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Based on his book We Make The Road By Walking, Brian D. McLaren presents a 52-week devotional to inspire and activate you in your spiritual journey. If you’re a seeker exploring Christianity, if you’re a long-term believer feeling downtrodden, if your faith seems to be a lot of talk without much practice, here you’ll find a reorientation from a fresh and healthy perspective.
Brian D. McLaren shows everything you need to explore what a difference an honest, living, growing faith can make in your life and in our world today. Through 52 weeks of thoughtful readings, Seeking Aliveness gives an overview of the message of the whole Bible and guides you through a rich study of interactive learning and personal growth.
What we all want is pretty simple, really. We want to be alive. To feel alive. Not just to exist but to thrive, to live out loud, walk tall, breathe free. We want to be less lonely, less exhausted, less conflicted or afraid… more awake, more grateful, more energized and purposeful. We capture this kind of mindful, overbrimming life in terms like well-being, shalom, blessedness, wholeness, harmony, life to the full, and aliveness.
The quest for aliveness explains so much of what we do. It’s why readers read and travelers travel. It’s why lovers love and thinkers think, why dancers dance and moviegoers watch. In the quest for aliveness, chefs cook, foodies eat, farmers till, drummers riff, fly fishers cast, runners run, and photographers shoot.
The quest for aliveness is the heartbeat that pulses through the Bible—and the best thing about religion, I think. It’s what we’re hoping for when we pray. It’s why we gather, celebrate, eat, abstain, attend, practice, sing, and contemplate. When people say, “I’m spiritual,” what they mean, I think, is simple: “I’m seeking inner aliveness.”
Many older religious people—Christians, Muslims, Jews, and others—are paralyzed by sadness that their children and grandchildren are far from faith, religion, and God as they understand them. But on some level, they realize that religion too often shrinks, starves, cages, and freezes aliveness rather than fostering it. They are beginning to see that the only viable future for religion is to become a friend of aliveness again.
Meanwhile, aliveness itself is under threat at every turn. We have created an economic system that is not only too big to fail, it is too big to control—and perhaps too big to understand as well. This system disproportionately benefits the most powerful and privileged 1 percent of the human species, bestowing upon them unprecedented comfort, security, and luxury. To do so, it destabilizes the climate, plunders the planet, and kills off other forms of life at unprecedented rates.
The rest, especially the poorest third at the bottom, gain little and lose much as this economic pyramid grows taller and taller. One of their greatest losses is democracy, as those at the top find clever ways to buy votes, turning elected governments into their puppets. Under these circumstances, you would think that at least those at the top would experience aliveness. But they don’t. They bend under constant anxiety and pressure to produce, earn, compete, maintain, protect, hoard, and consume more and more, faster and faster. They lose the connection and well-being that come from seeking the common good. This is not an economy of aliveness for anyone.
As these tensions mount, we wake up every morning wondering what fool or fiend will be the next to throw a lit match—or assault, nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon—onto the dry tinder of resentment and fear. Again, this is a formula for death, not a recipe for life.
So our world truly needs a global spiritual movement dedicated to aliveness. This movement must be global, because the threats we face cannot be contained by national borders. It must be spiritual, because the threats we face go deeper than brain-level politics and economics to the heart level of value and meaning. It must be social, because it can’t be imposed from above; it can only spread from person to person, friend to friend, family to family, network to network. And it must be a movement, because by definition, movements stir and focus grassroots human desire to bring change to institutions and the societies those institutions are intended to serve. Such a movement can even begin with one person: you.
I believe that the story of the Bible is largely the narrative of God working to bring and restore aliveness—through individuals, communities, institutions, and movements, especially movements started by individuals. In the biblical story, for example, Moses led a movement of liberation among oppressed slaves. They left an oppressive economy, journeyed through the wilderness, and entered a promised land where they hoped to pursue aliveness in freedom and peace. Centuries after that, the Hebrew prophets launched a series of movements based on a dream of a promised time… a time of justice when swords and spears, instruments of death, would be turned into plowshares and pruning hooks, instruments of aliveness. Then came John the Baptist, a bold and nonviolent movement leader who dared to challenge the establishment of his day and call people to a movement of radical social and spiritual rethinking.
