Control

If you ever thought you were in control of what happens around you, a bathroom remodel project will put an end to that illusion.  The people working on the project at my house are excellent craftsmen and very fine people.  But life doesn’t follow orders from a contractor.  Competent sub-contractors are in demand; I seldom know who is showing up or when they’ll be here—even if they tell me a time.  Planning the rest of my life takes on the same maybe or maybe-not quality.

Trying to be in control simply brings upset and anxiety.  Life works much better by going with the flow and being curious about what will happen.  It can be that the time when people do arrive is actually more advantageous than when they said they would come.

Yesterday at the Contemplative Practices group our song leader introduced us to a new chant, sung in Spanish, based on words from St. Teresa of AvilaNada te turbe, nada te espante.  Quien a Dios tiene nada le falta.  Solo Dios basta.  It presents the opposite of trying to be in control.  Essentially the song says that whoever rests and trusts in God will not be made anxious or upset, and will lack for nothing because God is all that is needed.

I know there are too many people who go to bed hungry, who don’t have money to pay the month’s rent or the electricity bill, who can’t afford medical care, who are running for their lives and have no home.  To be true, Teresa’s words have to be about something more fundamental than basic needs or even survival.  I think she means that God, as the source of Life—its creator and sustainer and redeemer– reaches toward us in Love, in a way that changes everything.  If we can know and receive that Life and Love, we can endure with a kind of peace whatever comes our way.  God alone, and only God, is enough.  We have to have nothing more.

The chant puts my situation in perspective.

Queries:

How does trying to be in control create barriers to God in your life?

How true are Teresa’s words in your experience?

Prayer:

YHWH, the name of God, is unpronounceable.  It is more like the sound of a breath. By breathing in and sounding YH (or Yah), then breathing out and sounding WH (or Weh), you can invite God’s presence and indicate your intent to be open to God.  Repeat the breathing, slow and easy, moving the lips very slightly for as long as you wish to meditate.  You can also do this breathing prayer in moments of tension or upset to turn the situation over to God and allow yourself to be calmed.

For further reflection:

“I am the vine you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15: 5).

“O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (See Psalm 30).

Living in Unknowing

I read an article in the newspaper saying that the time to dig up iris and divide them is July-August.  At the very end of August (and into September), I decided that for the first time in twenty years (instead of every three or four years) I would dig up my iris.  The little garden plot had become a jungle of long leaves, and the iris had not bloomed well this spring.  Having put off the digging up and dividing for years because I didn’t know how to do it, I turned to YouTube and watched two videos about how to do it and how easy it was.

I am amazed at how many iris came out of the garden and how few went back in where they had been.  The process was far from easy, and without an experienced person to answer my questions live on the spot, I have no certainty that what I did in the digging up phase or in the planting phase will result in healthy and blooming iris next spring.  Now what I can do is water and wait.

So much of life is like that.  At the end of a certain project what will come next?  Will there be another project and more work?  We really can’t know.  Or, we may have inner clarity that a move is in order, but what we will face in preparing to move and being in the new place is largely unknown.  We may be able to read some guides, get some information, but ultimately we don’t really know what will come.

I think I get captured by fear of failure, fear of being shamed, and that fear can keep me from going forward.  But there is another perspective—knowing God loves us.

All the little things in our lives are part of a much bigger picture.  God is very much in the midst of failures as well as successes, good beyond measure can come even from defeat,  life is full of surprises.  And staying stuck in fear can let your iris turn into a tangled jungle that is much harder to deal with, and with more to lose, than if you had taken the risk of doing the work earlier.

Queries:

Where does fear of the unknown show up in your life?

What helps you live in times and situations of unknowing?

Prayer:

O God, you call us from our settled ways, out of old habits and rutted traditions.  You call us into the land of promise, to new life and new possibilities.  . . Deliver us from false security and comfort, desire for ease and uninvolved days.  Let your Word and Spirit dwell in us that your will may be fulfilled in us for the well-being and shalom of all.  (Vienna Cobb Anderson, Prayers of our Hearts in Word and Action)

For further reflection:

“Then Mary said . . . , ‘Let it be with me according to your word’ (See Luke 1: 26-38).

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (See Genesis 12: 1-9).

Healing

The gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus’ healing of a woman who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years.  She was bent over and unable to stand up straight.  This is a wonderful story that is very easy for readers to identify with.  There are so many things that weigh us down.

I first thought about this story the day we had a number of first-year college students visiting our Quaker meeting before their classes had begun.  They were bright and perky; but I remembered other students I had seen in other years in the middle of the term, weighed down with schoolwork, relationship issues, concerns about the future, lack of sleep, and more.

