A Theology of Busy-ness

The last month has been one of the busiest in my life, with new or higher expectations of me as a citizen, mother, Quaker, friend, chaplain, spiritual director – and even a few outright crises. The question that arises for me is where God is in this: What is my theology of busy-ness?

As a general rule, I don’t think God calls us to be in a state of perpetual motion. I usually interpret busy-ness to mean that a person has taken on responsibilities to which s/he was not called. I usually think of busy-ness as a failure of discernment – it means we said “yes” to doing something that we really weren’t called to take on. If there isn’t room for Sabbath, for some regular down-time, it is a sign to me that we have not been faithful.

This latest round of busy-ness in my life has me wondering if that understanding was a bit rigid. I experienced God’s presence pretty strongly throughout, and I didn’t have any indicators of being out in front of my spiritual guide. I never did feel cold and disconnected, nor was I prone to irritability – which are common signs for me if I’m out on my own. Instead, it was as if God was inviting me to engage in each of those areas. Prayer came easily to me in the midst of my activities, and so did a number of other healthy responses, such as an absolute and unusual craving for exercise, so strong that I had to give in, and exercise helped me stay balanced and grounded.

So my “felt experience” was of being called into this busy-ness, which led me to re-think my theology: Perhaps there are shorter time periods when we are called into extreme busy-ness, similar to when I was caring for a newborn? Obviously God doesn’t want any of us to be in a state of perpetual sleep-deprivation, exhaustion, and neglect of one’s own needs. But there is that shortish period in a parent’s life when that is what is required. So might God lovingly call a person into a short burst of extreme busy-ness? I think my answer now would be “yes”.  And what might God’s loving care for a busy person look like?

Part of the answer lies in my felt experience: prayer came easily and naturally, I was readily in touch with  God’s loving presence, and I felt a craving for things that are helpful, such as exercise, and I did a better than usual job of asking for help when I did get stretched too thin. In addition, it seems that my husband and daughters seemed more than usually sensitive to my needs, and I got more than my usual dose of hugs and snuggles, and I cooked fewer dinners than I usually do. There was a lot of affirmation from a number of sources. There were times in the midst of a frantic day when I – to my surprise – felt able to put everything down and take a nap or read a novel. This all felt like God’s care to me.

I also had the awareness all along that things would not be maintained at that level of activity, that this busy-ness was just for a short time. It would be wrong to ask for that level of support and understanding from my friends and family as an ongoing thing. Faithfulness entails looking for ways to slow things down and to put Sabbath rest back into the picture just as soon as possible.

Queries for prayerful consideration:

What is my theology of busy-ness? How does God care for me if I am called into intense busy-ness?

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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.

Crucifixion Faith Is Incomplete

The last three months of my blogging life have turned out to be an exploration of different facets of abundance. In November, I explored it from the individual perspective and concluded that a person’s ability to experience abundance doesn’t seem to have much to do with how much money or “stuff” we have at our disposal. In December, I looked at whether our communities of faith support us in feeling abundantly taken care of by God and encourage us to share of this abundance with others beyond our faith community. This month, I’m drawn to looking at whether our beliefs and religious culture contribute to a sense of abundance and joy in life or whether they promote a feeling of scarcity and worry. My own experience is that my particular brand of liberal theology – Quakerism – seems to foster heaviness and a sense of hopelessness about the ills of the world.

What’s the point of considering what emotional state our faith leads us to, the gentle reader may wonder. As a Quaker, don’t you believe that faith arises out of each individual’s encounter with God? It’s not as if a person can just decide to change their faith, is it? Growth and development in faith would arise from an inward experience of God that was different from past experiences, would it not? And that would be up to God, not up the individual, yes?

Yes and no. What I have learned about discernment is to expect that if I am on the right path, on God’s path for me, I will experience the “fruits of the spirit” – a sense of peace and “rightness” at a deeper level than personal emotions of joy, anger, or sadness. If I feel heavy, worried, and that nothing I do can make a difference in the world, it makes me think I may inadvertently have wandered off God’s path.

So when my crucifixion vision (see 1/10/08 blog entry) led me to feel burdened and heavy at a deeper level, and then later to feel drawn toward the joy and hope of evangelical Quakers or a homeless woman (whose experience I wrote about on 1.8.08), I had to conclude that there was something about my past experiences that was, if not wrong, then incomplete. So I asked God if there was something more God wanted to show me, something that was missing or incomplete in my experience. I asked God that I would experience abundance, and only 4 days passed before God answered my prayer and gave me experience of abundance (see 12/11/07 entry), which only went away with the gluttony of Christmas (note to self: I need to do more discernment with my husband and children on how we do Christmas)!

I do think that we can participate in bringing about a change even in an experientially-based faith – if we genuinely desire God to reveal more of the Truth. My presumption is that it isn’t God’s doing if my faith has taken a depressive and hopeless turn. Instead, I probably got “ahead of my Guide” and at some point started listening more to myself than to God. I am sure God is pleased when I remember that I am a follower of Jesus, and that a follower’s place is behind the Guide. When I follow, the Guide will  show me the fullness of Life.

Prayer:

God, is there something new you would like to show me?

Money, money, money…

I must confess that I started my work at the Recovery Cafe (see 12.5 blog entry) with some misgivings about the cliches that seem to me to emanate from 12 Step environments and all the Saturday Night Live-type routines that have grown out of them. Maybe the program is a bit simplistic and ritualized? Maybe as a Quaker I have a bit of a bias against “programs”? Anyway, since my job was to lead an exploration of Ignatian prayer practices, I figured the 12 steps would be at a bit of a distance and it would be fine.

However, this committed Quaker, who has come to love and use the tools of Ignatian spirituality and discernment, has now discovered – experientially – some core spiritual practices at the center of the recovery movement that she thinks might speak to our spiritual condition. This discovery ties in with my month-long blog exploration of how hard it is for comfortable middle class people like me to experience and trust in God’s abundance.

Here are the gems I have found and wish to share with you:

People in recovery are supposed to focus on the good things in life and not dwell on things that are painful or unfair. The idea being that if addicts get to feeling sorry for themselves, that puts them in danger of using that old coping strategy of drinking or using. So the recovering addict focuses on looking for things in life for which to be grateful. Also, s/he is encouraged to take for granted that life will bring many disappointments, injustices, and pain. No big deal. Certainly no excuse for “needing a drink” to feel better. And the third component of avoiding self-pity is to exercise the compassion muscle by focusing on helping and supporting other people in their times of trouble. 

Gentle reader, I wonder if my focus on needing a new computer, my fear that choosing a path of greater simplicity might harm my marriage or my daughters’ well-being, my need to set money aside for my retirement or my daughters’ college fund are sometimes just an unhealthy coping skill in response to self-pity? Don’t miss the word “sometimes” in the preceding sentence.

The greatest gift of the recovery process to my spiritual life is the way I think it helps me discernment between the things I truly need and the things I only imagine I need. If I steep myself in gratitude, compassion, and acceptance that life does indeed bring disappointment/injustice/pain, I believe I can be more trusting of the next impulse to, say … put money in my daughters’ college fund? I’ll know it’s less likely to be the old unhealthy coping skill of relying on money to fix things, and more likely to be a genuine response to the calling God has given me by entrusting my daughters to my care.

The women and men of Recovery Cafe have shown me the perfect antidote to our society’s addictive reliance on money as the tool with which to address the injustices, disappointments, and fears that life inevitably will bring: compassion, gratitude, and acceptance.      

Query for prayerful reflection:

God, I admit that I am powerless over money – my life has become unmanageable.