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).

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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.)

Self-giving Love

For his 70th birthday my husband Ralph wanted to have a party to celebrate all the people who have contributed to his life.  He invited over 150 people from near and far—family, people in our Quaker meeting, his friends from childhood and now, professional colleagues and other people with whom he worked, neighbors, and more.  Because he wanted them to have a good time, he arranged for food and entertainment, contacting a caterer and persuading some of his talented friends and family to present a few minutes of their music or poetry.

He didn’t want the party to be about him or to be himself the focus of attention—even having me be the emcee introducing the entertainers.  He wanted to get to visit with as many people as he could and to have them mingle, relax, and have fun.

What happened is that people visited with friends, got to see people they hadn’t seen in a long time, met strangers and found amazing connections, laughed, told stories, and enjoyed themselves in a very electric, heart-joining way.  Ralph’s dream came true—although he would like to have invited even more people he cares about.  That people chose to come and be a part of the gathering was a tremendous gift to him.  I call this experience one of self-giving love.  The mark of it was the kind of life and joy that permeated the event.

This is the Christian season of Lent in which we are invited to reflect on our lives to see what gets in the way of our freedom and ability to receive God’s love and to love as Christ has loved us.  Ralph and I are both very ordinary human beings with all the usual flaws, issues, and wounds, which weren’t absent in the planning or the party itself.  But how delightful to be a part of something that had the fragrance of something divine.

Queries:

What is the difference, as you have experienced it in your life, between self-giving love and letting oneself be run over?

How have you experienced love that surpasses all understanding?  What barriers might you erect to that experience and how might you be more open to it?

Prayer:

Lord, make me a channel of your love.

For further reflection:

“…as thou takest up the cross to thyself, and sufferest that to overspread and become a yoke over thee, thou shalt become renewed, and enjoy life, and the everlasting inheritance in that” (Isaac Penington).

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…” (See John 3: 14-17).

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).

Hands-On Prayer

As a chaplain I attended Quakers in Pastoral Care and Counseling (QPCC). We were divided into small groups for sharing about our work situations. At the end of those sessions we prayed for one another, putting one person at a time in the center of the group. That person shared specific joys, concerns, and hopes. The other group members gathered around the person, touching the person (being sensitive to what was comfortable for the focus person and the pray-ers) and praying for her or him aloud and silently. I left those sessions feeling encouraged, supported, and grounded in God.

In another small group of which I am currently a part, we used this practice in praying for persons in the group. Although we had earlier acknowledged questions and qualms about intercessory prayer, the impact of this intercessory praying was palpable and powerful. Love and care, compassion and a sense of oneness literally coursed through our bodies. I would have to say that the bond we sensed between us was more than a human connection. And I feel confident that the experience meant as much to those who prayed as to those who were prayed for. We were all touched by the presence and love of God.

Obviously the focus person can share a need for his or her own healing. But the person can also carry a concern for someone else’s healing and be the vehicle for prayers for that other person. And this prayer is a great way for sending a person off on a mission or back into the workplace and ordinary life, an occasion of thanksgiving and blessing. What is required for this kind of praying is simple, and hard—being willing to be vulnerable with one another and with God.

Queries:

How have you felt God’s touch in your life? If God touched you, would you notice?

How do you find the loving line between sensitivity to the wounds people have suffered from being hurtfully touched and extending a physical expression of God’s love?

Prayer:

Find a way to express God’s love in a tangible way, or notice how someone else has given that gift to you.

For further reflection:

“Some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him.” (See Mark 8: 22-26.)

“Mind that which is eternal, which gathers your hearts together up to the Lord, and lets you see that ye are written in one another’s heart.” George Fox (Epistle 24, 1653)

Judge Not that You Be Not Judged

I awoke one morning obsessing about a situation that had gone wrong. Certainly I had made mistakes I could learn from. But lying in bed I didn’t focus on the good that had come from the problem. Instead I was judging myself. I scolded me for being inadequate and incompetent, and I wondered if there was anything I could do well. My self-judgment was harsh.

Fortunately I spoke with my spiritual director, who gave me perspective. What I experienced from her was God’s love. We agreed that it is wise to evaluate problematic situations and to learn the lessons they contain—to make those kinds of judgments. But, when I judge myself in a condemning way, I am acting as the ultimate judge—as God. That blocks God’s love and keeps me from facing reality and, if appropriate, making changes.

Being overly self-critical, which makes it hard to receive love, makes it easy to judge others. The less love one is able to receive, the less one has to give. The more I pick at everything wrong with me, the more I do the same to you, and the more likely you will do that back to me. The wounds multiply. Compassion–God’s love and mercy that heals—is missing.

Queries:

When have you judged yourself or others or been judged by others?

What helps you be in the flow of God’s love?

What is your experience of compassion or forgiveness that is helpful to you?

Prayer:                                

Repeat the Lord’s Prayer—“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name . . . Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us . . . .” You may want to rewrite it in your own words.

For further reflection:

“Judge not that you be not judged. . .” (See Matthew 7: 1-5).

“Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (See Matthew 18: 23-35).

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (See Psalm 51). You may want to read this psalm in different translations. Consider Nan Merrill’s Psalms for Praying.