God In Our Transitions

The reason we choose to focus on transitions, as I did at a retreat I recently facilitated, is that those are situations that often bring about a change in the way a person sees herself and her relationship with the world and with God. At times like that, I believe we reach out to God more and hear God more easily. So when we are in transition, we are on sacred ground.

And yet as I worked more deeply with the theme, it was clear to me that there are other ways, too, in which a person can start to rethink who she is and how God calls her to be in the world. As a spiritual director, I am acutely aware of how things can change in our lives without it triggering the kind of inward shift that I think of in connection with transition. A mismatch like that can often be a source of great pain.

So rather than thinking of a different skill set to pull out for use in transitions, I was drawn to thinking about the ways in which we change, whether they are gradual adjustments or there is a precipitating event that shakes things up.

When I think about transition now, I think about it as just another small step in the ongoing process of becoming the gift in the world that God wants us to be, to use Parker Palmer’s language. Every day of our lives, indeed, a multitude of times every day, we are given the choice of acting in ways that embody God’s love for us and every other created being. Moving through a transition is just like any other discernment process: we are seeking the way and the place where our gifts can be put to the use of our community in a way that will be enriching for all. We can move forward joyfully, confidently, knowing that God has good things in store for everyone. We can be assured, too, that even if we don’t get our discernment quite right the first time, God will find a way to bring good things out of the mistake we may be making. There is no cause for fear.

In fact, one of the ways we know we are making the right choice is the sense of peace, rightness, unity with others, and other “fruits of the Spirit” that accompany any movement we make towards God and God’s calling for us.

For prayerful consideration:

Think of a time when you know God was lovingly guiding you into the right place, a place that was fulfilling to you and met the needs of others. Think of a time when you think you may have made the wrong choice, and yet God brought good out of the situation.

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The Source of Honor

My girls have just been through a few weeks of karate training at their elementary school. As a Quaker and a pacifist, I wasn’t too thrilled about it, and I was especially un-thrilled when my girls came home requesting that we watch Karate Kid for our next family movie night.

But I didn’t interfere with my children learning the basics of karate, nor did I refuse to watch Karate Kid as the family movie. My belief is that forbidding things will only make them more tantalizing to my girls, and as my regular readers will know, I believe there is a gift to be found – if I am open to it – even in things with which I disagree. I know enough about martial arts to know that the goal is to avoid using violence rather than seeing force as the solution to a problem, so I was hopeful about finding a spiritual gift and having rich family conversations. I found the richest gift in Karate Kid II:

The old karate master, Miyagi, flies back home to Okinawa with his young protege Daniel when they learn that Miyagi’s father’s health is failing. Daniel learns the reason Miyagi left Okinawa: Miyagi and his friend Sato were in love with the same woman and Sato challenged Miyagi to a karate fight to the death. Although Miyagi tried to talk his friend out of fighting, Sato insisted that fighting was the only way to restore his own honor. Miyagi left Okinawa rather than engage in an activity that would leave one of the men dead. When Miyagi returns with Daniel to Okinawa, it turns out that Sato is still intent on having the fight. Sato throws insults at Miyagi, destroys his belongings, family home, and does everything imaginable to provoke Miyagi into a fight. Still, Miyagi refuses to fight.

Thankfully I don’t need to reveal the ending in order to move into my theological reflections:

This movie made me think about what honor is and where it comes from. In my reading of current events, it seems to me that a lot of violence is ignited when someone feels insulted, whether it’s a real or perceived insult. On the home front, when one of my daughters whacks the other, the one who hit almost always justifies it as the correct response to mean words or actions on the other girl’s part. In sports, there was the French soccer star who headbutted his opponent during a crucial World Soccer Cup match when the rival said something insulting about the star’s sister. Much street violence seems to arise when someone feels “dissed” and wants to restore their dignity by harming the “disser”. Even some recent wars and threats of war seem to have much to do with real or perceived insults – both the invasion of Irak and the continued escalation of international tension between the USA and Iran seem to have large elements of wounded national pride.  

These situations seems to presume that a person or nation has honor if they are treated well and their  dignity is respected by their surroundings. At one level, that is how it is with me, too. I know from my own life how hard it is to hold on to my own feelings of worth when someone finds fault with me.

But Miyagi, this quiet, unassuming karate master’s sense of honor is different. It is unrelated to what others say about him or do to him and his belongings. Instead, he seems to measure his honor in terms of his own ability to stay true to his principles: He will not fight except to save a life. He will not threaten under any circumstances. He will make any personal sacrifice – such as walking away from his home, family, and the woman he loves – in order to avoid being understood (or misunderstood) to be a threat to a person whose sense of his worth is more fragile than his own. 

