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.)

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Wrestling

What is it like to be an academically successful college student wondering if you will be deported before you graduate, sent back to a country you left when you were so young you can’t remember it?   What is it like to be a parent of children you sense won’t have now the chance for success that you had when you were growing up?  Or a parent of children who still suffer the deck-being-stacked-against-them that you lived with years ago?  What about those who study the oceans, fish, and coral reefs, and who are already counting the destruction that is happening?  What about feeling ill but not knowing why, having tests and waiting for the results, fearing the news that might be coming?

Serious worry, fear, anger, hurt—how does one live in these times?  How does one avoid reacting in ways that hurt oneself and maybe others?  Where is hope?

This kind of time may be one in which to wrestle with God, being deeply and rawly engaged—to cry out, complain, be angry.  Faithful wrestling can uncover theological misunderstandings and superficial ideas that may be broken open to allow a stronger and more vibrant faith to emerge.  A quick look at the Psalms will let you know that in your complaint you are in good company:  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  “Why must I walk around mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?” “How long, O Lord?”

As a chaplain in oncology there were times when situations were just too hard to bear.  I remember on such occasions finding a place by myself and having a talk with God.  Sometimes I wrote, sometimes I was able to be in my thoughts and feelings at the core, and to give voice to the pain.  (You could say I raged at God.)  I stayed with those feelings until I felt heard and I was finished.  (There certainly was no formula.) And then there came some measure of peace, some comfort or guidance.  Often the situation didn’t change but I did.  Certainly these have been times of spiritual growth.  I learned a lot about prayer and who God is, and I found greater trust.  Most importantly, I was enabled to live the next day, in the love of the Beloved.

Queries:

Think about a time when you felt frightened, angry, or in pain.  How do you handle such times?

Where is God in hard times?  Does Jesus enter your picture?

Prayer:

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

For further reflection:

“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” (See Exodus 32: 22-32.)

[Jesus said,] “I am deeply grieved, even to death . . . And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed . . . (See Matthew 26: 36-46).

Praise and Thanksgiving

There is a morning devotional that begins, “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim your praise” (Psalm 51: 15), to which the response comes, “Thank you, God.”  The practice made me think about the difference between praise and thanksgiving.

When I asked a friend about the difference, her immediate reply was a felt sense or body awareness:  “With praise, my hands are raised, my head is up, and my mouth is open.  With thanksgiving, my head is bowed and my hands are in a prayer position at my heart.”

Thanksgiving is a wonderful practice.  A woman I know begins the day with her partner—sipping a cup of coffee, eating a bowl of oatmeal, and naming things for which they are grateful.  I have benefited from ending my day looking back over it to see the things for which I am thankful.  Often they are things that I would have forgotten about without that reflection time.  And I’m convinced that reflecting like that before I go to sleep makes me more likely to wake up cheerful the next day.

Giving thanks makes us aware that all that comes our way is not of our own making.  There is someone or something bigger.  Praise lets us focus on that source of goodness and grace.  Praise involves acknowledging and rejoicing in what underlies all things.  It arises out of faith and trust, not comprehension.  Praise takes us out of ourselves and into oneness.  For me, praise can be helpful even when I am doubting or discouraged, because it takes me into something beyond myself.  When we praise God, we find our true proportion.

Queries:

How do you understand thanksgiving and praise?  If one is harder or less comfortable than the other, what is the difference for you?

How do you want to express thankfulness or praise at this time?

Prayer:

“Praise and thanksgiving let everyone sing.  To our Creator for every good thing.  Alleluia, joyfully sing.”

For further reflection:

“O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. . . . For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised.”  (See Psalm 96.)

“I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long.” (See Psalm 146.)

Revelation Continues

Quakers believe that God continues to speak to us, guide and direct us in a way that is available and discernible without an intermediary.  I personally find that the Bible is often a vehicle for that revelation—for unexpected openings and experiences of Presence.

I have read the Bible enough that much of it is quite familiar.  And yet there are times when I read a passage I know well and suddenly some new insight opens up.  The insight is not just an interesting new idea.  It is rather something that shifts me inwardly.  I may or may not have words to describe what happened.   I am drawn closer to the divine, I am guided, my condition is spoken to.  I remember a time when I was reading one Psalm every day for a week.  Almost every day a different part of the Psalm caught my attention and taught me.

Since before the shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, I have been part of a group of blacks and whites eager to hear what the Bible has to say.  Recently we have been studying the second half of the book of Isaiah.  In Isaiah 51 we had heard strong and powerful words, “Awake,awake; listen; rouse yourself!”  I was preparing Isaiah 52.  In the first two verses I heard the strong words again, “Awake, awake…; shake yourself from the dust…; loose the bonds…”

I put my pen to paper, and these words rolled out:

“Awake, awake, white people.

Take off your blinders.

Shake yourself out of your illusions.

Turn to God who loves us all equally and rejects injustice.

Loose the bonds of those you have oppressed that your bonds might also be

loosed.”

When I shared the words with the group, intending to have them listen for words for themselves, the group instead was silent and we were dropped deep.

I know my words are not the meaning of the text itself.  God is speaking to the oppressed people of Israel exiled in Babylon, not to a powerful group.  And yet I believe that the Bible passage was a vehicle for an experience of continuing revelation.

Queries:

What do you believe about revelation?  Does God continue to speak to us and guide us?

What is your relationship with the Bible?

Prayer:

Our Guide and our Hope, help us to hear your voice in the Scriptures, in each other, and in the signs of the times.  [based on intercession in Give Us This Day, November 15, 2016, Evening]

For further reflection:

“Open my eyes, so that I may behold wondrous things out of your law” (Psalm 119:18).

