandment, rather than present a new Elder of the Week, I will give you resources to dig deeper into the meaning of the Shema, especially the original Hebrew meaning of these words. What follows is a fantastic video series from The Bible Project, which really starts getting into the meaning and layers of meaning in these words. I encourage you to watch them as it will really help kickstart your own thinking about how these words can form and inform your life.
Note: There are only four videos here and you might notice there isn't a separate video for "Mind." Watch the video on the word "Me'od" and you'll get a glimpse at why there aren't two different words for Mind and Strength in Hebrew. Anytime you translate from one language to another you lose meaning when a word includes multiple meanings but there isn't one word in the other language that carries those same multiple meanings. The Shema was originally written in Hebrew. Jesus likely spoke Aramaic. And the New Testament was written in Greek. But when Jesus was seeking to get the meaning across, as he does in Mark 12:30 the earliest written of the four gospels, he and/or the writer of Mark understood the need to use four words to tease out the four meanings found in the three original Hebrew words. Confused yet? Don't worry, we'll get into it more later. For now, just enjoy these videos ...
P.S. - You can find other videos such as these, all completely free, from the amazing team at www.thebibleproject.com
Question of the Week:
Which one of these words, Heart, Soul, Mind, or Strength, speaks most to you? Help build our community and share a few words about it in the comments below.