I can also remember being weighed down feeling overwhelmed with many different projects that needed to be addressed, feelings of inadequacy, and a sense of great responsibility.  And, especially as a young woman, feeling burdened with being a woman and the struggles that brought me in trying to find my place.  I really value that in the story Jesus sees the woman, speaks to her, and lays his healing hands on her.  All three actions bring healing.  What a joy to be released from the spirit that crippled her—or cripples us.

One time I had been feeling weighed down for several days, with no particular cause that I could point to.  The more I felt uncomfortable about the feeling, the more I paradoxically seemed set on being bent over.  Until I heard a friend, who knows God’s love for her and has a deep and abiding love for God, say, “Sometimes I have things come up that I just can’t handle, and I tell God he is going to have to take care of that himself.”  So I tried that.  “God, I can’t handle this feeling.  You’re just going to have to handle it.”  I first had to agree to let it go if I were released from it, and I had to trust it into God’s hands.  The next day I woke up cheerful.  My anxiety about a particular responsibility had shifted.  I felt companioned by Jesus, open and curious instead of fearful.  The crippling spirit had been lifted.  I was standing up straight again.

Queries:

In what way are you, or someone you know, bent over with a spirit that cripples?

How does your faith speak to that condition?

Prayer:

Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.  In thee I trust.  (And thank you, God, for faithful friends.)

For further reference:

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?  Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you.  See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16a).

“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).

Image of God

I’ve been invited to give the morning Bible study at the summer sessions of our gathered religious body, which Quakers call Yearly Meeting.  There aren’t too many of us and they are all friends, so I shouldn’t worry about the opportunity.  I also believe that we have divine guidance available to us in a way that is discernible, and on good days I believe I have been led.  Yet I find myself all too often focused not on God’s love and care but on fears of my inadequacy.

What we believe (or don’t believe) about God and how we function in relation to God can be different.  A friend believed in God as loving, forgiving, and bringing us into peace.  But when invited to draw an image of God in relation to some concerns he was experiencing, he drew a person with a monkey on his shoulder dangling a key just out of reach.  This was a “God” who held the secret to peace but wasn’t willing to share it.  Instead “God” used the key to taunt him and make him frustrated.

What we believe (or don’t believe) certainly impacts us.  Another friend believes she is responsible to bring justice wherever she can.  She doesn’t believe in a God who acts in the world.  If there were such a God, she argues, there wouldn’t be so much pain and suffering.  So she works very diligently at doing good.

These limiting images of the Limitless—of which we are aware or not—leave us less able to see and less able to know the joy and love of God.  Being able to recognize these often-hidden images from which we function is a step toward the healing of our blindness.

Queries:

With what image of God did you grow up?  How has that changed (or not)?  What might blind you to a more life-giving image?

What would it take for your heart and mind to be prepared for an encounter with the limitless God?

Prayer:

“Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge” (Psalm 16:1)

For further reflection:

“Again the Lord called, ‘Samuel!’  And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, ‘Here I am; you called me.’  ‘My son,’ Eli said, ‘I did not call; go back and lie down.’  Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord:  The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.”  (See I Samuel 3: 1-10.)

“God gazed down from heaven upon all humanity/ to see whether there existed a person of understanding, / one who was searching for truth” (See Psalm 14).  [For this translation, see Pamela Greenberg, The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation.]

Mercy

Pope Francis has declared 2016 to be the Year of Mercy. To grant mercy for people who make mistakes and are repentant or “worthy” of mercy is fine. But what about those people or groups who are doing terrible things, or who might include some who would oppress or do great harm—or even have values different from mine? Don’t we need to judge them, or wouldn’t we rather pass judgment? James 2: 13 says that “mercy triumphs over judgment,” a statement that seems backwards.

J was arrested for selling cocaine. Mary knew too many young men whose lives had been ruined by cocaine. She could easily judge J. She was clear that what he had been doing was wrong. Yet, he was in fact a young man she had known from the time he was a baby. She had been his youth group leader at church. She knew his father abused his mother and had beaten her so badly that she had been blinded, and she knew that his mother had only recently died. She felt compelled to offer mercy.

She lined up his pastor and got letters of reference to take to his hearing, and together she and the pastor went to court and waited all the time it took for J’s case to come before the judge. Convinced by the support that had been presented, the judge, pointedly holding the young man accountable for what he did with this new chance, released him into their care.

