Soulfelt

Craig is the worship leader at my church. To say his style is unique would be a great understatement.

Craig mostly plays piano and sings at church, combining a mix of folk and country with a bit of blues and funk thrown in for good measure. He is humble, but once in a while, he plays a solo, and when this becomes apparent, my wife and I glance across the aisle at each other, and smile knowingly that we are about to share a sacred moment. Whenever Craig sings his one-of-a-kind rendition of Leonard Cohen’s masterpiece “Hallelujah,” for example, tears flood our eyes. And we leave church a bit different as a result.

Craig is nearing retirement and recently pulled back from leading all three worship services, restricting himself to the early 8:00 service. His replacements are talented musicians in their own right, but many in the congregation started attending church earlier just to hear Craig play. There is just something intoxicating about his music.

The best way I can describe Craig’s music is that it is “soulfelt.”

“Soulfelt” appears in none of the major dictionaries. By this criterion, it is not a word.

But, I think it should be.

I don’t know what causes words to become words, but I think what I will now call the “word” soulfelt should find a place in our lives.

The first time I heard the word “soulfelt” was in a literary class in creative non-fiction. We studied classic essays in this genre (Annie Dillard’s “Living Like Weasels,” for instance), and we hunted for clues as to what made some essays stand out more than others. Our wise and insightful instructor, Todd, made the point that, though there are different ways to get there, some essays ultimately arrive at a “soulfelt truth.” And that is what elevates them to a different level.

It’s difficult to accurately define something that hasn’t really ever been defined – much less empirically studied – so all of what I am about to say is subject to debate and revision.

The closest synonym to “soulfelt” probably is “soulful.” The difference is telling. For something to be soulfelt, it must be “felt.” Deeply.

In other words, soulfelt expression allows an individual to channel something deeply meaningful and emotional to that person. Typically, it is the culmination of a person’s long-term experience, tapping an individual’s passions and strengths in ways unique to their identity. There often may be a degree of vulnerability necessary.

Many kinds of activities could be soulfelt. I have been inspired by observing the soulfelt work of true craftsmen, devoted athletes, caring health professionals, passionate teachers, innovative artists, sincere librarians, visionary business leaders, and even detail-minded accountants. A few years ago, Odell Brewing put out a video story of a family farmer who I believe farmed in a soulfelt way. Volunteering can be soulfelt. So can leisure. So can a parenting decision or a conversation with a friend or a romantic gesture.

Individuals may be powerfully moved when they witness someone express themselves in a soulfelt manner. Observers sometimes may feel “chills” or “goosebumps,” for instance, in a state of elevation or awe. The reaction of the audience witnessing Paul Pott’s first performance on Britain’s Got Talent provides one example.

Age may interact with soulfelt activity in complicated ways as well. Older individuals may be able to tap their experience more powerfully to express a soulfelt behavior. If observers know the history of someone’s experience, they also may interpret a behavior as being more soulfelt, increasing the strength of their emotional response. The difference between Johnny Cash’s rendition of “Hurt” and the young Trent Reznor’s original version may demonstrate this in both regards, I believe.

Soulfelt expression may be essential to us because it connects us with purpose. Individuals, families, communities, and organizations that find ways to engage in soulfelt activity may feel like they are doing what they are “meant” to do. They may be more effective in a variety of ways. And the world will be a better place as a result.

Questions for reflection:

  1. When have you observed others express themselves in a soulfelt way? How have you been touched by this?
  1. When have you done something soulfelt? How did that feel?
  1. What activities in the future do you believe hold the greatest promise for soulfelt expression in your life? What can you do to create a space to develop your strengths in that area?
  1. What obstacles get in the way of your soulfelt expression? What can you do to address those obstacles?
  1. How can your organization select individuals who express themselves in soulfelt ways, that fit with the mission of the organization? What can be done to nurture these individuals and free their time to allow them to engage more in these activities?

Note: Myles Johnson contributed to this post.

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The Courage to Create

This past summer, I spent a glorious month teaching at “the most experimental college in North America,” Quest University Canada, north of Vancouver, British Columbia. One of my favorite aspects of Quest’s one-of-a-kind educational model is that, rather than majoring in something broad such as Business, Communications, or Psychology, students focus their work around one self-selected question. For example, one of many talented students spent her university years focused on the question of how creativity and happiness are related. As a part of a final project, she asked to interview me – along with about a dozen others – and ultimately created the short documentary below.

In this spirit, may 2019 bring you great creativity and happiness!

One Thing Among Many

I’ve been reading and discussing Parker Palmer’s new book, “On the Brink of Everything,” recently, and with great benefit. Many of my discussions seem to return to a portion of a poem, which I share below. Its insight requires no elaboration.

“Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.”

~Czeslaw Milosz

My Journey with the Bible

I’ve written some personal essays before – these on death and the relationship between science and faith are examples – but below is maybe the most personal essay I’ve ever written. It technically is a narrative essay – focusing on my lifelong experience with the Bible – and I developed it through the help of some amazing folks at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Our teacher at the Loft encouraged us students to submit our work to literary publications, and I sent mine to a very cool Christian literary magazine called Ruminate. I was so honored when they accepted!

Anyway, here it is. I’d love to hear your reaction.

My Journey with the Bible

 

When Religion Promotes Violence

In a survey released last week by U. S. News and World Report, over 21,000 people from all regions of the world most commonly rated religion as the “primary source of global conflict today.” Individuals identified power, economic factors, and political beliefs less frequently.

Of course, the fact that survey respondents believe religion drives global conflict more than any other factor doesn’t mean it actually does. However, the survey does raise questions of how religion may contribute to conflict and what could be done in religions to better promote peace.

Continue reading

Mary Oliver, Poem #4

This is Mary Oliver’s most famous poem, which ends with one of the most important questions we ever could ask ourselves. I love how she frames it.

***

The Summer Day

“Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean –
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down –
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”

Religion Needs a Savior

A few weeks ago, a journalist from U. S. News & World Report called to interview me about new data showing that individuals across the world most commonly rate religion as the greatest source of global conflict today. She asked about why religion contributes so frequently to conflict and what to do about it. You know, simple questions!

Here’s the article.

It’s interesting to see how a journalist decides what to include and what not to include from a 45 minute interview. If I could summarize my take-home advice more simply, I’d say this:

1. Identify first as a fellow human.
2. Then identify with your groups.
3. If your groups don’t help you do (1), find different groups.