John told people he was not the leader they had been waiting for; he was simply preparing the way for someone greater than himself. When a young man named Jesus came to affiliate with John’s movement through baptism, John said, “There he is! He is the one!” Under Jesus’s leadership, the movement grew and expanded in unprecedented ways. When Jesus was murdered by the powers that profited from the status quo, the movement didn’t die. It rose again through a new generation of leaders like James, Peter, John, and Paul, who were full of the Spirit of Jesus. They created learning circles in which activists were trained to extend the movement locally, regionally, and globally. Wherever individual activists in this movement went, the Spirit of Jesus was alive in them, fomenting change and inspiring true aliveness.
This fifty-two-week compilation of daily reflections is adapted from my book, We Make the Road by Walking. My prayer is that it will be a resource for this emerging spiritual movement in service of aliveness. It is essentially a retelling of the biblical story and a reintroduction to Christian faith. It is organized around four major themes chronicled in Scripture whose common thread is the “quest for aliveness.” It begins with the book of Genesis and finishes in the book of Revelation.
At the beginning of each week you’ll find a few Bible passages listed that you can read in any responsible translation, such as the New Revised Standard Version. Then you’ll see some key verses (or a single verse) from these Bible passages printed out in their entirety on which you can sharpen your focus, and possibly commit to memory. Your enjoyment of that week’s daily reflections will be enriched if you take the time to read the passages and verses upon which they are based. Of course, the line of interpretation and application I have chosen is one of many possible responses to each text. At times, it may differ from the interpretation you have heard in the past; you are asked only to give it an honest and open hearing, and you should feel free to prefer another interpretation.
There are five to seven reflections per week to be read over fifty-two weeks—a personal resource for your own thinking and rethinking. Then there is a thought or practice for the day. You can use this “Today” section to set the tone for your inner conversation throughout the day, to guide you in what to notice, and to keep you alert for opportunities to do good. One of my mentors likes to say that “Learning is not the consequence of teaching; it is the consequence of thinking and doing.” The “Today” section invites you to think and do in response to what you feel God is saying to you through the daily reflection.
If you’re a seeker exploring Christian faith, or if you’re new to the faith and seeking a good orientation, here you’ll find the introduction to the central theme of the Bible I wish I had been given. If you’re a long-term Christian whose current form of Christianity has stopped working and may even be causing you and others harm, here you’ll find a reorientation from a fresh and healthy perspective. If your faith seems to be a lot of talk without much practice, I hope this book of reflections will help you translate your faith into meaningful, creative action.
ALIVE IN THE STORY OF CREATION
You are entering a story already in process. All around you, things are happening, unfolding, ending, beginning, dying, being born. Our ancient ancestors tried to discern what was going on. They conveyed their best wisdom to future generations through stories that answered certain key questions:
Why are we here?
What’s wrong with the world?
What’s our role, our task, our purpose?
What is a good life?
Is there meaning and hope?
What dangers should we guard against?
What treasures should we seek?
From the Hopi to the Babylonians, from Aztecs to Australian Aboriginals, from the Vikings in Europe to the Han in China to the Yoruba in Africa to the ancient Hebrews of the Middle East—human tribes have developed, adapted, and told powerful creation narratives to convey their best answers to key questions like these. Of course, their language often sounds strange to us, their assumptions foreign, the details of their culture odd or alien. But if we listen carefully, mixing their ancient wisdom with our own, we can let their stories live on in us. We can learn to be more fully alive in our time, just as they learned in theirs. In that spirit, we turn to the creation narratives of the ancient Hebrews.
