The Path

I grew up with a hunger for God, a love of Jesus, whether I really understood that or not.  Early on it was manifested in being drawn to Bible stories and other stories of people of faith.  Those stories were somewhat enfleshed by the weekly experience of having people invited to “give their lives to Christ” and join the church.  I myself made that decision by age ten.

What I didn’t hear much about then was that I was stepping on a path that would give me a chance to grow, change, and become closer to God, enriching my life in ways I couldn’t have imagined.  But when the ups and downs of my faith and life set me in Quakerism as a young woman, I was inspired by older Friends, especially women, who seemed to glow.  They had something that inwardly I yearned for.   Their witness invited me to take hold of a path, a way of life—familiar, I now know, in Quakerism and in Christianity—that I then scarcely knew consciously.

This path is not like a trail that one can knowingly follow, nor is it about achieving a destination or status.  It does involve making a life-choice, and then is more about surrendering or letting go in faith. Each one’s journey is different. Trusting and doubting and wondering, seeking and finding and losing, suffering and knowing joy, making wrong turns and finding a way provided when there is no way—all are included.  It’s an ascent that involves deepening.

Friends’ directions for following this path have been to live up to the Light that you have and more will be granted you.  It calls for holding onto a tradition—what others have come to know in the past and have left a witness to—while at the same time living in the present with what you know and experience.

Queries:

What kind of life-choice have you made?

How do you, or can you, reject harmful or unbelievable notions you learned in your past religious experience while also staying open to learning some fresh way to understand the rejected concepts?

Prayer:

Pray the Lord’s prayer (the Our Father), paying attention to what words are meaningful to you and what ones give you trouble.  Then choose one word or phrase to hold in the Light, praying to be touched or taught in a fresh or deeper way through that word or phrase.

For further reflection:

“Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.  Lead me in your truth, and teach me. . . . (See Psalm 25: 4-5).

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us”  (Hebrews 12: 1).

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Sinners

I was reading Mark 2:13-17, the pre-selected passage in my morning devotional.  Jesus is walking along, sees Levi who is a tax collector for the Roman government (therefore a traitor to his people, the Jews, who are oppressed by Rome and their taxation), and invites Levi to follow him.  Levi does, and Jesus joins him for dinner, along with “many tax collectors and sinners.”  The seriously religious people of his day (they really cared about following the Torah) are very critical of his behavior.  Jesus explains that he is there for those in need and not for those who have it all together.  Suddenly I found myself glad to call myself a “sinner.”

But I don’t like the word “sin” or “sinner”!  They have often been used by people who see themselves positively while naming some other group as terrible, to be avoided and excluded.  The words make me think about being bad through and through and experiencing low self-esteem and life-denying shame—nothing to be glad about.

Yet as I listened and found myself in the Mark story, seeing myself as sinner felt strangely liberating.  I didn’t have to be better than others, to hold myself above the “fallen.”  I felt free simply to be human, to be me with the strengths and weaknesses that come with the package.  Knowing myself as sinner allows me to let go of the childhood sibling-rivalry-induced need to be at least as good as anybody else—to follow all the rules just right.  In this story of Jesus, as a sinner I know I am loved for who I am, not for what I can accomplish, how virtuous I am, or how well I can be on the “right side.”

It is okay to need a physician.  In truth, all of us do, but we don’t always know that.  I am one with all others.  Humility, compassion, care arise.  As I get older and experience diminishments, I needn’t fear.  Those losses can be opportunities for grace—provided that I know with Jesus I am a sinner, a beloved child of God.

Queries:

In what way might you need to be healed?

Who are the people you would criticize Jesus for eating with?

Prayer:

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

For further reflection:

“When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly . . . while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (See Romans 5: 1-8).

“‘If any of you have never sinned, then go ahead and throw the first stone at her’” (See John 8: 3-11).

