The Ride: Connecting to God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond

Part 2 in series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another.  And so are the classic spiritual disciplines.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

Micaiah with ‘Maryland’: The crankiest and best horse in the Equestrian Center’s stable

As I write this, I am watching my daughter, Micaiah, take a riding lesson at the Equestrian Center in Burbank, CA. The Equestrian Center is, uh, shall we say, “oddly out of place” in urban Los Angeles. On my right, traffic on the Golden State Freeway (“the” 5, as we say here in L.A.) zooms by at 65+ miles per hour. On my left, horses plod around a riding circle at, well, a lot less than 65 miles per hour. What gives?

Why would anyone invest so much time and money striving to master such an outdated mode of transportation? It takes years to painstakingly advance through learning to walk, trot, cantor, gallop, jump, dressage, etc. Then, once you do achieve riding excellence, your top speed is still only a fraction of that of the traffic whizzing by. My daughter shovels, “stuff,” to earn her lessons, but most riders shell out enough cash to cover monthly payments on a luxury car. I mean, if your goal is to get from Pasadena to Hollywood, then this horseback riding thing is a total waste of time. Just buy a Jag and get on with it.

Yet if you think of horseback riding as something designed to get you somewhere on your busy schedule then you are missing the entire point. Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another. The disciplines of learning to ride cleanse the rider of the soul-deadening effects of modern life and “re-center” their soul in a calmer, deeper place. My actress-singer daughter says it’s “rejuvenating.” Seeing the light and energy in her eyes after each time she rides, I believe her.

Spiritual Disciplines

Now at first glance, striving to master 2,000 year-old spiritual disciplines seems even more irrelevant than learning to ride a horse. I mean, at least horseback riding might help you land a role, or inspire a screenplay. What earthly good does it do to invest the time and energy it takes to master practices like prayer, meditation, fasting, Torah-study, or Psalm-singing? Sure, prayer can come in handy when you’re facing an audition, pitch meeting, or financing appointment. But this kind of “spiritual discipline” is practiced by everyone in Hollywood (even the staunchest atheists), and probably has about as much utilitarian value as wearing your lucky pair of socks.  Prep for your meeting, pay for some good coaching, and get on with it.

Yet, if you think of the spiritual disciplines only as something to get you somewhere in your career, you are missing the entire point. Spiritual disciplines are not tools for getting you from failure to success. They are pathways for keeping you alive spiritually in the constantly shifting landscape of success and failure that is Hollywood.

The Soul-Deadening Worlds of Power

The overarching characteristic of the Ivy League (and Hollywood) is what Schmelzer calls, “Grim drivenness.

Actor/Comedienne/Writer Susan Isaacs once challenged a crowd of aspiring entertainment industry students, “Would you accept God’s call to Hollywood if you knew that you would only have three successful years out of a thirty-year career?” Most wouldn’t, yet that is about the average for those who ‘make it’ here.  The spiritual disciplines are the means by which someone survives and even thrives, not only in the three years when they’re a hot property, but in the other twenty-seven as well.

Make no mistake, the competitive nature of all centers of power–Hollywood, the Ivy League, Wall Street, Washington, D.C., etc.–nearly always creates a soul-deadening culture. Former Yale Professor Henri Nouwen warned, “Our society is… a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul.”[1] Dave Schmelzer, principal at Blue Ocean, Inc. in Cambridge, MA asserts the overarching characteristic of his Ivy League community is what he calls, “Grim drivenness.”  Dave adds, “These are the brightest and most talented people in the world, and the very drivenness that got them this far in a highly competitive environment prevents them from ever really enjoying the fruit of their success. There is always another rung to climb on the ladder of success.”[2] Sounds a lot like Hollywood to me!

Yokes that Bring Our Souls Rest

Spiritual disciplines counteract this soul-deadening effect by nourishing the soul of the practitioner and re-centering the filmmaker, professor, stockbroker, and/or congressman in a calmer, deeper place. Prayer, meditation, study, etc. are means by which we deepen our connection to others and to God. Nearly everyone working in a pressure-filled environment can benefit from practicing them—from Zen Buddhist’s like Laker’s coach Phil Jackson, to Scientologists like Tom Cruise.

