Creating Space

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I spent this morning with 7 friends creating space to reflect on 2016 and look ahead to 2017. We tapped into gratitude, grief, regret, hope, and longing.

It was beautiful because our reflections were voiced and heard and held with great tenderness and care by others. We experienced the vulnerability of being known and the weight of actually saying things we felt called to do.

I’m so grateful for people who help me hold open space for the deeper reflections that help me see God’s activity in my life and press me to grow.

Here are some questions that some of us used as a tool for our time.

REFLECTING ON 2016  

  • Take a few minutes to review the year generally.
    • What were key markers for you in your year? (both highs and lows)
  • What do you notice about your reactions to these things?
    • What are you glad to see? Grieved to see?
  • What were 2 or 3 times you sensed God’s presence/leadership/action most clearly this year?
  • When were 2 or 3 times you sensed God’s presence/leadership/action the least?
  • What scriptures were important to you this year?
  • What spiritual practices have felt life-giving? Which have been flat?
  • What do your sense about God’s work in you this year?
    • What has changed/developed in you over the past year?
    • What feels stuck or broken or incomplete?
    • What do you sense is shifting or moving?
  • What do you sense God saying to you about the year? (spend some time in quiet, listening)
  • What questions do you have for God out of this reflection?

Looking ahead to 2017

  • How are you starting this year? Emotionally? Spiritually? Relationally?
  • What feels out of balance? Out of control? Untended?
  • What feels grounded? Fruit-bearing? Solid?
  • Where have you been noticing God’s invitation to you? Consider all of the ways the Holy Spirit tends to lead you: ideas, convictions, questions, nudges, divine appointments, memorable conversations, dreams, longings……
  • What might faithfulness to God’s invitation to you look like in 2017? Be as broad and/or specific as necessary.
  • Are there particular scriptures or disciplines you feel pulled to practice or explore?
  • What are important relationships or activities that need your intentional effort this year? What shape could that effort take?

 

Doing Desolation Well

During one of the most spiritually dark times of my life, I felt like I didn’t know what to make of God. I couldn’t sense his presence, and while I knew intellectually that he was there, the inability to connect emotionally felt cruel. And I was horrified by the stark reality of having only my own resources with which to cope. I wish I had the wisdom of Ignatius during that time.

I’ve been doing the Ignatian exercises with a group in Baltimore this year. Ignatius knew something about the spiritual ups and downs of life and writes about them as times of consolation and desolation. Spiritual consolation is an experience of being on fire with God’s love and feeling alive and connected with others. Spiritual desolation is an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil that may lead to restlessness, anxiety, and feeling cut off from others. (p. 117, The Ignatian Adventure)

Ignatian offers “rules” for how to live during times of consolation and desolation that I think are very astute and helpful.

During consolation, we are to store up experiences to help us through times of desolation.

During desolation, these are his suggestions:

  1. Do not make any big life changes or decisions during times of desolation. Trust the choices you made during better times.
  2. Pick up your spiritual disciplines and/or add new ones.
  3. Believe that God has allowed this sense of being left to your own resources in order to grow you/refine you.
  4. Be patient, consolation will come again. These rhythms of desolation and consolation are to be expected—we are wise not to be surprised. (These points are summarized from pages 165-67)

The wisdom of this teaching is that Ignatian tells us that both consolation and desolation are to be expected as a normal part of a lifetime of faith. If you are like I was, we see desolation as an anomaly or a sign that something is wrong. We lack tolerance for these experiences and often make rash decisions or drop our prayer life out of a sense of hurt. With Ignatian’s wisdom, we might walk through desolation with more steadiness and patience. We might be able to understand desolation through the lens of normalcy rather than anomaly.

For more information on the exercises, click here.

Be Quiet! The New Year in Silence

Need some silence after the holidays? We may not realize how much we do. Max Picard, in his book The World of Silence, says, “The human spirit requires silence just as much as the body needs food and oxygen.” If you’re anything like me, silence has been harder to come by than food in the past month! Silence is hard because it requires, subtraction; subtraction of people, activities, background noise, and productivity. As good Americans, we tend to be adders. We add things more readily than we subtract. And the New Year just begs to us to add things as we resolve this or that and make commitments to gyms, yoga studios, meal programs, and subscriptions. Where is the room for silence and subtraction?