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching . . .  so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  (See 2 Timothy 3: 16-17.)

Chimney Swifts

At a retreat center at dusk on a September evening I saw chimney swifts flying in a circle the shape of an elongated doughnut, maybe the size of the stands surrounding half of a basketball court.  Their wings flapped very rapidly and they made lots of chippering noise, kind of squeaky.  Round and round they went above the center’s bell tower.  And then as they circled, the birds began to drop into the tower, one at a time.  It was a magical sight.

Long ago Chimney Swifts used to settle in hollow trees, holding onto the inside of the tree trunk because they are not able to perch like songbirds.  When the land was cleared and chimneys appeared, the Swifts adapted.  As I watched the birds, I couldn’t tell how they knew whose turn it was nor how their flapping flight stopped as they turned straight down to drop into the tower—one after another.  All I could conclude was that they are fearfully and wonderfully made.  Our creator is an awesome God.

It appeared that they depend on being in community.  The circling together seemed to create the conditions for them to be able to enter the bell tower opening one at a time.  They never pushed or shoved or rejected anyone.  There was room for all.  I think we humans also are created to be in community, in relationship.  Some Christians see the Trinity as demonstrating that point.  We are not independent, self-sufficient individuals.  We succeed best when we care for and cooperate with each other, when there is a place for all.  The individual survives best when the whole group thrives.

When the birds had all entered the tower and night had fallen, the loud chippering sounds we had heard became deep quiet.  I suppose they were resting or asleep.  Their behavior brought to mind the experience of entering into contemplative silence or into unprogrammed Quaker worship.  At the beginning our minds can be loud and chatty.  Gradually we center down.  And eventually we rest in the quiet, abiding in a God who loves all.

Queries:

What has led you to sing a song of praise of our Creator?

A time of busyness and activity and a time of quiet and rest are both important in our lives and faith.  How are those times balanced in your life?

Prayer:

“O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!” (Psalm 95: 1).  Spend time in nature, or in whatever lets you see God’s wonder and calls forth your praise.

For further reflection:

“ ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where you want to be, . . .  [Simple Gifts]

“Drop thy still dews of quietness, till all our strivings cease; take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.”  [Dear Lord and Father of Mankind]

Daily Prayer

It matters to me to have time for prayer daily. I recommend the practice to you. The prayer can take many forms and when and how it happens can vary as individual circumstances vary.

I particularly like morning prayer—since I am most likely to take the time because it happens before much else does. It also means that I start my day remembering that all is in God, maybe remembering to walk with Jesus. I practice Centering Prayer. Some people may want simply a time of stillness or a brief period of meditation, or even just a morning ritual stretch—maybe a reaching up “Good morning, God” and a bowing “Thank you for this day.” Or maybe a daily time of intercessory prayer on the commute to work, with a planned different category of persons or things to pray for and about each day.

The morning prayer could also be a devotional reading. There are plenty of books, monthly guides, and websites that can direct your content—readings from C.S. Lewis, Richard Rohr, Joan Chittister, poetry selections; Sacred Space; denominational guides such as Give Us This Day or Moravian Daily Texts. Sharing this time is especially sweet—with a person who shares your living space or by having a partner at a distance who is reading the same thing (or just praying at the same time). Bible reading can provide rich food—reading one Psalm a day or one each day for a week, praying slowly through a gospel one small passage at a time, or following a daily lectionary.

Evening prayer—remembering the day and noticing the gifts and learnings in the day, embodied prayer like praying the rosary, or simply taking time to commune with God—is just as valuable.

I find such prayer is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. When I start a new puzzle and the pieces are dumped chaotically out on the table, I like to find the edge pieces and put them together, forming a frame that begins to suggest some order for all the other pieces. A daily time of prayer creates a frame around all my day.

Queries:

What resistance do you have to drawing inward in prayer, stillness, or meditation, and especially to a daily practice of it?

What name do you use for that One who brings life– God, Higher Power, Jesus, Mary, Light, Love, Inward Teacher—and what does that name mean to you?

Prayer:

See suggestions above.

For further reflection:

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (see Mark 1:32-35).

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight” (see Philippians 1: 3-11).

Joy

One day I was in a group talking about our favorite part of Christmas. “I love having my grandsons come to my house and make presents for their parents,” Dot said. “They really get into it and get excited. Their love for their parents is so apparent.” While she shared her story, her whole face was a smile, her eyes danced and radiated delight. The joy she felt communicated itself to the rest of us and we too knew joy.

On another time with the group Jim told us about the sudden death of a dear friend of his. We felt his grief and invited him and others to tell us about the man. Their faces glowed as they told of the man’s care for the land and for the people of our area, and of all the quiet differences he had made in our community. Even though the circumstances were sad, joy dwelt in our hearts, because as a group we were united in grief, appreciation for the friend and the land, and love for one other.

Whereas happiness is light and carefree and depends on a positive environment, joy is something different. It is deep and strengthening and can happen in any kind of circumstances because it comes from within. Joy is the condition when the deepest part of me connects with another, united by something ineffably other.

Queries:

What is your experience of joy? Of “something ineffably other”?

How attuned are you to noticing experiences of unity, allowing them to teach and change you?

Prayer:

Make a collage of joy. Play music that touches your soul and brings deep joy. Dance with joy. Open your senses to joy in any way that works for you.

For further reflection:

“Praise God with trumpet sound; praise God with lute and harp!” (See Psalm 150. I like NRSV best here.)

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control . . .” (See Galatians 5:22-26).