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?

Ups and Downs and Hope

One of the stories I like to tell is the Biblical account of the life of Joseph (Genesis 37-50). I especially like to use this story when I’m with someone who suffers with depression, whose life seems to have lost meaning, or who is feeling overwhelmed at the hardship of their life.

Here is his story in a nutshell: Joseph is his daddy’s favorite child, and he gets all kinds of special treats. Imagine what it feels like to be Joseph and to feel so loved.

Unfortunately Joseph likes to brag to his brothers about how special he is and how he is going to lord it over them. Not surprisingly, the brothers decide to kill him (after all this is the Bible, with stories of great passion and drama!) One of the brothers manages to persuade the others that they should spare Joseph’s life. Instead, they sell him off into slavery in Egypt. Imagine what it feels like to be Joseph now.

When he arrives in Egypt, things are actually better than they might have been. He gets a decent job for someone close to the Pharaoh and becomes quite successful in his service! Imagine what it is like to be Joseph now. 

Then things take a turn for the worse again: Joseph’s employer’s wife makes a pass at him, and when he does the honorable thing and rejects her, she gets back at him by accusing him of rape. Joseph is thrown in prison. Imagine what Joseph is feeling now.

Fortunately for Joseph, he spends his time in prison together with two men who are very close to the Pharaoh. Joseph helps them out by interpreting their dreams correctly. One of them is later in a position to bring him in to interpret two dreams for Pharaoh himself, and Pharaoh gives Joseph a very important position in Egypt. Imagine what it is like to be Joseph now.

Pharaoh’s dreams, which Joseph interpreted, help the Egyptians to be prepared when a 7-year long drought struck the Middle East. Eventually 10 of Joseph’s brothers come pleading for food and they beg his forgiveness. He forgives them, feeds them, and is able to bring his entire family and tribe to safety and comfort in Egypt. Imagine what it feels like to be Joseph now.

After Joseph dies, the descendants of all the 12 brothers end up as slaves in Egypt, until Moses comes along and liberates them after centuries of toil and suffering. Imagine how Joseph would have felt if he had known the plight his descendants would end up in.

What I like about this story is that it shows the ups and downs in a person’s life in great detail. At each change in Joseph’s life, I ask my listeners what they think Joseph might be feeling. Many can relate to what it is like when Joseph is carted off into what must be a bleak-looking future in Egypt, or is thrown in prison.

Then I ask my listeners whether those hardships in life mean that God is punishing Joseph. Every one so far has said, “No, of course not”. I love the moment when my listener says that. That moment is almost always followed by a swelling of hope: Hope that the hardship in the listener’s life does not mean that God is punishing him or her. Hope that God loves him or her. Hope that hard times will be followed by good times. Hope similar to what Joseph knew when he could say to his brothers in Genesis 50:19-21: “Though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

For prayerful consideration:

Though bad things happen in my life, God will use all things for good. I need have no fear; God will provide for me and my little ones.

Resurrection Stories

I have been presented with an opportunity where I can choose to act on something that is unfair. It would have been an easier decision if the unfairness had affected me, but the stakes are raised by this being an injustice against M, my nine year old daughter. It is much harder not to intervene when she is the one paying the price.

M has been playing basketball this season. It was fun to watch the practices. Half the girls couldn’t get the ball in the hoop even when they had no opponent, but I loved watching them try. But then the matches began and the fun ended. The league is for 3rd and 4th graders, and M’s team happened to be almost all 3rd graders. The teams they played had almost all 4th graders, and tall 4th graders at that. M’s team only played one match all season on which the opposing team’s girls didn’t tower over M and her teammates.

This is probably where I should confess that most of the information on actual matches is based on my husband and daughters’ accounts, as well as conversations with coaches and other adults, because as a non-American, I had begged of getting very involved in this particular sport. I have learned to like baseball, but basketball and football remain incomprehensible to me. After a while, it also became too painful for me to try to watch matches, although I’d come for the end of a game once in a while because I wanted to be there for M.

Back to the towering opponenets: It could still have been OK if their coaches had held them back just a tad when they got way ahead, or if the referees had given the inexperienced “midget” team a break once in a while. But no. In the first match of the season, our girls were beaten 26 – 0. They felt not just beaten but humiliated, and most of them left in tears. But the thing that made me an avid hater of basketball was the roughness of the sport and the fact that all but one of the young men who refereed the matches rarely or never blew the whistle for a foul. The bigger and older girls were often quick to realize that they had a free pass, and our midgets frequently left the court with huge bruises and abrasions, but fortunately no major injuries.

The season was the stuff that movies are made of – our girls actually managed to win one match, and that was the final match of the season with a cliffhanger ending with a shot at the buzzer. As you can imagine, that victory was as sweet as sweet can be.

After reading this, dear reader, I hope you can understand why my blood is boiling. So why am I still unsure about writing a courteous letter to the League to suggest a few changes to the rules? Because this basketball season was also an illustration of what the resurrection is all about: new life grew out of the places of brokenness.

The girls’ spiritual growth this season was phenomenal, and I believe they will be better persons for it. The injustice they suffered was not really a big one in the grand scheme of things, and these girls have plenty of other successes in their lives. The girls all had involved adults in their lives to support them through the experience, so it never had the power to do real damage to their souls. Coach J and his assistant K were an important part of the girls’ growth.

Based on the conversations we had in our home, here’s the spiritual growth I think M and her team mates may have had: They understand that life isn’t always fair, and sometimes the best option available is to develop your own standards. The girls learned to define success as working hard,   improving their team’s skills, making the opposing team work hard for every single point. They learned to redefine goals: Winning one quarter of play became a victory, even if they lost in the final score. Reducing the other team’s margin became the measure of progress. Their progress was steady: from losing 26-0 they progressively whittled down on the opposing team’s margin until they actually won. 