So….silence. Parker Palmer says that “we live in a culture that discourages us from paying attention to the soul….and when we fail to pay attention, we end up living soulless lives” (p. 35). It is easy to do! We can be very successful, busy, and popular while being very disconnected from our own souls. That’s where silence forces the issue. Palmer describes the soul as shy, like a wild animal that may require a certain amount of stillness and quiet to even show up. I like this description. It helps me understand phases of my life when silence is so difficult for me. It is because my soul shows up and confronts me with all my discomfort with myself. Those times are critical for my development, however, because if I keep things noisy, I’m not listening to my own soul; my own voice and the voice of God inviting me to more integration and depth.

I’m trying to think through what subtraction may be required for me to have more silence in my life. It’s hard. I started a list in my journal to help me brainstorm. “I want less of _____________ and more of _____________.” Since we tend to be such “adders” considering subtraction has never been my strong suit. I haven’t worked it all out yet, but I’m on my way. In the meantime, I’m letting quiet times stay quiet, I’m leaving my headphones at home for more of my walks/runs, I’m practicing wordless prayer, and pausing to be mindful in the midst of my day.

How about you? Is silence something that your soul needs in order to show up and speak to you? What subtraction will entice your soul?

Waiting Well

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

            I’m trying to wait well this Advent season. In my small group, we have looked at this theme of waiting and it has challenged me. Reflecting on those who waited and longed for the Messiah so long ago has helped me get in contact with my own temptations to rush and be ahead of myself. Waiting in line can feel like torture beyond torture as I catalogue the many things I have ahead of me, mostly not at all urgent, just a part of the master plan I’ve concocted for my highly efficient day!

One sermon I heard by John Ortberg gave the challenge to approach our times of waiting during Advent with a contemplative bent. In lines while shopping, on hold while on the phone, waiting at traffic lights or in waiting rooms, Ortberg suggested refraining from looking at the phone or allowing irritability to consume our thoughts. Rather, during those moments, try leaning into the longing or contemplating what we are really waiting for. He even suggested driving in the slow lane!

This week, it has meant a wide range of thoughts; from looking forward to Christmas Eve and Christmas Day celebrations to poignant thoughts about the parents of the Palestinian children who were so brutally killed. But waiting well has taken me out of the impatient rush and into a different space. A space that breeds compassion and roundedness. I like that better than constantly pressing to simply get stuff done.

What does waiting well mean for you?

 

Love Others, Hate Self?

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. As people of faith, we expect to see these qualities grow in ourselves as we mature. As I consider the patience, kindness, gentleness part of this fruit, I have only ever heard this talked or taught about in terms of how we treat other people. Never about how we deal with or talk to ourselves. I haven’t heard a pastor say, “A hallmark of spiritual maturity is having patience, kindness, and gentleness towards oneself.” Why not, I wonder? It seems that so many of us aspiring to develop these fruits allow ourselves to look to our attitudes and actions towards others and while harshing, berating, and belittling ourselves, as if we can be mature followers of Jesus and despise ourselves at the same time. Can we? Why don’t we think of ourselves as inconsistent if we are kind to others and horrid to ourselves? Are we not all God’s creatures, worthy of patience and kindness?

We let ourselves get away with it without the same kinds of question and scrutiny we would apply to our treatment of others. Are we thinking that harshing ourselves does something more helpful that harshing others? I’ve been thinking about what makes it so hard to turn patience, kindness, and gentleness towards ourselves. I believe it has everything to do with shame. Shame gets into us from all over the place; our families, media, social interactions, and the church. We’ve been made to feel we are deficient, ugly, and unworthy by all manner of life experiences, both intentionally and unintentionally harmful.

