Wisdom along the Way

We did a lot of hiking on our recent trip to Utah’s national parks and monuments.  Cairns mark the trails, there being no big trees to post marks on as in the East.  A cairn is a pile of rocks of different sizes and shapes, curiously balanced and tall enough to be visible.

Balance in my life is something I have desired but often found elusive.  I have wondered why cairns don’t fall over.  I imagine that each rock is in a certain relation to the others and is held by the force of gravity.  Maybe a comfortably or neatly balanced life is an illusion and our lives look more like cairns–with an overemphasis on this at one time and on that at another, and with the balance coming from our grounding in the One who upholds us.

For me the cairns were very necessary.  We were walking on and over large expanses of rocks, so there was no well-worn path to follow.  I had no sense of the direction we needed to go to get to our destination, to say nothing of the existence of impassable canyons and other ways to get stuck if we went the wrong way.  And one misstep on the special desert soil would destroy what had taken two hundred years to develop and helped to keep it soil and not sand easily blown or washed away.

Again there were spiritual lessons to learn.  One, I can walk anyway I choose, but I may end up at dead ends or cause a lot of damage, to me or others.  Two, it matters who guides me.  Three, to get to what matters to me, there is a way.  Following it brings joy.

I also found that generally I was able to see only one cairn at a time.  I had to trust that there would be another one and look for it after I passed the one cairn I could see.  Thinking I knew where the trail went often got me lost until I went back to the last cairn and looked again for the next one.  God often shows us only one step at a time.  To walk with God requires trust that the way is there and that God will guide us.

Queries:

Which aspect of cairns speaks to you most at this time?

In whom, or what, do you find your grounding?

Prayer:

May I walk in Your Way and listen for Your guidance.

For further reference:

Our life is love, and peace, and tenderness; and bearing one with another, and forgiving one another, and not laying accusations one against another; but praying one for another,and helping one another up with a tender hand.”  (Isaac Penington, 1667.)

“. . . knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. . .”  (See Romans 5: 1-5.)

Hearing God in Nature

A hiking trip to Utah left me unexpectedly with a wealth of spiritual insights, as if God were speaking to me in the rocks.

You enter Arches National Park and then take a drive to the area where you want to get out of the car.  The drive is spectacular, worth the trip in itself.  Along the way there are three tall rock towers adjacent to each other.  To us the structure became The Three Wise Men from the biblical story of the birth of Jesus.  Their three heads seemed to us to be topped with crowns or headdresses and they seemed poised to worship.   After learning the official name, The Three Gossips, I felt glad to be so grounded in the biblical story that how I see and what I see is shaped by that story.

Having arrived late one afternoon when the park was closing early, we took a trail to an overlook to see the famous Delicate Arch.  What we saw was splendid.  But the next day we hiked to the arch itself.  I even stood under it.  Our appreciation of the arch and why it is such a favorite dramatically changed.  One could say we went from learning about it to being in it.  In the spiritual life the beginning of the life of faith has a luminous and wonderful quality, and yet it is only a shadow of what comes in the journey over time as the truth of the faith becomes a part of you.

Another area of the park was called Petrified Sand Dunes.  It looked just like wind-swept dunes of white sand.  But geologically they had hardened and rigidified into rock.  I felt warned by them to stay loose, open to the winds of the Spirit, never feeling certain that I had learned all there is to learn, never being so sure that I am right that I can’t learn from someone else, and never working so hard to be in control that nothing can be changed.

I found myself the whole time being awed by the majesty of God.

Queries:

On what is your faith life grounded?  What impact does that have on your everyday life?

What spiritual insights have you gained from non-church sources?

Prayer:

“Eternal and Immortal One, You have been our refuge in all generations.  Before the mountains were brought forth, before You had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, You are the Alpha and the Omega” (Psalm 90: 1-2, Nan Merrill, Psalms for Praying).

For further reference:

“O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (See Psalm 8.)

“You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken….You cover it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains.  At your rebuke they flee.…They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys to the place that you appointed for them.”  (See Psalm 104.)

The Presence and Action of God

A common question in spiritual direction is to wonder how God has been present and active in one’s life.  This is a challenging question because it assumes you can know, when many people doubt the very existence of God and others are quick to deny that God could have done something good for you when God didn’t do something good for someone else.

