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.)

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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).

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.)

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).

Being Prepared

Anne is a birdwatcher (what English people call a “twitcher”).  As a child she began learning to recognize and name the birds she saw—robin, cardinal, blue jay.  Now she has a life list and travels to special sites to have a chance to see birds she has never seen before.  Being prepared, she says, is the key to birdwatching.  But it isn’t the kind of being prepared that one does for some event occurring at a certain place on a certain date.  It is a preparation that allows one to receive gifts whenever they show up.

To be prepared to see birds takes having a body of knowledge that develops little by little; the more you know the more you can know.  It also takes some aptitudes and attitudes—skill at using binoculars, a framework for interpreting what you have seen, practice, patience, and joy at seeing whatever shows up or even nothing.

I practice a kind of Christian meditation called Centering Prayer, promoted by Contemplative Outreach.  It is a method that prepares the pray-er to receive the gift of contemplation if and when it is given.  Like those seeds that, once planted in the ground, wait months or even years for the conditions to be right—enough water, nutrients, and the right temperature—for germination, centering prayer involves staying put and waiting.

I believe that the whole of the spiritual life is about being prepared—both actively preparing and passively being formed and readied (and everything in between)—for living and for death. The elements of such being prepared include experiences and a framework or knowledge base for interpreting those experiences; a deep desire for, commitment or dedication to this life and to the One who gives it; and a community with whom to prepare.  There are also aptitudes and attitudes that help—practice, ability to listen, trust, and gratitude.

I believe that God’s goodness grants us moments of abundant life, and being prepared enables us to notice them and soak up the joy that might otherwise simply fly by without being seen or appreciated.

Queries:

For what do you have a deep desire to be prepared?  What do you need to do?

In what ways have you been prepared and in what ways are you in the act of being prepared?

Prayer:

Knowing rote prayers of the church can be a way of being prepared.  There are multiple ways of praying. Being prepared happens when one prays regularly.  Take on a spiritual practice of prayer.

For further reflection:

“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (See Matthew 25: 1-13).

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (See Luke 3: 1-14 and Isaiah 40: 3-5).

Watch and Wait

A woman suffered from a terrible headache.  When she went to the emergency room, she came home with a diagnosis of an inoperable brain tumor.  Her friend, surrounding her with love, began to watch and wait.  The friend didn’t panic or try to find a way to fix what wasn’t fixable.  She simply was present, resting in God, holding the woman in Love.  Of course the friend hurt, grieved, wondered why it had to be.  And she celebrated their friendship.  She held all these feelings in an inner place of quiet and trust, as she carried the woman in her heart and her prayer.

I was on retreat, giving time and focus to preparing upcoming talks.  For a while I tried to push my way through the work I had to do.  I read relevant material from book after book, continuing even when I was sleepy and losing interest.  The harder I worked, the less useful the work was.  Remembering I was on a spiritual retreat, I stopped the pushing and controlling.  I surrendered and began to watch and wait.  I listened to what my body needed.  I did things that brought joy.  And when I heard in my heart that it was time to do more preparation, I turned to that, receiving what was given me.

To watch and wait is important in the contemplative life–a life grounded in God, being seated at the feet of Jesus, open to the leading of the Spirit.  Its opposite is busyness, being preoccupied with what is coming next, rushing from one thing to another and never being fully present anywhere.   When we watch and wait, we are inwardly and outwardly attentive, mindful, observant, prayerful, and present with our hearts open and tender.  In order to be so, we will be surrendered and trusting in Holy Mystery.

Queries:

Being in limbo can be a time of high anxiety and stress or an invitation to watch and wait.  What has been your experience?

What allows you to live in the quiet surrender of watching and waiting?

Prayer:

“Stay with me.  Remain here with me.  Watch and pray. Watch and pray.” (Sing this Taize chant over and over.  It invites a felt sense of being present with Jesus and of Jesus being present with you.)

For further reference:

“Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2).

“Only in God is my being quiet.  From God is my rescue.  Only God is my rock and my rescue, my stronghold—I shall not stumble” (Psalm 62: 1-2, Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary).

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).