I’m going on record saying that our maturity in our faith is evidenced by increasing patience, kindness, and gentleness with oneself. The inner critic grows quieter and a tender voice grows louder. The treatment of others and treatment of self grows more similar. No more excuses. We should consider how we talk to ourselves to be vitally important information about the growing fruit of God’s work in our lives.

Being patient, gentle, and kind towards ourselves does not necessarily imply feeling just fine and dandy about mistakes that we’ve made or difficult, stuck patterns in our lives. But it could very well mean a very different tone to your inner dialogue. It may sounds like, “here I am again, stuck and needing help” rather than “you idiot! What’s your problem?” or “I am so entrenched in this behavior, how can I do this differently?” rather than “how could you do this again, you are just awful!”

How can we get started?

  1. We notice the tone and tenor of our inner voice. How do we talk to ourselves?
  2. Under what circumstances are we particularly harsh with ourselves?
  3. How are we explaining to ourselves that this is ok?
  4. Explore how/if shame is at the root of it.
  5. Share with God and a trusted friend what you are discovering.
  6. Try praying for yourself in the third person and see if you can access a more compassionate voice. “Lord, Janice needs you. She is completely stuck and feeling horrible about herself……etc.”

Bottom line, love, patience, kindness and gentleness are not just gifts we offer others out of a life of growing maturity. They are meant for us to offer ourselves as live out of a life of honoring God’s image in ourselves.

What about this challenges you?

A Makeover with Meaning

I visited my college roommate, Susie, last weekend and we gave her back deck a makeover. This space went from a plastic, dog-chewed wasteland to a very pretty place to spend time. Both of us were giddy from the experience: me, because I love making things beautiful and Susie, because she had never seen her deck or yard in this light and she never would have done it on her own. We had both been through times of acute suffering, and the deck quickly became  a metaphor for newness and fresh beauty in our lives.

My spiritual director once told me during one of my darkest moments that I would look back on that time of suffering and be able to see the beauty in it. Since her assurance, I would often look back and check…..beauty? Can I see it? Hmmmm…… Now I think I can, in a makeover sort of way. I can see that my time of desolation opened me up to reconfiguring my thought processes, something I had no idea I needed to change. Just like Susie hadn’t really thought that her plastic, dog-chewed chairs that scraped her arms could do with some replacing, I hadn’t ever considered that the way I worked through times of suffering could be better. Even though it invariably dragged my mood to an even lower level than the current crisis merited!

One of the fundamental problems with Susie’s original “design concept” on her deck was that she really didn’t like her yard, so her chairs faced the back of the house. We really needed to shift the entire orientation of the seating to give her new eyes to see her yard, which is a beautiful green space with lovely trees! In life, I have come to believe that sometimes only suffering will compel us to look at something differently. Only sitting in the darkness made me willing to consider my “mental make-over.” I can see that through suffering and reconfiguring/redecorating, I have now found the gift of equanimity (evenness/steadiness) in a way I never had it before. This doesn’t mean I don’t struggle and suffer, but I add to my struggle less by doing different things with my focus and attention throughout.

For both my personal shift and for the deck project, there was a catalyst for considering the makeover. Personally, it was seeing that the way I processed suffering didn’t work. For the deck project, it was when I looked at Susie over a glass of wine and asked, “what do you think of a deck makeover?” What is happening in your life right now that might actually be an invitation to a complete reorientation, reconfiguring or makeover? Are you open to turning those chairs around and checking out the view you thought you hated? God’s movements in our lives can be sometimes very obvious and blunt. It’s such a loss when we miss the signs.

Resource of the Month, May 2014

A Year of Biblical Womanhood by Rachel Held Evans

Every once in a while people have ideas that you just wish you’d had yourself. Rachel Held Evans set out to do her best to live the teachings given to women in the Bible for one year. She broke up the commands into themes that she attempted to implement for a month at a time. Here are some of the things she did:

  • Wore a head covering
  • Called her husband “master” and obeyed his every word for one month
  • Stayed in a tent in her front yard during her period
  • Visited a polygamist community
  • Sat on her roof
  • Observed a Sabbath Day and prepared a Passover Seder

What is compelling to me about this book is that Evans is so endearing as a person; funny, moody, self-effacing…..but, at the same time, she is a master strategist with an agenda to stir the reader’s thoughts. In her research on how to live out different sections of scripture, she learns that many traditional interpretations have little to nothing to do with the heart of the Biblical commands. So she winds up challenging widely held teachings of many churches as she is attempting to follow those same teachings.