They learned something about compassion. I saw M start to think differently about herself. She became a little more aware of the areas in her own life where she might have an advantage over others. She started to think about how her advantages might come at the expense of others. She asked some questions about who she is and how she affects others in the school playground. She articulated a desire not to ever use her advantages in the way she had seen others do it in basketball. All of these concepts have of course been around for a while in our conversations, but M seemed to begin to apply them more in her own life.

I heard a brand new insight into ethics – a beginning understanding that just because you CAN do something doesn’t mean you SHOULD: there were numerous conversations about the fact that the teams that clobbered M’s never broke a single league rule.

I heard M and her teammates begin to understand the value of good rules, laws, and enforcement, and more acceptance even of the rules that may limit her own freedom.

Last, but not least, the members of M’s team bonded like no other team she has been on, and the parents bonded correspondingly. The end-of-season party went on and on and on, and some of the girls were crying when the party broke up. Everyone wanted to be on the same team with the same coach next year, but the girls wondered if that was the right thing to do. They didn’t want to be next season’s 4th grade bully team. They finally decided that they would bring in the two eligible younger sisters onto next year’s team (!) and that – if they ever got way ahead of another team, they would volunteer to hold back and let the better players spend more time on the bench.

Wow. So maybe this is not the time to show the girls how to stand up against unjust structures. But there may be a number of tall 4th grade girls who think that getting the ball in the hoop the most times is what it’s all about, and for their sake I should perhaps get some ideas from M and her team mates to pass on to the League. For M and her friends, their experience of powerlessness has done its work. Maybe it’s time to talk more with M about how God uses even bad things for good purposes, and that God is trustworthy and always at work. We may not see God and goodness while we’re struggling to breathe again after an elbow to the belly, but darkness and injustice cannot ultimately win. Love for each other and willingness to make sacrifices for one another will always win the ultimate victory.

Query for prayerful consideration:

When have I experienced resurrection – the ultimate victory of love and sacrifice – at work in my own life?

What Is Prayer?

Theologians and worshipers through the ages have come up with different ideas about what prayer is. That could have been a lovely thing, bringing more forms of prayer into the common domain and giving us more avenues to being close to God. But that’s not what happened.

Unfortunately the old temptation to claim that there is a Right way and a Wrong way to pray – everyone claiming that theirs was the Right one or the best one – found a toehold. C.S. Lewis’ senior demon, Screwtape, would have been pleased at all the effort we put into fighting with each other instead of actually praying!

So when we ask what prayer is, I think it is important to ask first who gets to do the defining. Throughout the millennia, one of the biggest discussions was over whether prayer with sensory components (often referred to as kataphatic) or without sensory components (apophatic) was superior. Since prayer increasingly became the domain of people who prayed professionally who retreated from the world of farming, manual labor, and hands-on interaction with people and went into a realm of books and solitary prayer in a cell without adornment – guess which form of prayer gained ascendance?

I am oversimplifying, of course. The battle was never decisively won, many of the monastic orders maintained manual labor for their monks and nuns, and some of the greatest opulence grew forth in adornment of churches and in liturgy. Still, labor was generally seen as a way to chastise the flesh. Showing magnificence was seen as something befitting God’s stature, but creating beauty wasn’t seen as an act of worship intrinsic to human nature. The invisible, spiritual, otherworldly was seen as good, and anything that was created in physical form was considered inferior. 

Why does this matter?

It matters because, with the understanding of “formlessness” as the “best” way to pray, many of us have inadvertently put our spirituality and prayer life in prison and thrown away the key. And so, although God is constantly praying within us, we don’t hear God. We think we are bad at praying, and nothing inhibits prayer quite like believing we are unworthy of God’s attention. Screwtape gets to do another little victory dance and exchange high-fives with his fellow demons, who are constantly conspiring to keep us from hearing that we are God’s beloved and living as if we are God’s beloved.

So what is prayer? I think anything can be prayer. Any act or thought that engenders awareness of God or brings forth any of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) is prayer – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I would add harmony and creativity to that list. 

Here are some of the ways prayer can be: holding my hands in the dirt of the garden; a sudden awareness of the beauty of the curve of my daughter’s eyelashes; tearfully holding the fragments of what until recently was the mug my grandmother gave me shortly before she died; feeling the warmth of my husband’s embrace; listening to the birds going crazy at dawn; the smell of rosemary in the air after my hands brush the plants’ leaves; giggling with my daughters; the sensation of warm oil being put on my face in anointing; sweating as I liberate a rhododendron from the stranglehold of ivy; complete concentration in learning a new piece of music.

And these things are also prayer: wrapping a blanket around someone; dropping off a donation at the food bank; writing a condolence card; seeking the right words to capture the essence of the man whose funeral I’m planning; the tug I feel to sit quietly with God for a moment; the ecstasy as my soul is lifted up in singing a hymn; writing a check to a charity; learning about the plight of AIDS orphans; the warmth of feeling something that I can only name as being held in God’s loving embrace; the aha moment in a sermon; the sense of being exactly where God wants me to be even as I lament while I sit with a woman who would rather die than be alive.

I am unable to claim one as superior to the other. They are all just among the multitude of ways in which God keeps the promise to be with us – always.

Query for prayerful reflection:

What are some of the ways in which I experience God?

(Curious about my thoughts about Quakerism and prayer? See my other blog.)