Vulnerability

When Moses was born, the Israelite people were getting more numerous and powerful than the Egyptians, so the Pharoah declared that all newborn Israelite boys were to be killed. At first his mother hid him. When that became impossible, she came up with a risky scheme to keep him alive. She prepared a basket so that it would float in the water, and placed Moses in the basket in the river among the reeds. His sister stood close enough to watch what was happening to him, so when the daughter of Pharoah found Moses crying and had compassion on him, his sister emerged and offered to find a Hebrew woman to nurse him.

Every aspect of this story involves vulnerability. Suppose Moses’s mother had just kept him with her until he was found by the authorities. Suppose the Pharoah’s daughter hadn’t risked violating her father’s order. Suppose the sister had been too afraid to step forward to speak to someone so powerful. What follows from this story is that Moses becomes the leader of the Hebrew people and brings them out of slavery in Egypt.

If you look at stories of good things that have happened, you can’t help noticing the important role of vulnerability—something we tend, however, to avoid.

Even with friends or family members, co-workers, or one’s community, the vulnerability of speaking truth without being overly guarded or belligerent can make a difference. It requires being what I would call grounded in God, knowing one’s own truth, worth, and inner strength.

I live in a small town in which blacks traditionally have lived on the west side of the railroad tracks and whites on the east. In a panel presentation on growing up in the town in the 1950’s and 60’s, the one black person on the panel spoke clearly of the differences in what was possible and not allowed for her in contrast to what the white members of the panel had known. Exposed and vulnerable, she spoke without anger and with courage. Her truthfulness turned what could have been mere nostalgia into healing and community-building.

I believe that vulnerability leaves space for God to be at work.

Queries:

What is the difference between being vulnerable and being foolishly risk-taking?

What gives you the courage to be vulnerable and take risks?

Prayer:

Breathe in God’s deep and abiding love for you. Let that love wash away the negative and hurtful in you, letting yourself know that you are a beloved child of God and that what you have to offer matters, regardless of what others think.

For further reflection:

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering. . .” (Matthew 16:21)

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (See Luke 9: 23-25.)

Expectations

In Luke’s Christmas story Zechariah didn’t expect to meet an angel as he was doing his priestly duties, and he didn’t expect that an angel would speak to him. Only becoming unable to talk let him, and others, realize that something special had indeed happened to him. In Matthew’s story Joseph didn’t expect to marry someone who was already pregnant. But he was able to hear the angel and accept what he was told; he went ahead after all and married Mary.

The Christmas season is a time of many expectations. We expect that we can make or buy the perfect gift for everyone on our list, we can do all the extra work that decorating and preparing for the holiday calls for, and we will be together with family members and everyone will get along and be happy. I may expect that my husband will get me something really special and thoughtful. We will do everything the way it has always been done. Or maybe the expectation is to do something different this time, which surely will please everyone. Whatever the expectations, our egos get a workout. Stress levels soar.

Meanwhile, if an angel were to speak to us, we probably would take no notice. Maybe because we would be too busy, maybe because we don’t believe in angels, or maybe because we wouldn’t listen since the word most likely wouldn’t fit into our agenda. And we fail to receive the true gifts of Christmas—light, love, hope, faith, joy, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, new life.

As long as my mother was alive my family celebrated Christmas in much the same way, year after year. But now everything is different, and I can spend a lot of energy longing for some parts of how it used to be. In the remaining days of the Christmas season, I hope I can let go of my door-closing expectations and open to be able to experience wonder, surprise, joy. Everything won’t be smooth or familiar. But I can expect that Christ will be present. I hope I will notice.

Queries:

What memories of Christmas are particularly meaningful to you? Or maybe particularly painful?

What expectations do I need to let go in order to let God/Christ/the Holy Spirit be at work in me this Christmas?

Sometimes the expectation that Christmas will be meaningful is an expectation that closes doors. What would it take to let go of even that?

Prayer:

Sing your favorite Christmas carol. Listen to the Messiah. Find time to be quiet.

For further reference:

“And he shall stand and feed his flock . . . and he shall be the one of peace” (See Micah 5: 2-5a).

“And blessed is she who believed [trusted] that there would be a fulfillment . . .” (See Luke 1: 45).