AWE AND WONDER
Key Verses—Psalm 19:1-4
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
DAY ONE: The Great Surprise
Big bangs aren’t boring. Dinosaurs aren’t boring. Coral reefs aren’t boring. Elephants aren’t boring. Hummingbirds aren’t boring. And neither are little kids. Evolution isn’t boring. Magnetism and electricity aren’t boring. E = MC2 might be hard to understand, but it certainly isn’t boring. And even glaciers aren’t boring, although their dramatic pace is at first quite hard for us to perceive. And God, whatever God is, must not be boring, either, because God’s creation is so amazingly, wonderfully, surprisingly fascinating.
The first and greatest surprise—a miracle, really—is this: that anything exists at all, and that we get to be part of it. Ripe peach, crisp apple, tall mountain, bright leaves, sparkling water, flying flock, flickering flame, and you and me… here, now!
On this, the first pages of the Bible and the best thinking of today’s scientists are in full agreement: It all began in the beginning, when space and time, energy and matter, gravity and light, burst or bloomed or banged into being. In light of the Genesis story, we would say that the possibility of this universe overflowed into actuality as God, the Creative Spirit, uttered the original joyful invitation: Let it be! And in response, what happened? Light. Time. Space. Matter. Motion. Sea. Stone. Fish. Sparrow. You. Me. Enjoying the unspeakable gift and privilege of being here, being alive.
Today: Pray, “God, help me be awake to beauty, wonder, and delight wherever they appear.”
DAY TWO: Here We Are
Picture the unfolding of creation. Imagine how uncountable nuclei and electrons and sister particles danced and whirled. Imagine how space dust coalesced into clouds, and how clouds coalesced into galaxies, and how galaxies began to spin, sail, and dance through space. Imagine how in galaxy after galaxy, suns blazed, solar systems twirled, and worlds formed. Around some of those worlds, moons spun, and upon some of those worlds, storms swirled, seas formed, and waves rolled. And somewhere in between the smallest particles and the largest cosmic structures, here we are, in this galaxy, in this solar system, on this planet, in this story, around this table, at this moment—with this chance for us to breathe, think, dream, speak, and be alive together.
Today: Think of yourself as surfing on the leading edge of a magnificent creation that has been unfolding for billions of years.
DAY THREE: A Common Amazement
The Creator brought it all into being, and now some fourteen billion years later, here we find ourselves: dancers in this beautiful, mysterious choreography that expands and evolves and includes us all. We’re farmers and engineers, parents and students, theologians and scientists, teachers and shopkeepers, builders and fixers, drivers and doctors, dads and moms, wise grandparents and wide-eyed infants.
Don’t we all feel like poets when we try to speak of the beauty and wonder of this creation? Don’t we share a common amazement about our cosmic neighborhood when we wake up to the fact that we’re actually here, actually alive, right now?
Today: When you slip out of aliveness and into autopilot, remind yourself that you’re “actually here, actually alive, right now!”
DAY FOUR: God’s Representatives
Some theologians and mystics speak of the Creator withdrawing or contracting to make space for the universe to be… on its own, so to speak, so that it has its own life, its own being and history. Others imagine God creating the universe within God’s self, so the universe in some way is contained “in” God, within God’s presence, part of God’s own life and story. Still others imagine God creating an “out there” of space and time, and then filling it with galaxies, and then inhabiting it like a song fills a forest or light fills a room or love fills a heart. Interestingly, some scholars believe the Genesis story echoes ancient Middle Eastern temple dedication texts. But in this story, the whole universe is the temple, and the Creator chooses to be represented by human beings, not a stone idol.
Today: Think of the universe being in God. And then think of God filling the universe like a song. And then ponder the wonder of God being with you, in you, right now!
DAY FIVE: All Matter Matters
The romance of Creator and creation is far more wonderful and profound than anyone can ever capture in words. And yet we try, for how could we be silent in the presence of such beauty, glory, wonder, and mystery? How can we not celebrate this great gift—to be alive?
