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.
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:
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
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.
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
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.
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?
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.