One of my favorite examples is what she learns through rigorous study of Proverbs 31, a passage that describes the “virtuous woman”. Christians have used this passage as a prescription; a list of commands that a woman must live up to be virtuous. The problem is, the list is impossible. To do everything in it, one must wake before dawn, prepare breakfast, have children, run the family business, sew, care for the poor, make her own bedspreads, watch everything in the household, and is never be lazy. Evans dutifully woke before dawn even though she was a miserable morning person. She didn’t have children, so she ordered a “Baby-Think-It-Over” that took her through the nighttime parenting ringer. She got a friend to teach her to sew, made a dress that looked a little like a maternity jumper. She sold a couple of homemade items on EBay to try her hand at “running the family business”. In other words, she exhausted herself in an attempt to be faithful. In the process, however, she met an Orthodox Jewish woman who began to unveil a completely different spin on this passage.

The Jewish tradition that her new friend described does not hold this Proverb as a checklist, but rather, a list of categories to enjoy and praise in a woman. She explained how the Proverbs 31 tradition in her own family is applied as the family notices qualities they appreciate in her, and they exclaim, “woman of valor!”

As she reflects on the difference between how she internalized this passage out of her own background and how her Orthodox friend internalized it out of hers, she steps into a controversial space that she winningly maintains throughout her book. What does it actually mean to take the Bible seriously? The result is a thoroughly enjoyable book that invites believers to carefully consider their assumptions about men and women’s roles, modesty, motherhood, and results in a grounded and vital faith.

To find the book, click here

Great Questions from a Great Asker

Who in your life asks you great questions? Who spurs you on to deeper insight and greater challenge? I’m always looking for people who do that for me and recently I stumbled across a great set of questions that my old friend and colleague, Alex Van Riesen, wrote for his congregation. Alex is the lead pastor of Vineyard Christian Fellowship of the Peninsula in the San Francisco Bay Area. His questions are meant to help in reviewing 2013 and moving forward into the New Year.

REVIEWING:

  • What was the biggest triumph of 2013?
  • What was the biggest loss of 2013?
  • What were the spiritual themes of 2013?
  • What was the greatest life lesson you learned in 2013?
  • Who were the three people who had the greatest impact on your life in 2013?
  • What is your biggest piece of unfinished business from 2013?
  • How did you clearly hear from God in 2013?

LOOKING FORWARD:

  • What are the areas of your life in which you most need to receive from God in 2014?
  • How is God inviting you to respond to his initiative in your life in 2014?
  • What will be a big risk for you in responding to God’s initiative in 2014?
  • Where would you like to see the greatest transformation in your spiritual life in 2014?
  • What would you like to be your biggest triumph in 2014?
  • What advice would you like to give yourself for 2014?
  • What would you be most happy about completing in 2014?
  • What about your work (occupation) are you most committed to changing and improving in 2014?
  • What brings you the most joy and how are you going to do or have more of that in 2014?
  • Is there anyone you need to forgive, be forgiven by, and/or reconcile with as you move into 2014?
  • What one word would you like to have as your theme in 2014?

Last week I wrote about the challenge of being your same old self in the midst of trying to make new decisions in a new year. I believe that questions like these can help any of us actually put feet on our intentions and commitments. Think of this as a type of New Year examen….a spiritual practice that can help you notice God’s movements in your life and welcome what may be coming in the future. What if you took a half or full day in the next couple of weeks to spend some time with these questions? It could be a great took for your own growth.