Hurting

My husband Ralph took our grandsons John and Andrew skiing in Colorado over their spring break.  Andrew had been before and is an accomplished skier.  Ralph had taken John skiing years ago at a small ski area in West Virginia, but never in Colorado, so Ralph started him out in a beginners’ class in the resort’s ski school.  The necessary precautions were taken, but when John, following the instructor’s directions, started to ski down the mountain, he didn’t make it.  Instead he picked up speed and lost control, got his ski stuck in the snow, fell hard, and broke his leg quite badly.  The skiing was finished, and a trip to the Denver Children’s Hospital began the new challenges.

In Davidson a 49-year-old mother of four children had a business of pet-sitting and dog-walking.  At an intersection on Main Street that had a new crosswalk and pedestrian-crossing light, she got a walk-light and headed across the street with two dogs in tow.  At the same time a big garbage truck, with a green light, turned the very sharp left onto Main.  Neither the woman nor the driver of the truck saw each other until it was too late.  The woman and one of the dogs were killed.  The driver was taken away in handcuffs.  Word came quickly that no speeding and no alcohol were involved, and that the driver was a respected employee.

Both situations hurt to the core of my being.  I would like to lash out, be angry, and blame someone—as if that could change the situation.   With John, while I was home alone worrying about them, I spent one night imagining John’s trip down the mountain and trying to make the accident not happen—as I do when I have a scary dream and wake enough to try to imagine something different happening in the dream that will overcome the scariness.  Of course that didn’t change anything, and with both situations I am simply left with grief and a big hurt in my heart and my belly.

Where is comfort—for me and for those even more intimately involved?  Speaking for others seems cheap and wrong.  For me, I can do something to reach out and express care in some way.  I can share the hurting with others.  Holding it together makes the hurt a little lighter or less unbearable.  And I can cry out to God, hold it in the Light, lift it to the heart of Jesus, be still in the Presence.

Queries:

How have you or others you know handled the grief and hurt of a terrible situation you can’t change?

What spiritual resources give you comfort?

Prayer:

Divine Mercy, we long for your presence and healing touch.

For further reflection:

“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases”. . . (See Lamentations 3: 16-26).

“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Galatians 6:2).

Time

With the recent return of Daylight Savings Time, my body is all confused about what time it is and what needs to be done, which makes me think about time. My life often seems driven by the clock and the calendar. I think I am somebody if my days are busy and my calendar is full. But the same conditions just as easily can make me feel anxious and overwhelmed.

While I worked a regular job I used to wish for balance in my life, but I never found a way to have that. My time was full of things I was doing, and there wasn’t time to add what I thought would create balance.

I wonder now how it would have been if I had focused on simply receiving the day, and how it would be if I did that now. Our attitude about the day and how we can live in it changes if we realize and remember that each day is a gift from God, even that having both dark and light in a day is God’s creative gift.

Particular spiritual practices can reinforce one’s awareness and gratitude for God’s presence in the day. A traditional morning prayer is, “O Lord, open my lips. And my mouth will proclaim your praise.” Another possibility is the psalmist’s words, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” What would happen if we began the day with a prayer of praise, maybe even shared that experience with someone else? And during the day, before going on to the next thing, we could simply stop and breathe, until we have returned to calm or remembering.

New Testament Greek has different words for time–chronos, which is governed by clocks and calendars, and Kairos, which is set, arranged, ordered by God. Any time of our chronos day may be a Kairos time. At the close of the day, before falling asleep, we can remember and receive the gifts of the day.

Queries:

How would you talk about time as it is experienced in your life? What does being busy mean to you?

How can you be open to receiving the Kairos times in your life?

Prayer:

To start your day, use either of the prayers mentioned above (or your own words) and then name the ordinary, everyday things for which you are grateful.

For further reflection:

“Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12).

“I keep the Lord always before me; because God is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” (Psalm 16:8).

