Staying at the Table

My husband and I recently celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary—an occurrence most people don’t even get a chance at, and I had wondered if we would get to.  Close to the anniversary, by chance I read a novel, watched a movie, and read portions of two books all touching on the theme of the gifts of long-term relationships.

The novelCrossing to Safety, was about the friendship of two couples, whose marriages, despite severely trying challenges, carry a deep abiding, a kind of oneness, arising from the couple’s commitment to one another.  Their long-term friendship also commands attention.

The Netflix movie that arrived at that time was a Chinese movieComing Home, about a man who is sent away during the Cultural Revolution but is rehabilitated after it is over.  When he returns to his family, he finds his wife suffering from psychogenic amnesia and unable to recognize him.  The beauty of the film is how he stays by her.  Again there is the abiding, the oneness, the fundamental commitment even in the midst of serious trial.

In the book portions, one, Witnessing Whiteness, about developing cross-race friendships, named the value of being willing to embrace conflict when it arises, staying at the table.  Being undefended enough to really listen makes it possible “to find the kernel of wisdom contained within the argument” and to build the kind of trust that sustains a relationship.

The other, Invitation to Love, pointed to the gifts that can come in a committed, long-term relationship with its dailiness.  “Difficulties arise,” says author Thomas Keating, “when a committed relationship is succeeding.”  When we feel loved, we are more real and our shadow sides emerge. “When a couple bears with each other’s failures, dark sides, and weaknesses, they minister the love of God to each other.  Human love is a symbol of God’s love.”

When a theme shows up over and over I take note.  I have learned that the struggles of a committed relationship—in marriage, friendship, or work—can be the unexpected wrapping paper for the gifts of God.  Sit tight and be sure to give thanks.

Queries:

What makes a committed relationship?  In the messiness of a long-term, committed relationship how might you experience or express the love of God?

How might you be called to stay at the table with God?  How has your relationship with God grown?

Prayer:

Merciful God, help us to know the difference between times when we need to sit tight through conflict and pain, and when we need to end the relationship.  When it is time to stay at the table, help us to do that.

For further reflection:

“Abide in me as I abide in you.  Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me” (John 15: 4).

“[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13: 7).

Expecting

Some years ago a friend told me that the theme of her life was waiting.  She was waiting for the addition to her house to be completed and she was waiting for the birth of her first child.  That conversation made me think about waiting as a religious experience.

One of my favorite Bible verses is “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.  They shall rise up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31.)  The Hebrew word translated wait means holding oneself ready for an arrival or occurrence, to be in expectation or hope of something—the kind of waiting my friend and her husband were doing.

They hadn’t seen what was to come, but they had a vision and expectation of something wonderful and were readying themselves outwardly and inwardly for the arrival.  They put up with the discomfort, chaos, dirt, and inconvenience much better because of what they were expecting than they would have if they had had no hope and no expectation.

The faithful of Israel got strength for their daily lives because their waiting on God meant they were expecting the promised activity of God on their behalf.  I’m sure there were times when they couldn’t see it happening as they fell to defeat and lost things they considered essential—homeland, power, the temple.  But their continued belief that God was involved kept them together as a people and gave them a vision to live toward.

All of us encounter hard times—physically, financially, emotionally, relationally, politically.  To wait on the Lord is to claim and to be given the strength to get through such times, because it gives us a perspective about what is happening that keeps the hard times from defeating us.  All is not meaningless and hopeless.  God is at work in our lives and in our world.  For Christians, Jesus Christ reveals and is that promise.

Queries:

When have you encountered hard times, and what has helped you get through them?

What is your experience of waiting and expecting?

Prayer:

Thank You for the promise of Your presence and for Your faithfulness through the generations.  Help me remember You in good times and bad, in the Spirit of him who knew peace even on a cross.

For further reflection:

“Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long” (Psalm 25:5).

“For in hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?” (See Romans 8: 22-25).

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).