There are things we can change about our character and behavior. By focusing our attention on the change we want, being highly motivated and determined, getting the support needed for the long haul, there are choices we can make and changes we can bring about. At other times what we can’t change is changed in us. We are released from the problem or given the new way. To succeed we must accept what has been given and find what it takes to hold onto the gift.

Yet many things seem to be built into our cells and emotional makeup beyond our ability to change. Perfectionism plagues me from many angles. The pattern is deeply entrenched. I can even get caught trying to be perfect about letting go of being perfect! What do we do with those changes we deeply desire but that don’t happen? Often they are a source of shame and low self-esteem.

The apostle Paul offers perspective and hope. He speaks about a thorn in his flesh, “a messenger of Satan to torment me.” He prays several times to be rid of it but it doesn’t happen. Instead God responds, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 7b-10). The invitation is for an inward change that results in self-acceptance and knowledge that one is first and foremost a beloved child of God. How the invitation and the resulting moves come I can’t say–maybe through experiences that open our eyes, through words or actions of others, in giving up our pretensions to be God, and/or in quiet opening to God. But that God’s love for us just as we are is available, I am sure.

Paul talks about his experience, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5: 17-19). He doesn’t mean that behaviors that torment us go away. He means that our weakness contains a gift. The torment can make it clear that our strength comes in depending on God and that God is dependable. Abiding in that awareness is what I think it means to be “in Christ.” In Christ, the troublesome issue may not change, but it no longer defines us. Inwardly we become new. We live in the power of Christ, not of the “thorn.” The torment loses some of its grip, and we have gifts to give the world through a wounded and healed heart.

Queries:

What change have you found beyond your ability to make happen?

In what ways has your life been transformed?

Prayer:

Centering prayer, or another form of meditation, may open you to being changed in unexpected ways. For information on this form of prayer, see www.contemplativeoutreach.org or Father Thomas Keating, Open Mind, Open Heart.

For further reflection:

See the 2 Corinthians passages referred to above.

The story of Jesus with Zacchaeus (See Luke 19: 1-10).

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Falling Off the Edge

I wanted a job. One job had closed and I was ready for a new one. Right away! I don’t remember the details about the jobs, but I do remember my experience with God. My patience, limited as it was, had come to an end. I felt desperate. I turned to prayer, pouring out my heart. I was upset, angry, and afraid. It felt as if I was having a temper tantrum. “With my voice I cry to the Lord . . . . I pour out my complaint before God . . .” (Psalm 142: 1-2).

Eventually I wore out. I let go of my demands. I accepted reality. I recognized the limits of my human control and fell off the edge of the security I had tried to construct for myself. My outward circumstances did not change, but somehow I felt as if I had been listened to and heard. I found myself in the arms of love like a sobbing child who has been held and quietly calmed by her mother. “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high . . . . But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother . . .” (Psalm 131: 1-2).

Over and over we come up against the limits of our own power and abilities. Such times can be opportunities to go ahead and fall off the edge– to let go of the ego, to die to the self, to surrender to God, to move into the flow of living water, to say yes to God. We can fear that it will be the end of us if we let go. But it is the beginning. In the new dimension there are peace and love and possibilities.

Queries:

Whether in regard to your personal life or to the complex issues that hurt us as a nation or a world, what experience have you had hitting the wall of human limitations?

What do you know of a divine dimension that is available?

Prayer:

Be still and know that I am God.

You may want to simply repeat this phrase and let it bring you calm. Another possibility is to do a guided meditation using this phrase, dropping off a word each time: Be still and know that I am. Be still and know. Be still. Be.

For further reflection:

“Give over thine own willing, give over thine own running, give over thine own desiring . . .and sink down to the seed which God sows in thy heart . . .” (Isaac Penington , 1661).

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (See Psalm 46).

“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (See Matthew 7: 7-11).

Gratitude

When I was a chaplain in oncology, I met an ordinary but quite remarkable woman who had breast cancer. She had four daughters—two who were twins preparing to go to college and two younger girls. Everything that could go wrong did—a complicated kind of breast cancer, a chemotherapy infusion that infiltrated and damaged her heart, and eventually her death before her girls were grown. And yet it was she who taught me most about gratitude.

Despite the negative things I could see in her life, which she knew and acknowledged, it was the positive things she focused on. Every time I interacted with her, she talked about what she was grateful for and what she had written in her gratitude journal. This was no exercise in denial. She in fact bubbled with joy and delight as she talked.

About the same time, if anything had gone wrong in my patient and family visits, the problems were what I remembered as I drove home. Then I learned about the value of looking back over the day to see at what points I had experienced God’s presence. What were the moments for which I was most grateful?

What a change that practice made in my life. In reviewing my day, I saw positive moments that were luminous with God’s grace and presence, moments I would otherwise have forgotten and lost, especially since they were frequently quite small things. Instead of being weighed down by mistakes and failures, gratitude filled my heart, colored my days, and gave me perspective.

Queries:

What is your experience of gratitude?

What have you learned about the nature of God as you reflect on your days looking for the moments for which you are grateful?

Prayer:

Begin a prayerful review of your day, looking for God’s presence. In addition to looking for the moment you are most grateful for, you may also want to look for the moment you are least grateful for. Acknowledge these moments and hear how God is speaking through them. (See Dennis Linn, et al, Sleeping with Bread: Holding What Gives You Life, Paulist Press, 1995.)

For further reflection:

“You drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock . . .” (See Psalm 40: 1-3).

“Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God . . .” (See Luke 17: 11-19).

Anxiety

At a School of the Spirit contemplative retreat there were five Bible passages to choose from for the devotional reading. One of them was the passage in the gospel of Matthew about anxiety. Almost everyone in the group chose that passage. Anxiety is something we know about.

Writing these devotionals keeps me plunging into anxiety. What if I can’t think of anything to write? What if no one finds these useful? What if I don’t have time to write because I took on too many other good things to do? I imagine disaster surely looms and paralysis is not far away.

Once anxiety gets started, it seems to rush with the air I breathe into the cells of my body, making a home there and growing like activated yeast. Rather than trying to get rid of anxiety, it is finding a way to change the air that helps. As the song says, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. Sing allelu, alleluia.”

Queries:

How do you experience anxiety?

What does your faith have to say to your anxiety?

What brings you back to a rooted and grounded place?

Prayer:

Sometimes when I am anxious I want a hug from a safe person “to put my skin back on.” Slow, deep breathing, or repeating a sacred word may help. Holding the anxiety in the Light, looking for what underlies it, can give a freeing perspective. Letting the anxiety go may happen if you find words that put you in the arms of God.

For further reflection:

“I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry . . . .” (See Psalm 40: 1-3).

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life . . . ” (See Matthew 6: 25-34)

Seeing is believing?

Sitting at the computer, facing out the window, I suddenly startle.  I realize there is a bluebird, with its strikingly vivid blue color, on the tree just outside the window.  Only now have I seen what has been there for a while.  I had been looking that way.  How did I miss it?  How could I see and not see?

While doing walking meditation a friend heard an owl.  I love birds, and love hearing owls.  I was doing the same walking meditation, but I didn’t hear the call.  If I didn’t hear it, does that mean it didn’t happen?

Wild ginger is one of my favorite wildflowers.  It has a nice green leaf that can be seen year-round along many of the paths I walk.  It looks the same in the spring as in other seasons.  I know now, though, that at a certain time in the spring there is more than meets the eye.  Beginning in late March or early April, when I see wild ginger leaves I stop and scratch gently around in the dead leaves nearby, following the stem until it goes into the ground.  With leaves the right age, and at the right time, my efforts are rewarded by finding its one-inch jug-like bloom.  They’re usually not that beautiful, but for me finding the flower is a special treasure because it was hidden and I might have missed it.

How often is our faith, maybe especially our believing, limited by our not seeing or hearing or searching? It took me a long time to be aware of God’s presence and action in my own life because I wasn’t open to interpreting those experiences in that way.  I was internally blocked from their gifts.  Revelations, epiphanies, and theophanies are there in our lives, waiting for recognition and a response.

Listening to the yearning of one’s heart, beginning to wonder and to ask questions instead of staying with the assumed answers, trying new spiritual practices, or simply desiring to see may let you hear God’s voice or see the gift God is offering.  May we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Queries:

What have you seen or heard?

What might you be missing?  Especially related to faith, what would you have to let go or take on in order to see?

Prayer:

Take a walk or sit by a window looking out at natural beauty.  Read a gospel story (in Matthew, Mark, or Luke) ready to ask it questions and let it question you.

For further reflection:

“He looked and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.” (See Exodus 3: 1-6).

“Let anyone with ears to hear listen.” (See Mark 4: 1-9).