 

I provided a pared down set of his questions, but Alex offers as a gift his complete sets of questions. He says:  This resource is intended to be a guide to help you reflect on your life in the coming year. To download or print the full guide, which includes the questions below, a blank calendar, and selected scripture, click here:  Looking Forward 2014

For the accompanying “Looking Back” reflection, visit download the reflection guide here:  Looking Back 2013

 

Living in the Liminal Space

Liminal, you say? What is that? All the Advent readings I’m seeing are talking about waiting. Advent is all about waiting, longing, and hoping for the coming of the Messiah. It is the quintessential spiritual example of liminal space. Liminal space is the space between two things that takes waiting to the next level. It is a phrase that describes time in between the old and the new, the problem discerned and the solution, the recognition of need and the provision. In this sense, liminal space can be very painful and difficult to endure! In one of my readings Richard Rohr is quoted, calling liminal space “a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them…..when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer.” If you are currently in a liminal space, you probably identify readily with this.

To allow all the discomfort of longing, hoping, and wanting in the liminal space requires courage and a willingness to tolerate a great deal of tension. A skill set that is grossly undervalued in a culture of instant gratification. Rohr adds that “if you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run….Anything to flee this terrible ‘cloud of unknowing.’“

I wonder if part of our frenzied Holiday activities are in part an attempt to flee the oftentimes subtler and quieter experiences of liminal space. One thing our church does that I respect a great deal is a Christmas mourning service for any who have suffered loss and find the holidays to be difficult. That service is an example of holding open liminal space and honoring the pain and tension in the lives of those who are grieving.  It helps the process of being in liminal space by simply acknowledging it is there.

I was doing a retreat for a group this week and a couple of people talked about the difficulty of being in a time of not yet knowing answers to important, life-altering questions. The temptation is to try to force an answer or solution before it is necessarily time. Sitting in the ambiguity and ‘not-knowingness’ presses all of us to the edges of our faith and hope. In the best sense, liminal space brings us to that place because the edge of our faith and hope is where a deeper experience of God can be. Our faith becomes less about outcomes and answers and more about relationship and God’s presence through any and every circumstance.  It is the place of the deepest shifting, spiritual stretching, and emotional growth.

No wonder we talk more of holiday sales than liminal reality! I’m curious about how your experience of liminal space has shaped you.

 

*Richard Rohr, “Living in the Liminal Space”, a sermon delivered April 7, 2002.

Your Holiday Wish

The conversations begin around November 20th. “I’m bracing myself for the holidays.” “That will have to wait until after the holidays”, “I dread the busyness”, “If I can make it through the holidays”, “I dread making that meal”. …. I get the picture that for many people, their holiday wish is that the holidays would be over.  But wishing the holidays away won’t make January come any faster and it fills our minds with dread and bodies with tension. Grayson calls this the wishing ritual.  We engage in it every time we wish for something that is not our current reality.

What are we doing? Wishing for a different life makes it nearly impossible to enjoy the one we have.  “When we compare reality with fantasy, we destroy and demean the moment.” How many times have you stressed and struggled through a Holiday season like you were being tortured only to look back on it fondly a few years later? These are the times and days that we are given and we are often missing them by wishing they would end! When you think about it, how absurd!

How do we honor rather than demean our present reality?

  • Grow our awareness of thoughts of dread or wishing to be in another time. When we notice it, simply say to yourself, “Thank you mind, but I will be staying in my actual life, but appreciate the reminder of how horrible everything is!”
  • Pray for a new understanding of your capacity to experience and enjoy each day.
  • Engage in spiritual practices that bless you in spite of feeling busy.
  • Reframe all of the preparation that you are doing. If you think of it as a nasty obstacle to the life you prefer, it will be hard to experience any of it as a loving act that has meaning to you.
  • Do one thing at a time with intention and focus.

I’m like everybody else…..when I consider what the next 6 weeks will require of me, I am tempted to think it is all too much. But taken day by day and task by task, with the values that are important to me in mind, it all feels different. I can turn my attention from the negative story about this time and towards the wonder, joy, and blessings of my life. Each celebration can be for me either the end of a grueling race or it can be a spiritual and emotional blessing. I’m going to try and honor my present reality this Advent. Won’t you join me?

The book I quoted is Jonathan Grayson’s Freedom from OCD.

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