While there is no formula for how God is present and active in one’s life, and no certainty, because the divine is beyond our comprehension, there are particular kinds of experiences that draw me to make that claim and reveal the image of God that I hold.  There are times when something that happens brings life and energy and tears of joy and gratitude and deep peace.  This is easy to imagine if something good occurs, such as a successful surgery.  But it can also happen in the midst of misery when a tiny ray of light breaks through, such as when the partner left behind experiences the comforting presence or a word from the partner who died.

A sense of being accompanied; circumstances rolling out that leave one door open and then the next and the next; finding oneself in the right place at the right time, when you didn’t know from reason that things would work that way—all these touches that I have known feel like being in the flow of God’s living stream, or in the energy-field of God’s love.  The way things play out is far beyond what I might have orchestrated.  There is a different feel, physically and spiritually, and gratitude pours forth.

Finding oneself spoken to by a dream or a passage of scripture or the words of a hymn or song that simply shows up in your mind; getting a sense that something is to be and the sense grows or deepens or is affirmed by your spiritual community or companions; being awed by something you see or that happens—all point beyond us, taking us out of our ego smallness and open us to love and oneness.

I believe that God is in the midst of such experiences, and that each of us and the world around us benefit from such awareness of and attentiveness to the Holy.

Queries:

What is your image of God and how does that impact how you experience, or don’t experience, God’s presence and action?

Do you think God may be present even when you have a sense of God’s absence?

Prayer:

Look back over a period of time—a day, a week, a year—and see if you can be aware of a sense of holiness, or of having blocked such a possibility.  Listen to your heart’s song.

For further reference:

“My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast . . . for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy” (see Psalm 63).

“Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias.  The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’  He answered, ‘Here am I, Lord.” (See Acts 9: 1-19.)

Wise and Intelligent?

I find it interesting that so many of the people Jesus spent time with, cared about, and lifted up have characteristics that are ones I don’t want to have.

Having spent many years in school, I certainly prefer to be considered intelligent.  And now that I have reached a certain age, I find it somewhat comforting despite the diminishments of aging to be aware of an increase in wisdom.  But, after a period of teaching disciples and the crowds, Jesus prays, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things [what Jesus is trying to teach the people] from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (Matthew 11: 25).  Being wise and intelligent may not be the best avenue for being open to the life-giving Word.

Jesus upset the religious establishment of his day by spending time with “sinners and tax collectors.”  When challenged about this behavior, Jesus replied that he had been sent to care for those who were sick, not for those who were well; for sinners not for the righteous (See Matthew 9: 9-13; Mark 2: 15-17; Luke 5: 27-32).  But I prefer to be healthy and righteous.

When I was a child playing competitive games on the playground at school, I loved being one of the first children chosen for a team.  Those who were chosen last suffered.  With Jesus, status doesn’t come in being first.  “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20: 26b-27).

Sometimes we need to have our perspectives challenged and turned upside down.  Jesus is ready to do that.

Queries:

How have you known about being on the bottom side of life?

Where, if anywhere, does Jesus fit in your life?

Prayer:

Choose one of the biblical references above.  Read it, and select a word or phrase or image to chew on.  Let the passage be prayed in you.  Listen for the word given you.

For further reflection:

“Nathanael said to [Philip], ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see’” (See John 1: 43-51).

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (See Matthew 11: 28-30).

Easter Week

When I was a child, our church celebrated Easter Sunday, the triumphant day of resurrection.  Perhaps there was a Maundy Thursday service of some kind, but if so, nothing was memorable.  We focused on expressing new life in Christ and giving glory to God (to put it most positively) by showing up on Easter morning in new clothes.

As an adult I find it much more wonderful to celebrate, or walk through, the whole of Passion Week.  In what happens to Jesus there is so much that speaks to our human condition.  How many of us have experienced betrayal by someone who was a close part of our circle, maybe even a spouse or a parent or a sibling—betrayal in terrible proportions, or even in relatively small things?  I think of the wife whose husband has an affair with her best friend.  Any betrayal is devastating.

What about having friends disappear when you most need them?  I think of a breast cancer patient who told me that her mother was no longer talking with her.  Or the one whose husband walked out not long after the diagnosis.  To be abandoned by friends is bad enough.  To cry out to God and feel as if God is not there is even harder.

What about being accused unjustly, or treated abusively and derisively?   Such treatment may well steal our sense of self.  Or what about Jesus’ disciples in this story?  Like them we have notions about the purpose of what we are doing.  How hard it is if what we have worked for so long suddenly falls apart.

What I learn in the passion story is that my suffering is not unknown, that God is with me in it regardless of how I may feel or how the suffering may have come to pass.  And that no matter how bad things are, the suffering is not the end of the story.