Simply Receiving

About every other year I get to spend a week at Sanibel, an island off Ft. Myers, Florida. My favorite activity is observing the birds of the area, found particularly at the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, as well as elsewhere. By 2014 I had been to the bird sanctuary so often that I began the week with a checklist of the birds I expected to see. I soon found myself frustrated that I wasn’t seeing certain ones, and also surprisingly bored at the whole enterprise.

This year I went to Sanibel without expectations but rather wondering what I would see. I gave up trying to be in control of the experience, and I opened to receive the gifts God provided. I was curious about what would show up, confident that there would be treats. I just didn’t know what, where, or when they would be. This attitude left me much lighter and more joyful. And the week was full of gifts.

If we come to the spiritual life with expectations of how things are to be and what is supposed to happen, we will find frustration and disappointment, and too much focus on ourselves. The spiritual life is about God, God’s work in us, and gratitude for the gifts we are given often in the midst of ordinary living, even without asking or imagining such is possible. A much more abundant life comes when we let go of expectations and notions, simply be real, and open up to where God/Love/Grace may be.

Queries:

Reflecting on your day or your week or your month, what gifts do you notice that you weren’t expecting?

What blocks you from a relationship with God (or Jesus or the Spirit)? Are your intellectual expectations or ways of thinking involved in the blockage?

Prayer:

Imagining yourself in the presence of the holy, hold your hands out in front of you with palms facing down, fingers straight out. Now squeeze your hands into a tight fist, grasping and holding on. Next, turn your fists over so that the closed fingers are facing up. Slowly let your fingers open and release all that you are holding so tightly. Feel yourself relax.

For further reference:

(Remembering that wait means to let time elapse and also to attend or be attentive to) “They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. . . . (Isaiah 40:31)

“God’s mercies are new every morning” (See Lamentations 3: 22-24).

“This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).

Hang in There

There were three of us in the group. One had been married almost 60 years, another 36, and another (me) 48. We all agreed that marriage is full of challenges. Life deals the marriage blows that are hard and the couple’s approaches differ. What is good for one partner is not good for the other. What one does may totally irritate, or even undermine, the other. Our opinions about important things clash. We three also agreed that we are glad we have hung in there even with all of the trials and frustrations.

Struggling through the hard spots, wrestling with tough issues rather than ignoring them or allowing them to escalate out of control, and accepting one’s own and the other’s flaws and limitations—even getting help—are not fun. They are, however, the building blocks of an intimacy and love much more wonderful than the romantic notions I began with as a teenager. It is in those places where the hard edges of my personality could be ground smoother, where the need for God and awareness of God’s saving grace became clearer, and where my heart could be tendered.

There are times, though, when divorce is the right thing. I don’t want to deny that truth. Knowing when to give up and when not to is serious discernment. I just want the chance to say that in many situations there are very good reasons to hang in there, use those hurting times as an opportunity to grow emotionally and spiritually, and reap the benefits long term.

The same can be true for hanging in with other relationships and communities—a church, a school, a job. I have even found it useful to hang in there with the Bible. There are things that upset me earlier that, after much wrestling and study, I have found new, more informed, and faithful ways of understanding. And I’ve learned that I have to leave some things hanging, knowing I don’t understand them yet but the day may come. That humility is a rich benefit of hanging in.

Queries:

Midlife is a time when challenges can hit particularly hard. What helps with discerning the difference between (a)what needs to be changed and can be changed if addressed and worked on, and what can’t be changed but can be accepted, and (b)what is in fact the true breaking point?

What would you say about the value (or mistake) of hanging in there?

Prayer:

“Give us strength for this day and love for each other.” Pray for those with whom you have important relationships. “Help us to change the things we can change, to accept the things we can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

For further reflection:

“that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and depth of insight. . .” (See Philippians 1: 9-11).

“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you. . .” (See Ezekiel 36: 26-28).

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).

An Interventionist God?