However, the spiritual disciplines play a particularly meaningful role in the Judeao-Christian tradition. They are part of what early Rabbis referred to as their yoke—the teachings and spiritual practices each Rabbi used to guide their students into a deeper relationship with God.[3] Like learning to ride a horse, the study of Torah—the principal spiritual discipline in rabbinic education—demanded the utmost commitment to move from one level of expertise to the next. Yet, the promise of a life centered in God and his ways made the effort worthwhile. (See, Rabbinic Higher Education.)

Connecting to the Life of God

Jesus of Nazareth built upon this rabbinic tradition to shape his own version of spiritual formation. Jesus told his first followers, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). He taught his disciples to pray, study, build community, and serve not to earn religious brownie points, but to form a deep attachment to God—to ‘rest’ in him. Like vines on a branch, Jesus promised his followers that if they would focus upon staying connected to the life of God, then the life of God would flow into them and bear fruit in everything they do (John 15:1-8). The spiritual disciplines are one of the key means by which we maintain that connection. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.)

USC philosophy professor, Dallas Willard, has worked tirelessly over the last few decades to describe how Christian spiritual formation can and should help us maintain our connection to the life and the love of God in the Academy, Hollywood, and beyond. He states:

“God’s desire for us is that we should live in him. He sends us the Way to himself.  That shows us, in his heart of hearts, what God is really like–indeed, what reality is really like. In its deepest nature and meaning our universe is a community of boundless and totally competent love.”

Personalizing the Process

Like horseback riding, staying connected to the life and love of God is not a one-size-fits-all process. It has taken Micaiah years to find the right stable, the right trainer, the right horse (the crankiest, but “best” in the stable), and the right sub-disciplines to learn to ride in a way that maximizes the ‘gladness’ riding brings her soul. The same is true for those seeking to cultivate a relationship with God. The disciplines that help one person are often torture for another. The key for some is sitting quietly in a beautiful sanctuary, for others it is walking in the beauty of nature, for some connection to God is found among books in a quiet library, for still another it is best found amidst music is a raucous worship service.

The point of spiritual discipline is not to perform some cookie-cutter religious ritual to make God like you better, but rather to find the pathways that best help your soul connect to the God who already loves you infinitely, ultimately, and unconditionally.

In the following weeks I will explore a number of the key concepts and disciplines that have been most helpful to a variety of leaders in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and beyond in living a soul-nourishing life in a soul-deadening world.  My hope is that we can help you create your own individualized set of spiritual disciplines that help you stay connected to the life and love of God even in the most pressurized situations.

Of course there is another way: the way of giving in to a soul-deadness. Will we? Or will we follow my daughter’s example and embrace an “outdated” approach to life, that in the end is the only one capable of transporting us where we really want to go—to the very heart of God.

Let’s ride!

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Next post in series: Life on the Fast Track: Spiritually Thriving in High Stress Environments 

 

See also

Emmy Magazine Article Featuring Emmy-winning Producer Kurt Schemper, Director Korey Scott Pollard, and Gary David Stratton

Why Lent is a lot Like Surfing

Spiritual formation book recommendations:

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence

Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Alberg Calhoun

The Organic God, by Margaret Feinberg

The Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster

Invitation to a Journey, by Robert Mulholland

The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen

The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero

The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith

Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas

The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard

 


[1] The Way of the Heart (New York: Random House, 1981), p. 9.

[2] At least in the Ivy League it is possible to get tenure!

[3] M. Maher (1975). ‘Take my yoke upon you’ (Matt. xi. 29). New Testament Studies, 22, pp 97-103

 

Emotionally Unhealthy Spirituality: Why It’s Possible to Lose Your Soul While Trying to Follow God

Why the day my wife announced that she wanted to leave became the best day of my life

by Peter Scazzero in Vantage Point

“Pete, I’m leaving the church,” my wife Geri had muttered quietly.I sat still, too stunned to respond. “I can’t take any more of this stress – the constant crisis,” she continued.

Geri had been more than patient. I had brought home constant pressure and tension from church, year after year. Now the woman I had promised to love just as Christ loved the church was exhausted.

We had experienced eight unrelenting years of stress.“I’m not doing it anymore,” she concluded. “This church is no longer life for me. It is death.”

Losing Your Most Important Follower

When a church member says, “I’m leaving the church,” most pastors do not feel very good. But when your wife of nine years says it, your world is turned upside down. We were in our bedroom. I remember the day well.