Queries:

What has been your experience of Easter?

How can you connect inwardly with the suffering and the joy of Easter?

Prayer:

Jesus, forgive us for the barriers and blocks we put up to keep us from living in the abundant joy you desire for all of us.  May you reign in our hearts and in our world.

For further reference:

Read the passion story in one of the gospels—Matthew 26-28, Mark 14-16, Luke 22-24, John 18-21.

“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10: 10).

Seeing

I have heard it said that the logic of faith cannot be seen until the choice for faith has been made.  Then the truth and reasonableness of Christian beliefs gradually are revealed.  That has been my experience.

One Sunday the lectionary readings for that day included two of my favorite Bible stories—I Samuel 16: 1-13 and John 9—both of which talk about seeing.  The first is the story of Samuel’s anointing of David as king.  In that story Samuel is sent to Jesse to worship with him and his sons and from among them to anoint the one whom God has chosen to be the next king.  What I like is that God didn’t choose the eldest son, who had the family preferential position and looked the part, or any of the others who were logical choices.  Instead God chose the youngest, who was a mere herdboy (typically around 9 years old) and counted for nothing.

There are several things we learn about seeing.  One is that “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (verse 7).  Furthermore we learn in the story that Samuel is enabled to see with God’s eyes.  Samuel knows when he sees the son that God has chosen.  He also sees during the whole procedure what is happening.  The others who are there see but do not see.  They do not yet understand what they have witnessed.

Similar insights are in the second story, a whole chapter in the middle of the gospel of John about a man born blind who is given sight by Jesus.  The strange thing is that when the man gains sight the people who have known him or know about him do not recognize him.  What they expect to be true keeps them from seeing what really has happened.  The questions they ask keep them blind.  Yet they assume that they are seeing.

On religious questions, in family relationships, in social justice issues, even in science (for example, notice the changes in medical and nutritional advice), how often we think we see when we are in fact blind.

Queries:

What details in the above stories stand out for you and what truth for yourself are you enabled to see?

Being blind in these stories has more to do with the heart than with the eyes.  How does your heart inform your eyes, or not?

Prayer:

In your imagination, put yourself in one of these stories.  Imagine that you are one of the characters or that you are an observer in the story.  How does the story unfold for you with you in it?

For further reference:

[Jesus answered,] “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11: 5).

“for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5: 7).

Truth

In these days of fake news, bumper sticker slogans, and statements so brief they can fit into a tweet, there is not much room for truth.  We have a political climate intensely divided, with little agreement about the facts regarding any particular issue or even what the problem is.  Within Christian churches there is deep disagreement about scripture and its interpretation and about authority, leaving congregations who have worshiped together for decades torn and hurting.

What is the truth?  What can bring us together?  Propositional truth, factual truth, matters of reason have their place.  They help us observe, define, describe, and categorize.  They also tend to divide—either-or, it is or it isn’t.

Jesus said, “and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).  This Truth (with a capital T) gives the kind of freedom that leads to a fuller life, one led in harmony with God and what God has made so.  Friends (Quakers) are guided not by dogmas or creeds but by queries.  One such query asks, “How does Truth prosper among you?”  The query is searching out not whether the group believes in certain propositions but whether their faithfulness and practice bring them into spiritual unity (not unanimity).

Truth is a spiritual reality as real as “objective” reality, or more so, that gives meaning and life to everything.  It is not something just to be thought about or recognized; it is something to be entered into.  In A Language for the Inner Landscape, Brian Drayton, a scientist and a New England Friend, and his teacher William P. Taber, Jr., reflect on Truth:

 “Those who enter into this Truth, this reality, come to feel a sense of the divine harmony that holds our universe together and that operates in our own minds, bodies, and human society . . . . To be in the Truth, then, means that one can—and will—live out those standards of inward peace through outward gentleness, tenderness to all creatures, and the right and just ordering of human society exemplified by the life and teachings of Jesus.”

Perhaps if we sought after Truth instead of arguing about what is true, we would find a way to come together, grounded in Love, for the wellbeing of all.

Queries:

What is your experience of truth or Truth?

How or where does Love begin in you?

Prayer:

“Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  Lead me in your truth, and teach me….” (Psalm 25: 4-5a).

For further reference:

“Buy truth, and do not sell it; buy wisdom, instruction, and understanding” (Proverbs 23: 23).

“Jesus answered, … ‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’  Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’” (John 18: 37-38).