A loved one is seriously ill, an undocumented mother of children who have been born in the USA is threatened with deportation, color-blind racism means you have to fear for the life of your son in ways that white mothers don’t have to. In the midst of these and similar situations, can we cry out to God, or is that pointless?

A refrain among some who wrestle with religious or spiritual questions is “I don’t believe in an interventionist God.” At best, they say, we can pray for some general wellbeing, or perhaps we can pray for a specific situation so that we will be changed. It seems that to think God intervenes is to say that God healed this person but refused to cure that one, cared about this situation but didn’t care about that one. Who would want to worship such an arbitrary God! But if it is not God’s doing that one person is healed and another is not, that some migrants die in the desert or on sea and others don’t, then how does one explain such things?

I believe that God desires relationship, that our prayers are heard and answered even though we may never understand how or why. I know I am not able to manipulate God, that if the situation about which I have prayed resolves in a way that makes me happy, it is not my doing. I can be grateful and give praise, but I cannot extrapolate from that situation as to what might happen in another situation, mine or someone else’s. What I can do is stay in relationship with God. I can, even must, cry out.

In the Bible story of Job, when he is afflicted with terrible losses and ills, his friends assume he has done wrong and God is punishing him. But Job insists he has done no wrong and demands an audience with God to protest. When God comes, Job is humbled by God’s awesomeness beyond all Job’s understanding. We would like to figure out who God is and how God works, but we can only stand in the mystery.

Queries:

How do you deal with the fact that some children make it through all the terrible challenges to reach the United States and others die? That some things you pray for seem to get no response?

Human action in response to God’s call and leading is important. How do you listen for what is yours to do? When and how are you to be God’s hands and feet?

Prayer:

Take a situation that you care about. Hold it in your mind and heart and know it deeply. In your imagination, lift that situation to the heart of Jesus.

For further reflection:

“Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (See Luke 18: 1-8).

“The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.” (See Hannah’s prayer when she who had been barren gave birth to a child, I Samuel 2: 1-10.)

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).

Praying for Someone

My grandson Jack knocked out his one permanent upper-front tooth. His parents took him to the dentist, who attempted to re-set it. The expectation was that it would either reattach or be rejected. My heart was heavy with concern for him. I couldn’t help but hold him in prayer. I also asked friends to pray for him.

What was I doing? I prayed passionately, with lots of caring energy. And I specifically prayed for his tooth to reattach. As far as I know that is the best thing that could happen for him. The accident would be overcome and he would have less trauma to go through. Sometimes when people pray like this they are in effect trying to work magic—to manipulate God by saying the right words, praying hard enough, getting enough people to pray, or whatever it might take to get God to bring the healing they want.

As a chaplain in oncology I once had a patient who had been struggling with breast cancer for many years but whose body had had enough. Her family had prayed for her through the years, with many remissions. They couldn’t bear to have her die. They asked me to pray for her, hoping that my prayers would get God to let her live even if theirs weren’t getting that result. When she did die, they were in such despair that they gave up on God and left their church.

In order to avoid this pain, some people pray only for God’s will in the particular situation, believing that that is the right way to pray—to be suitably humble. Others simply don’t believe in an interventionist God, a God who cares and who impacts specific situations in human life.

I pray what is in my heart. God knows my heart; there is no point in trying to cover it up. I also know that there is a much larger picture that I cannot see or comprehend. I trust that God loves and wants good. And I let go the prayer. Such praying brings community, strengthens my ability for love and compassion, and keeps me honest and humble, attuned to mystery and paradox.

Queries:

What do you think about intercessory prayer? What is your experience?

If there is that of God in every person, how might that of God in you relate to praying for others?

Prayer:

Pray as you can, not as you can’t. Sometimes action is the prayer to choose.

For further reflection:

“I pray that . . . he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit . . .” (See Ephesians 3: 14-19).

“Praise the Lord . . . who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases . . .” (See Psalm 103: 1-6).