We have had wonderful conversations at home with the 7 year old and the 9 year old this week. Although we all understand and like Miyagi’s ideas, my daughters still whack each other occasionally and I still raise my voice when I feel overwhelmed by a situation. But we have developed a shared understanding of the goal we are working towards – to know that we are beloved-of-God and to act out of a deep knowledge that we and all people are God’s beloved. Honor does not come from the outside, but from the inside. As God says through Isaiah in chapter 43: we are honored and precious in God’s eyes. Being precious and honored by God is the source of our own sense of worth.

If in my lifetime I manage to be half as honest and faithful as Miyagi, I will be pleased with myself. And yet, my husband and I have turned down the girls’ pleas to do karate camps this summer. Our ideal goes one step further than Miyagi – Miyagi knows that he COULD neutralize Sato if he had to. For our part, we follow in the footsteps of Jesus. His Way was to allow himself to be killed rather than fight. We do not want to think of using karate even as a last resort, nor do we want to gain the skills to use force effectively – for any purpose. Our hope lies in using no defenses, except the power of the Holy Spirit.

Query for prayerful consideration:

What is the source of my sense of honor and self-respect? Am I grounded in what I want to be grounded in? If not, how do I shift to a better source of honor?

Thirst for God

I have just facilitated a retreat on transitions for a wonderful women’s group.

One of the things I love about doing retreats is the atmosphere of longing for God that retreatants create. In this heavily scheduled day and age, a person who is willing to set aside a whole day for God is a person who is thirsty for God. God created us with a deep thirst that can only be satisfied by God, and I believe that mine and the retreatants’ holy longing and God’s answer to our longing are the transformative power of a retreat. When I facilitate a retreat, I fan the flames of holy longing. In my mind, holy longing is one of the deepest forms of prayer.

When a person is thirsty for God, anything can happen. When a person focuses on a transition in her life, hungry for God to continue the life-long process of transforming her into a gift to the world….. Miracles do happen.

I started the retreat with a stirring poem by Mary Oliver, made all the more poignant by being written soon after her beloved partner through decades of life had died. It is from her recent collection, Thirst.

Thirst

Another morning and I wake up with thirst for the goodness I do not have. I walk out to the pond and all the way God has given us such beautiful lessons. Oh Lord, I was never a quick scholar but sulked and hunched over my books past the hour and the bell; grant me, in your mercy, a little more time. Love for the earth and love for you are having such a long conversation in my heart. Who knows what will finally happen or where I will be sent, yet already I have given a great many things away, expecting to be told to pack nothing, except the prayers which, with this thirst, I am slowly learning.

Query for prayerful consideration:

How can I nurture that holy longing, my thirst for God?

The Quaker Peace Testimony

Around the middle of the 1600s, the 5th Monarchymen in England sought to overthrow King Charles II and replace the monarchy with a new form of Christian law. Quaker founder George Fox was concerned that his followers might be confused with the 5th Monarchists and be charged with treason – a real threat to the fledgling Quaker movement! So George wrote a letter to Charles to explain that Quakers were not plotting against England’s ruler, neither violently nor by inciting to violence.

There was more to it than that, of course. This situation provided George with an opportunity speak about Truth.

George made it clear that his concern was not the kingdoms of this world, but the world of Christ, who is present in each person to teach them Himself. No intermediaries needed or wanted. He believed that if we truly listened to Christ within and lived in keeping with what the Spirit told us, we would act quite radically in the world.

So what did George and his wife Margaret Fell (who wrote an earlier, longer, and more stirring letter to the same effect) expect us to hear Christ say, if we listened deeply within our souls? The Peace Testimony tells us that they believed that by constantly listening, we would live in the Spirit that removes the “occasion for war”.

Their concern was not related to the sanctity of human life, although many Quakers today would explain their commitment to the peace testimony that way. In the 1600s, life expectancy was much lower, and life could be cut short at any time by accidents or infections that can easily be cured in England today. Instead, their concern was for the damage that the perpetrator of violence would do to their own soul if they broke the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”.

Although I am no expert on the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my understanding is that he saw his own role in the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in a somewhat similar way. Dietrich apparently did not believe it was right to attempt to kill Adolf, nor did he try to justify it in any way. He believed his soul would pay the highest price for participating in murder. He believed that resorting to assassination was a sign of failure on his and his co-conspirator’s part – failure of the imagination to find a non-violent solution. He believed that the solution he had found was the wrong one, and used it only because he knew something had to be done to stop Adolf, and quickly. He accepted that there would be a spiritual price for his failure, in addition to being executed.

If our goal is not just to save the life of a possible victim of violence but also to save the soul of someone who might otherwise commit violence, our choices in combating injustice are affected. It becomes clear that if violence is done, both sides lose. In fact, it becomes meaningless to talk about “sides” – there is only one side – and using violence to prevent violence becomes, well, a meaningless project.

This is one of the ways I make sense of Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies. We are not called necessarily to have warm fuzzy feelings for an enemy, but we are called to show as much loving concern for his or her soul as for our own or anyone else’s soul.

Query for prayerful reflection:

What would change in my life if my actions arose as out of as deep a concern for the soul of the “enemy” as for my own soul?