Mercy is not the same as passivity or accepting anything and everything. It is a standing with, recognizing one’s own need for mercy, rather than feeling or acting superior and standing on top of. Mercy has costs. It isn’t about safety and security. Mercy recognized for what it is and received has the effect of yeast added to a measure of flour and liquid. Mercy transforms hearts. It comes from Love.

Queries:

What about your life would make you want to receive mercy rather than judgment?

What do you need to leave behind in order for your life to be more mercy-full?

Prayer:

Breathe in mercy. With the outward breath, let go.   An alternative prayer is the one routinely used in the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church–“Lord, have mercy; Christ, have mercy.”

For further reference:

See James 2: 1-13, a passage that warns against showing partiality for one group over another and ends with the call for mercy.

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions” (Psalm 51:1).

What Is Your Image of God?

The New Testament book of James, while it calls itself a letter, is more like the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew scriptures. It gives insights and wisdom about nature and reality and the divine. James 1: 5-8 begins by telling us that if we lack wisdom, all we need to do is to ask God, who gives it generously. All is well. But then he says we have to ask for it in faith without doubt, ending with if we doubt we “must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.” That stings. Who doesn’t doubt?!

Some people read this passage as saying that when we ask God for anything, if we have faith, we will get it; and if we doubt, we won’t. If we are good, God rewards us; if we don’t obey, God punishes us. If we believe with no doubt that God will cure our loved one with breast cancer, it will happen. But if we doubt, God won’t make her well. Ouch! Such a reading sets us up to be able to manipulate God—and then who is God?

I believe, instead, that this passage is simply telling about how life is. Time and again I can fall into the doubting mode, even doubting the very existence of God. What happens then is that my sense of purpose and meaning disappear. I am anxious, uncertain, and irritable—like an ocean wave blown by the wind. Nothing goes well. I don’t think God is punishing me. I think I am getting the consequences of my choices. And when I turn to God and ask for help, I am met. The turning isn’t an intellectual change. It is simply letting go of the doubt and opening to Mystery. I have merely dropped into God’s flowing stream, where life and gifts lie generously available. There is no reprimand for having doubted—only wisdom.

Queries:

What image of God are you carrying?

What experience have you had of the wind and waves of anxieties and doubts? And of their being calmed?

Prayer:

Ask for what you need, and be open to the presence and action of God in your life.

For further reflection:

“But when Peter noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’” (See Matthew 14: 22-33).

“For the Lord gives wisdom. . .” (See Proverbs 2: 1-6).

Hope: A Spiritual Discipline

As a person who can look at a situation and acknowledge the hard things and who is not afraid to stand with pain and suffering, I can also easily despair. I know we need hope. It is life-giving. In Waging Peace: Discipline and Practice (Pendle Hill Pamphlet #420), Pamela Haines names practices for learning to live transformed for peace, and the discipline of hope is the first she mentions. What is the kind of hope that brings life and possibility?

The book of Jeremiah in the Hebrew scriptures talks about false prophets who cry “Peace, peace” when there is no peace. Hope not based in reality is not hope. Neither is it wishful thinking or simply expectation of what I want to happen. True hope is based on what we know or have experienced, and it is hope in what we cannot now see. We may not even be able to imagine it. Yet we have reasons to hold onto its possibility and to live toward that.

We may, for example, hope for the healing of a friend’s incurable disease. How can our hearts not desire that?! Yet if our hope is merely to get what we want, we will likely be disappointed or disillusioned.   Hope that is true hope is in a larger definition of what healing is, a larger vision of what is possible–a hope that is based on an awareness of the vastness of God’s goodness and the depth of God’s love. Healing can be a cure, but it can also be presence, comfort, tending, and bringing wholeness that extends into the world and beyond.

Our task is to learn to look for and to see the signs of hope. That may take opening our hearts to the One who makes all things new. It may also take learning to notice what we can be thankful for even in the midst of troubles.   Pamela says we need to develop the muscle of hope.

Queries:

What is your experience with hope?

What would it take to increase your hopefulness?

Prayer:

Hope is a prayer because it connects you with the Divine. Find a way to practice hope.

For further reflection:

“They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (See Jeremiah 8: 8-11).

“Sing and rejoice, you children of the Day and of the Light. For the Lord God is at work in this thick night of darkness that may be felt.” (George Fox, Epistle 227, 1663).

Trusting in the One Who Gives Life

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not unto your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths” (Proverbs 3: 5). I memorized this verse as a child. If it could live in my heart as well as in my memory, my life could flow more peacefully.

