Living By Spirit

If an abundant life is one lived by soul in a spirit of love, what is living by spirit?

The Trip that Changed Everything

It was early on a Tuesday morning in late June 2020 when I boarded the light rail train. From Denver’s Union Station it would take about 30-minutes to arrive at Denver International Airport. The train was largely empty and the ride was free, both in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was unsure about flying. At the same time, after more than two months off work, I felt compelled to step into any work available. This was especially true of work that paid well.

This particular job would bring me to the Oregon Coast. The next four days would be intense. A couple months earlier I officiated the funeral of a 28-year old who accidentally overdosed. Now his father wanted to engage in some additional processing. He fled with his girlfriend to his place of refuge, the Oregon Coast. He invited me to join them there.

The Essay that Changed Everything

I sat down on the train still unsure what I would do beyond being present. Opening my bag I looked at the books I decided to bring with me. I could not tell you why I brought them, just that each of them seemed to say, “Take me!” Now, as I looked at all of them, only one called out. I picked up Henri Nouwen’s book, Intimacy. The book is a collection of essays on what intimacy looks like in various settings. I’m not sure why I skimmed beyond the first essay as the train rumbled along, but I did. Perhaps because the second essay would change my life.

Nouwen’s second essay, The Challenge to Love, did more than shape our three days in Oregon. It continues to offer me a framework that helps make sense of faith and life. It is the essay that defines living by spirit.

I spent countless hours exploring the divine nature while writing my dissertation. For years I compiled an array of ideas on what spiritual formation looks like. I had all kinds of ideas on what an abundant life might looks like. What I lacked was an overarching container that allowed all the pieces to fit together. Then I read Nouwen’s words and everything fell into place.

Nouwen identifies two spirits we can live by, power and love.
Photo by Oliver Roos on Unsplash

Living By Spirit

Nouwen writes about “the two main forms of existing, the form of power and the form of love, or in other words, the taking form and the forgiving form” (23). I would describe these forms of existing as energies or spirits to live by. These spirits shape how we see and interact with the world.

Talking about power Nouwen writes:

We are judged, evaluated, tested, and graded, diagnosed, and classified from the time our parents compared our first walk with a little neighbor’s. Gradually, as time goes on, we realize that our permanent record is building its own life, independent of ours. It is really not so amazing that we often feel caught, taken, and used for purposes not our own. The main concern then becomes not who I am but who I am considered to be, not what I think, but what others think of me. In this taking existence, we find ourselves operating in terms of power, motivated by fear. (26)

A Spirit of Power

As I read those words, I see how power dictates so much of our world. Whether you are talking about business or religion, socially or in personal relationships. So many of us live under this constant sense of judgment and evaluation. Based on our appearance and performance we deem ourselves worthy or unworthy. To that end, power is the foundation of racism, sexism, and religious persecution. Social privilege extended to some on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, physical appearance, or socio-economic status, is a manifestation of power.

In some cases it’s about power over yourself. It’s about hard work and the discipline to accomplish your goals. Perhaps it is going to the gym when you really want to snack while sitting on the couch. If physical appearance isn’t your thing, it might be self-control when it comes to education, spending habits, or your emotions. Even addictions are often about an attempt to gain power over a chaotic inner world.

More often, abundance becomes about power over others. This can range from your position at work to your standing in social circles. It can focus on the acquisition and control of money, resources, or information. In the end, it is about you being in a position of independence with both security and control.

Abundance and Power

When we applying power to popular visions of abundance, it is clear that abundance is often about the acquisition power. It could be about someone who already has power seeking more. In other cases, the historically marginalized fight to gain power by gaining a seat at the table.

Power can be forceful and coercive. Power can also operate with a gentle manipulation that makes the oppressed and marginalized feel equal. But whatever form it takes and however it makes those without it feel, power is antithetical to a spirit of love. That’s what I will explore next.

This Series

This post is part of a five-part series introducing a big picture take on faith. They are the foundation for everything brought to the crafting table by Abundance Reconstructed. Here are links to the whole series:

Living By Soul

If an abundant life is living by soul in a spirit of love, what does it mean to live by soul?

Soil and Soul

In the summer of 2020, my landlords paid my son to pull the weeds in the front yard of our immaculately landscaped rental home. I don’t know how long it had been since anyone took on the task, but it quickly became clear the yard had gone years without proper care. Huge networks of roots sat just below the surface and actual weed mitigation meant digging down and uprooting the massive entanglements. Otherwise, new surface weeds would sprout faster than we could pull them. My son and I spent hours that summer trying to not just make the yard look presentable on the surface, but manageable from one week to the next. But even with all of our efforts, it we found ourselves unable to conquer the weeds.

During this time, I found myself taking more and more trips to the mountains so I could go hiking. While wandering miles of trails through the Rockies, I began to notice something interesting. Weeds only showed up on the edges of trails and other places where people have interfered with the natural environment. If you wander off trail into a mountain meadow, weeds as we know them, don’t grow.

Living by soul is like indigenous landscaping.
Photo by Kristina Volgenau on Unsplash

Indigenous Landscaping

Then, while reading a book on soul craft, a line caught my attention. The book claimed that if you want a weed free yard, the key is to plant indigenous species. Doing a bit more research I discovered that native plants form a kind of blockade that limits the spread of weeds and other invasive plants.

Additional research revealed that weeds are actually a natural protective response aimed to prevent soil erosion, restore life-giving organic matter to the soil, enhance biodiversity, and provide habitat for insects and animals. In other words, weeds are nature’s response to our attempts to do something unnatural with the soil. This means that when we weed, we are literally fighting against nature. No wonder we have to dump all kinds of toxic and often carcinogenic chemicals that ultimately end up in our water if we are going to have the landscaping we desire without weeds.

The Weeds of Our Lives

This ecological realization hit me hard, but not because I have strong ties to a particular approach to landscaping but because I spent years thinking of weeds as analogous for unwanted behavior in my life, be it anger, impatience, or addiction. I talked endlessly about the foolishness of fighting for external behavioral change, comparing it to looping off the weeds with a weed wackier but leaving the sick root to thrive and form an even stronger weed. The real solution I argued was found in going deep and digging out the root network much like my son and I attempted to do that summer.

As it turns out for most of a decade, my attempt to mitigate the weeds in my own life were as unsuccessful as our efforts that summer. During those years I spent a small fortune on countless hours of therapy in every modality I could find seeking to dig up and reprocess my past, but I still found unwanted impulses ready to step forward at a moment’s notice. I always assumed that if a behavior returned, it must be because some root cause still needed to be pulled.

But this new knowledge about indigenous landscaping suggested there was a different problem. If it does in fact carry over to the human experience, this analogy would suggest that unwanted behavior is really your soul screaming that something in your life is out of sync. My unwanted behavior, those weeds, were not directly about my past, they were a result of how I understood myself and how I was living in the present.

Living By Soul

For years I spent the free hours I did have engaged in mindless games and media consumption because my life lacked meaning and purpose. My craving for affirmation, be it from the pulpit or on social media, really sought to override inner doubts about my own sense of significance. Sexually, I was casual and unfaithful in a desperate attempt to counter my sexual insecurity. I was contemptuous towards others because I held myself in contempt.

Living by soul means to listen to and respond to this inner cry. It means to adjust your mental and emotional landscaping so there is no need for weeds to form in attempt to add something that’s missing from the soil. You could even say it is about treating yourself with a spirit of love instead of power. I’ll explore more about this next.

This Series

This post is part of a five-part series introducing a big picture take on faith. They are the foundation for everything brought to the crafting table by Abundance Reconstructed. Here are links to the whole series: