Dryness

There are times in life when we feel dry.  Things that have been important to us lose their luster and don’t give us the good feelings they used to.  This certainly happens in the spiritual life.  Going to church, singing in the choir, being in the silence of Quaker meeting for worship, or practicing a habitual spiritual discipline—any of these can go dry and seem to lose their life. The same can happen in a work situation or in a marriage or other special relationship.

Where to find life in dry times will differ.  But I do think it can be a big mistake to jump too quickly out of the situation.  I’m convinced that, when the problem is dryness (and not some serious issue that is being ignored or missed), there is a lot to learn from staying put and inward searching.  Sometimes too much busyness or responsibility for too many things can cover and hide what is happening.

Perhaps, too, the dryness may be an opportunity to grow in love of God for God’s sake instead of for our own good feelings.  In that case staying put, continuing to show up and be faithful, for the good of the other (God, our co-workers, our partner or family)may be what gives life, whether we feel it or not.  Loving God is not about having warm fuzzy feelings, but about service.  Borrowing from a rabbinical idea, that service is to love the Lord our God with all that we are.  This means being faithful to our commitments even when our hearts are not warmed by doing so.  Dryness is not likely to last forever.

Queries:

What is your spiritual condition now?  And the condition of your work and relationships?

What is it for you to love God?

Prayer:

Get a blank, unlined piece of paper.  Quiet yourself.  Randomly write on the paper words that arise for you in your prayerfulness.  When you have enough, reflect on the words.  Link them together, in groups or as a whole.  What is the prayer that emerges?

For further reflection:

“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God (Psalm 42: 1-2a).”

“There are times of dryness in our individual lives, when [Quaker meeting for worship] may seem difficult or even worthless.  At such times one may be tempted not to go to meeting, but it may be better to go, prepared to offer as our contribution to the worship simply a sense of need.  In such a meeting one may not at the time realize what one has gained, but one will nevertheless come away helped” (Berks and Oxon Quarterly Meeting and Extension Committee, 1958).

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A Reminder and a Witness

I’ve heard the question, “If it were illegal to be Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”  Today, when in many circles being religious is suspect at best, behaving outwardly in a specific way that indicates you are a religious person takes  commitment and courage.

Thomas Ellwood, an Englishman, became a Quaker in the mid-1600’s.  Friends then, acting out their faith, wore plain dress, refused the typical hat honor, and used the same you-language for everyone regardless of their social status.  Ellwood writes:

“A knot of my old acquaintance [at Oxford], espying me, came to me.  One of these was a scholar in his gown, another a surgeon of that city… When they were come up to me, they all saluted me, after the usual manner, putting off their hats and bowing and saying, ‘Your humble Servant, Sir,’ expecting no doubt the same from me.  But when they saw me stand still, not moving my cap, nor bowing my knee, they were amazed, and looked first one upon another, then upon me, and then one upon another again for a while, without a word speaking.  At length, the surgeon…clapping his hand, in a familiar way, upon my shoulder, and smiling on me, said, ‘What, Tom, a Quaker!’ To which I readily and cheerfully answered, ‘Yes, a Quaker.’  And as the words passed out of my mouth I felt joy spring in my heart, for I rejoiced that I had not been drawn out by them into a compliance with them, and that I had strength and boldness given me to confess myself to be one of that despised people.”

Today I know a few Friends who wear plain clothes, and the men uncut beards.  They tell me their appearance is a witness to their faith.  It is also a reminder to them of who they seek to be, and it invites others to initiate conversation with them about religious things.  Recently a local rabbi explained that he wears a yarmulke for many of the same reasons, as a challenge to himself and a witness to others.  And I’ve read that some Muslim women choose to wear headscarves for similar reasons—to witness to their faith and to honor Allah.

I haven’t followed these faithful people yet.  I would be satisfied if I just lived out the words of the song, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Queries:

What impact does what you believe have on how you live?

What is the difference between authentic, faithful witness and in-your-face offensiveness?

Prayer:

“Lord, make me a channel of your peace.  Where there is hatred let me sow your love” (Prayer of St. Francis).

For further reflection:

“Hear, O Israel:  The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. . . . Bind [these words] as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (See Deuteronomy 6: 4-9.)

“I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long” (Psalm 145: 2).

Watch and Wait

A woman suffered from a terrible headache.  When she went to the emergency room, she came home with a diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor.  Her friend, surrounding her with love, began to watch and wait.  The friend didn’t panic or try to find a way to fix what wasn’t fixable.  She simply was present, resting in God, holding the woman in Love.  Of course the friend hurt, grieved, wondered why it had to be.  And she celebrated their friendship.  She held all these feelings in an inner place of quiet and trust, as she carried the woman in her heart and her prayer.

I was on retreat, giving time and focus to preparing upcoming talks.  For a while I tried to push my way through the work I had to do.  I read relevant material from book after book, continuing even when I was sleepy and losing interest.  The harder I worked, the less useful the work was.  Remembering I was on a spiritual retreat, I stopped the pushing and controlling.  I surrendered and began to watch and wait.  I listened to what my body needed.  I did things that brought joy.  And when I heard in my heart that it was time to do more preparation, I turned to that, receiving what was given me.

To watch and wait is important in the contemplative life–a life grounded in God, being seated at the feet of Jesus, open to the leading of the Spirit.  Its opposite is busyness, being preoccupied with what is coming next, rushing from one thing to another and never being fully present anywhere.   When we watch and wait, we are inwardly and outwardly attentive, mindful, observant, prayerful, and present with our hearts open and tender.  In order to be so, we will be surrendered and trusting in Holy Mystery.

Queries:

Being in limbo can be a time of high anxiety and stress or an invitation to watch and wait.  What has been your experience?

What allows you to live in the quiet surrender of watching and waiting?

Prayer:

“Stay with me.  Remain here with me.  Watch and pray. Watch and pray.” (Sing this Taize chant over and over.  It invites a felt sense of being present with Jesus and of Jesus being present with you.)

For further reference:

“Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2).

“Only in God is my being quiet.  From God is my rescue.  Only God is my rock and my rescue, my stronghold—I shall not stumble” (Psalm 62: 1-2, Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary).

Weakness

As a country we do not like to be weak.  The appeal of Donald Trump’s tough-talking rhetoric and “Make America Great Again” slogan reflects a will for power and disdain for weakness.  Personally we don’t like weakness either.  For example, it’s hard to make plans for the last years of our lives because we don’t want to imagine ourselves as able to do anything less or have anything less than is so right now.

And yet it is often the case that it is in weakness we can find life.  This is the story of Bill Wilson and Alcoholics Anonymous.  Only when alcoholics admit that they are unable to control their use of alcohol, when they recognize this “weakness” and surrender themselves to a higher power whom they trust more than themselves, do they begin to know life again.  When life is good and comfortable, we can assume we are deservedly blessed by God or simply forget God altogether.  But they say there are no atheists in foxholes.  In weakness we know where our true strength lies.

The temptation is to hold onto a false sense of power and a false god.  The man who talks with Jesus about how to inherit eternal life illustrates this tendency.  He has been following the outward commandments from childhood, but something yet seems missing.  Jesus hears his concern and loves him.  Recognizing what blocks the man from life, Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions, give them to the poor, and follow him.  But the man can’t do that and goes away sad.  He has wealth and power, and there is where his trust lies. Wealth and power are his gods.  But they do not give life.

This story is challenging because we have many false gods.  If we can avoid appearing weak in the world’s eyes, we often choose a life-less god.  How wonderful that we have the story of Jesus.  He taught with authority, but his disciples didn’t quite get his message.  He died on a cross as a criminal.  Plenty of weakness.  But through his resurrection, his weakness became strength.  The disciples got the message, and we have a chance at the good news.  God’s grace is sufficient.  No worldly weakness has to have the final word.

Queries:

Where in your life have you experienced weakness?  How have you handled it?

In what or whom do you trust?

Prayer:

God, you choose the weak and lowly to proclaim your strength and glory. Empower us to trust in you and live in your love.

For further reflection:

“Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”  (See 2 Corinthians 11:16 – 12:10.)

“The heart is normally opened through a necessary hole in the soul, a sacred wound. Our wound is the only way, it seems, for us to get out of ourselves and for grace to get in.” –Richard Rohr