I had felt spiritually dry and adrift. I wanted to do something or read something that could change my condition, but was at a loss about what that could be. I felt anxious, but I knew I had to trust and wait, as uncomfortable as that was. A few days later I was on my way to Charleston for a family occasion over the weekend during which I would have some time to read. I went to my bookshelves. There was a book whose title drew me. I didn’t know the book and was curious what it might say. Sure enough, when I was waiting in my motel room and picked up the book, the words poured from the book and into my heart. It was just the right book at just the right time. I’ve had that experience enough times that you would think I would trust in its happening and be able to avoid the anxiety.

Someone made discouraging comments to me about my writing, saying that my topics were too big to cover in such a short space. The one I was writing that day left me certain that she was right, and I felt blue. I prayed that God would send me encouragement if I was to keep writing. My low spirits have been lifted often by something unanticipated that seemed like a special gift from God, so I prayed remembering that kind of experience, trying to avoid getting stuck in my feelings. That afternoon, when I went for a haircut, the woman who cuts my hair had recently come back from a family funeral. Before we knew it, she was telling me about her spiritual experiences and some times of being hurt. When I told her about what I was writing, she was very excited, because my words directly spoke to her condition and encouraged her. I left with a nice haircut and a cheerful spirit. Wow! What a quick and joyful answer to my prayer.

A blessing of being older is being able to remember past experiences that remind me that God is trustworthy. When I can relax into that confidence, I can let go my need to control, and I can go forward with curiosity instead of anxiety and despair.

Queries:

How well are you able to trust in yourself? In God?

What experience of surprises that seem like gifts do you remember? What might help you notice them?

Prayer:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Psalm 27:1).

For further reflection:

Read the story of Jesus and the woman of Samaria, John 4: 1-30.

“I am about to do a new thing . . .” (See Isaiah 43: 18-19).

Fear

When I was a chaplain in an oncology practice patients who took their faith seriously were sometimes upset at themselves for being afraid. “If I really had faith, I wouldn’t be afraid,” they would say. I comforted them by pointing to the gift of fear. It was fear of something being physically wrong with them that got them to the doctor and subsequently into treatment of the disease. True fear motivates action, whereas anxiety steals energy and focus.

Anxiety is the generalized state of being distressed or worried. It impacts one’s ability to deal with life. Fear is an uncomfortable emotion caused by the threat of pain, harm, or trouble. Anxiety is different from fear in that anxiety has no direct object while fear does. When I am anxious, if I can look under the anxiety to find what it is that I am afraid of, then I can do something about it. To name what one is afraid of, to face the fear and wrestle with it, can bring strength. God does meet us in our fear.

Queries:

About what are you afraid?

What helps you face what you fear?

Prayer:

“May I be strengthened in my inner being through the power of the Holy Spirit, and may Christ dwell in my heart through faith as I am being rooted and grounded in love.” (See Ephesians 3: 14-19.) You may want to develop body motions such as yoga postures to accompany these prayer words.

For further reflection:

“When I am afraid, I will trust in You . . .” (See Psalm 56, especially verses 3-4a).

“My father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me . . .” (See Matthew 24: 36-46).

Be Still

Today I have a full day—exercise at 11, lunch at 12:15, haircut at 3, conference call at 5, and meeting at 7. I am feeling anxious and distracted. I don’t feel overwhelmed, because most of these activities are not responsibilities but opportunities for fun and friendship. But I do feel ungrounded. God is “out there,” and I am not in touch. It feels as if I am a stack of children’s alphabet blocks. The stack has been kicked and each separate block is flying around unpredictably in space.

There have been other times when I was at odds with myself and did feel overwhelmed. I was busy with responsibilities and things to do, and some of that included frequent checking email and fiddling with my smart phone. Everything seemed too much.   I stopped, I unplugged and was still.

Maybe in these situations, the quieting comes in yoga class. Maybe it comes in a walk around the block by myself, being aware of the sounds of birds and the beauty around me. Especially if I recognize soon enough the racing that is going on inside of me as I do one thing after another, maybe it is simply sitting down and breathing. Simply being quiet, re-grounding, letting the blocks be put back into a plumb-lined stack. Breathing in the Spirit, letting go the racing. Letting the heartbeat find the divine rhythm.

Queries:

How do you discern when you are doing too much, or when you are not doing what you do need to be doing?

How do electronics figure into your life? How do you keep their use in their rightful place?

What helps you re-find your anchor?

Prayer:

Stop and breathe. Stay with it long enough to find the flow. Be mindful of what you learn from this praying.

For further reflection:

“Only one thing is needed . . .” (Luke 10: 38-42).

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God . . .” (See Philippians 4: 4-7).