To be alive is to look up at the stars on a dark night and to feel the beyond-words awe of space in its vastness. To be alive is to look down from a mountaintop on a bright, clear day and to feel the wonder that can only be expressed in “oh” or “wow” or maybe “hallelujah.” To be alive is to look out from the beach toward the horizon at sunrise or sunset and to savor the joy of it all in pregnant, saturated silence. To be alive is to gaze in delight at a single bird, tree, leaf, or friend, and to feel that they whisper of a creator or source we all share.
Genesis means “beginnings.” It speaks through deep, multilayered poetry and wild, ancient stories. The poetry and stories of Genesis reveal deep truths that can help us be more fully alive today. They dare to proclaim that the universe is God’s self-expression, God’s speech act. That means that everything everywhere is always essentially holy, spiritual, valuable, meaningful. All matter matters.
Today: Pick one thing—a bird, a sunset, stars, a leaf, a loved one, your own reflection in a mirror—and listen for the whisper of God in it.
DAY SIX: The Creator’s Language
If you ask what language the Creator speaks, the best answer is this: God’s first language is full-spectrum light, clear water, deep sky, red squirrel, blue whale, gray parrot, green lizard, golden aspen, orange mango, yellow warbler, laughing child, rolling river, serene forest, churning storm, spinning planet.
A psalmist said the same thing in another way: The universe is God’s work of art, God’s handiwork. All created things speak or sing of the God who made them. If you want to know what the Original Artist is like, a smart place to start would be to enjoy the art of creation.
Today: Practice looking at creation as God’s art gallery.
DAY SEVEN: Participants in Creation
Genesis tells us that the universe is good—a truth so important it gets repeated like the theme of a song. Rocks are good. Clouds are good. Sweet corn is good. Every river or hill or valley or forest is good. Skin? Good. Bone? Good. Mating and eating and breathing and giving birth and growing old? Good, good, good. All are good. Life is good.
The best thing in Genesis is not simply human beings, but the whole creation considered and enjoyed together, as a beautiful, integrated whole, and us a part. The poetry of Genesis describes the “very goodness” that comes at the end of a long process of creation… when all the parts, including us, are working together as one whole. That harmonious whole is so good that the Creator takes a day off, as it were, just to enjoy it. That day of restful enjoyment tells us that the purpose of existence isn’t money or power or fame or security or anything less than this: to participate in the goodness and beauty and aliveness of creation. And so we join the Creator in good and fruitful work… and in delightful enjoyment, play, and rest as well.
So here we are, friends. Here we are. Alive!
And this is why we walk this road: to behold the wonder and savor this aliveness. To remind ourselves who we are, where we are, what’s going on here, and how beautiful, precious, holy, and meaningful it all is. It’s why we pause along the journey for a simple meal, with hearts full of thankfulness, rejoicing to be part of this beautiful and good creation. This is what it means to be alive. Amen.
Today: Whenever you can, pause to consider “the beautiful, integrated whole” of Creator and creation, together.
Key Verses—Psalm 8:3–6
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet…
DAY ONE: Wild and Fascinating Stories
Two eyes are better than one, because they make depth perception possible. The same goes with ears. Two ears make it possible to locate the direction of a sound. And we often say that two heads are better than one, because we know that insight from multiple perspectives adds wisdom.
The same is true with stories. We can best think of the Bible not as one tidy story with many chapters but as a wild and fascinating library with many stories told from many perspectives. On any given subject, these multiple stories challenge us to see life from a variety of angles—adding depth, a sense of direction, and wisdom. So we’re given four gospels to introduce us to Jesus. We’re given dozens of parables to illustrate Jesus’s message. We’re given two sections or testaments in which the story of God unfolds. And right at the beginning, we’re given two different creation stories to help us know who we are, where we came from, and why we’re here.
Today: Reflect on why multiple stories are better than one.