“Pete, I love you, but I’m leaving the church,” she summarized very calmly. “I no longer respect your leadership.” I was visibly shaken, and did not know what to say or do. I felt shamed, alone, and angry. I tried raising my voice to intimidate her: “That is out of the question,” I bellowed. “All right, so I’ve made a few mistakes.”  

But she calmly continued, “It’s not that simple. You don’t have the guts to lead – to confront the people who need to be confronted. You don’t lead. You’re too afraid that people will leave the church. You’re too afraid of what they’ll think about you.”

I was outraged. “I’m getting to it!” I yelled defensively. “I’m working on it.” (For the last two years, I really had been trying, but somehow still was not up to it.) “Good for you, but I can’t wait any more,” she replied.

There was a long pause of silence. Then she uttered the words that changed the power balance in our marriage permanently: “Pete, I quit.”

It is said that the most powerful person in the world is one who has nothing to lose. Geri no longer had anything to lose. She was dying on the inside, and I had not listened to or responded to her calls for help.

She softly continued, “I love you Pete. But the truth is I would be happier separated than married. At least then you would have to take the kids on weekends. Then maybe you’d even listen!” “How could you say such a thing?” I complained. “Don’t even think about it.”

She was calm and resolute in her decision. I was enraged.A good Christian wife, married to a Christian (and a pastor I may add), does not do this. I understood at that moment why a husband could fly into a rage and kill the wife he loves. She had asserted herself. She was forcing me to listen. I wanted to die. This was going to require me to change!

The Beginnings of This Mess

How did we get to this point? Eight years previously, Geri and I had begun New Life Fellowship in Elmhurst, Queens. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I had a “vision” and Geri followed.

Now, four children later, Geri was battle-weary and wanted a life and a marriage. By this time I agreed. The problem was my sense of responsibility to build the church and to other people. I had little energy left over to parent our children or to enjoy Geri. I had even less energy to enjoy a “life,” whatever that was! Even when I was physically present, such as at a soccer game for one of our daughters, my mind was usually focused on something related to the church.

Weeks had turned into months. Months into years. The years had become almost a decade, and the crisis was now in full bloom. The sober reality was that I had made little time during those nine years for the joys of parenting and marriage. I was too preoccupied with the demands of pastoring a church.

We were gaining the whole world by doing a great work for God while at the same time losing our souls…

Continue Reading

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Pete Scazzero is author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (Nelson, 2006), a groundbreaking work on the integration of emotional health and contemplative spirituality, and a Two Handed Warrior Book of the Decade.

Peter and Geri are co-founders of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Peter is senior pastor of New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York City, a multiracial, international church representing over 65 countries. He and Geri have four daughters and have learned to love each other, their life, and even their church again.

Two Handed Warrior Books of the Decade, by Gary & Sue Stratton

Inspired by Margaret Feinberg’s list of 10 beautiful books of the decade in yesterday’s post, Sue and I put our heads together over dinner at Outback and came up with our own twenty (popular) books on the two themes of Two Handed Warriors—Culture Making and Faith Building. (Hey, there’s two of us, so we get ten each, right?) Of course, a few were written before the 2000’s, but we didn’t get around to reading them until this decade. Read our lists and let us know what we missed. It drove us crazy leaving out so many great books.

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Culture Making and the Arts

  1. Walking On Water (1980) Madeline L’Engle
  2. The Love of Learning and the Desire for God (1988) Jean Leclerq
  3. The Courage to Teach (1997) Parker Palmer
  4. The Dying of the Light (1998) James T. Burtchaell
  5. Divided by Faith (2001) Michael O. Emerson & Christian Smith
  6. Imagine (2001) Steve Turner
  7. The Rise of Evangelicalism (2003) Mark Noll
  8. Culture Making (2008) Andy Crouch
  9. Outliers (2008) Malcolm Gladwell
  10. To Change the World (2010) James Davidson Hunter

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Faith Building and Spiritual Formation

  1. The Renovation of the Heart (2002) Dallas Willard
  2. Blue Like Jazz (2003) Donald Miller
  3. Repenting of Religion (2004) Greg Boyd
  4. The Jesus Creed (2005) Scot McKnight
  5. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (2006) Pete Scazzero
  6. unChristian (2007) David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons
  7. Kingdom Triangle (2007) J.P. Moreland
  8. A Credible Witness (2008) Brenda Salter McNeil
  9. Not the Religious Type (2008) David Schmelzer
  10. Surprised by Hope (2008) NT Wright

What’s on your list?

Gary & Sue