DAY TWO: The First Creation Story
According to the first creation story, you are part of creation. You are made from common soil… dust, Genesis says; stardust, astronomers tell us… soil that becomes watermelons and grain and apples and peanuts, and then they become food, and then that food becomes you. As highly organized dust, you are closely related to frogs and tortoises, lions and field mice, bison and elephants and gorillas. Together with all living things, you share the breath of life, participating in the same cycles of birth and death, reproduction and recycling and renewal. You, with them, are part of the story of creation—different branches on the tree of life. In that story, you are connected and related to everything everywhere. In fact, that is a good partial definition of God: God is the one through whom we are related and connected to everything.
In the first creation story, we learn two essential truths about ourselves as human beings. First, we are good. Along with all our fellow creatures, we were created with a primal, essential goodness that our Creator appreciates and celebrates. And second, we all bear God’s image. Women and men, girls and boys, toddlers and seniors and teenagers, rich or poor, popular or misunderstood, powerful or vulnerable, whatever our religion or race, whatever our gender identity or marital status, whatever our nationality or culture… we all bear God’s image, no exceptions.
Today: Pray, “God, help me see you as the one through whom I am related and connected to everyone and everything.”
DAY THREE: Image Bearers
What is the image of God? An image is a small imitation or echo, like a reflection in a mirror. So if we bear the image of God, then, like God, we experience life through relationships. Like God, we experience love through our complementary differences. Like God, we notice and enjoy and name things—starting with the animals, our companions on the Earth. Like God, we are caretakers of the garden of the Earth. And like God, we are “naked and not ashamed,” meaning we can be who we are without fear.
Back in ancient times, this was a surprising message. Yes, kings and other powerful men were seen as image bearers of God. After all, since they were powerful, rich, sophisticated, and “civilized,” they could reflect God’s power and glory. But in Genesis, the term is applied to a couple of naked and “uncivilized” hunter-gatherers, a simple woman and man living in a garden with no pyramids or skyscrapers or economies or religions or technological inventions or even clothing to their credit! Centuries later, Jesus said something similar: The Creator loves every sparrow and every wildflower, and so how much more precious is every person—no matter how small, frail, or seemingly insignificant? Every woman, man, and child is good! Every person in every culture has value! Every person bears the image of God!
Today: Keep your eyes open for people who may be considered (or consider themselves) insignificant. See them with dignity, bearers of the image of God.
DAY FOUR: A Second Creation Account
The second creation account, which many scholars think is a much older one, describes another dimension to our identity. In this second account, the possibility of “not-good” also exists. God puts the first couple in a garden that contains two special trees. The Tree of Life is theirs to enjoy, but not the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Tree of Life is a beautiful image—suggesting health, strength, thriving, fruitfulness, growth, vigor, and all we mean by aliveness. What might that second tree signify?
There are many answers, no doubt. But consider this possibility: The second tree could represent the desire to play God and judge parts of God’s creation—all of which God considers good—as evil. Do you see the danger? God’s judging is always wise, fair, true, merciful, and restorative. But our judging is frequently ignorant, biased, retaliatory, and devaluing. So when we judge, we inevitably misjudge.
Today: Look for times today that you judge this or that as good or evil, beautiful or ugly, annoying or okay, normal or weird. And consider how your judgment could be misjudgment.
DAY FIVE: The Danger of Judging
If we humans start playing God and judging good and evil, how long will it take before we say this person or tribe is good and deserves to live, but that person or tribe is evil and deserves to die, or become our slaves? How long will it take before we judge this species of animal is good and deserves to survive, but that one is worthless and can be driven to extinction? How long until we judge this land is good and deserves to be preserved, but that river is without value and can be plundered, polluted, or poisoned?
If we eat from the second tree, we will soon become violent, hateful, and destructive. We will turn our blessing to name and know into a license to kill, to exploit, and to destroy both the Earth and other people. God sees everything as good, but we will accuse more and more things of being evil. In so doing, we will create in ourselves the very evil we claim to detect in others. In other words, the more we judge and accuse, the less we will reflect God… and the less we will fulfill our potential as image bearers of God.
Today: Notice people in your life who don’t judge or accuse and reflect on how you feel in their presence.
DAY SIX: Join In
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