We all experience the "voice" of the Sacred Presence. Whether or not we pay attention or correctly identify it requires ongoing discernment. One thing is for certain, it's hard when you're hangry (hungry + angry)!
On Sunday mornings, my family spends a little time in guided prayer. We often get ideas from Imaginative Prayer for Youth Ministry: A Guide to Transforming Your Students' Spiritual Lives into Journey, Adventure, and Encounter by Jeannie Oestreicher and Larry Warner (I'd use this resource even if I didn't have kids!).
The past two weeks, we were "present" in the desert with the exhausted Elijah who needed to rest and eat. Then we were with Elijah again as he experienced God's voice. We, too, received God's invitation to rest and eat in the desert as well as recognized God's voice as we stood beside Elijah on the mountain.
After some time in silent reflection, we share what we experienced. I'll share mine.
"What are you doing here?" is the question Elijah hears God say to him in I Kings 19:13, twice.
As I stood at the mouth of the cave on the mountain in my mind's eye, I realized the power of gentleness through that question. It took me a while, though. The first time, I felt criticized.
Tone matters. How we hear God's question to us reveals our current condition, our image of God, and how we interpret and then respond to the question.
When I am exhausted, I can hear things in a particular way that perhaps the speaker never intended. I can also miss things the person intended me to hear. My response often reflects my tone deafness. My husband and kids can attest to this!
Only after resting and eating, did Elijah have the strength and ability to look, listen, and recognize God's response to his complaint.
In Chapter 19 of the book of I Kings in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament of the Bible), we're told that God had Elijah go stand on the mountain and watch for the Lord. A whirlwind, earthquake, and fire came and Elijah did not recognize God in them. It was in what followed the fire...a gentle whisper (the sound of sheer silence some translations say)...that Elijah recognized the voice of God. And God asked Elijah for the second time, "What are you doing here?"
The second time, I became curious as to how we were all hearing it in our imaginations. I had my family try something after the time in silence. You can try it, too:
For me, the question changed completely! It went from a judgmental, accusing, you-should-be-doing-more tone, to one of care and concern. The voice in the whisper reminded me of the caring words and actions of the angel of the Lord who had offered much needed rest and food to Elijah forty days earlier.
And this reminded me of how the gentle whisper of God never fails to silence my inner critic and relax my body. I no longer feel the urgent need to run and hide (or get compulsively busy). When I listen to the still, small voice, I am ready to hear more-- even if that more is something that in a hangry moment I would not be open to hearing. Like, "What are you doing here?" which could be literal (in this physical place) or metaphorical (in this place in your life).
God (& my family) knows that after food and rest, I am ready for an honest conversation!
How does your body let you know?
Here's how mine lets me know that the chaos is starting to overwhelm:
...eyes feel strained and tired.
...brain feels like an electrical storm of overstimulation.
...breathing is shallow or I'm holding my breath.
...adrenaline surges, making it hard to be still.
...chest feels heavy and tight with anxiety.
...shoulders and neck get tense.
...head begins to ache from all of the above!
This is a sure sign to me that it’s time to step away from the phone, stop scrolling through social media, or reading/watching/listening to the news. I won’t find what I’m really looking (or longing for) anyway!
And no, I'm not not talking dissociation (disconnecting with reality) and ignoring what is going on in the world. I'm talking about connecting with reality as it is experienced and revealed by our bodies so that we can connect to reality as it is outside of our bodies in a healthy way.
What if we asked ourselves, "Who is the me I'm bringing to the world (and to the issues at hand)?" Am I bringing my frantic, survival self or my grounded, truer self? Which would you prefer, by the way?
How do we do we connect with our true self (hint: not through more social media or news!)?
By diving under the chaotic surface of the waves (remember they’re connected to the calming deep but few venture to go there!), we discover our truer self. In the deep we surprisingly find we’re able to breathe, rest (physically & more!), and receive what’s next (or what isn’t next).
Instead of my frazzled, overstimulated, chaotic mind making decisions, I can bring to the world (& all its issues) the contemplative mind…the mind of Christ.
So here’s some permission. Dive (or if you’re extremely tired, sink) into the deep for a while.
Still don’t know how? Are you breathing as you read this? That is your starting place. Then maybe some Spiritual Direction for further exploration.
Christmas decorations (including outdoor lights) remain up at our house for the “12 Days of Christmas” culminating with Epiphany on January 6th. The candles will be left in the windows through Candlemas on February 2nd, but that’s for another post.
Through the years I’ve looked for ways, old and new, to celebrate the rhythm of the liturgical year (the Christian/Church calendar). Our "Christmas Card Prayer Path" is a favorite.
Throughout December as Christmas cards come in, we often take a quick glance before putting them in a card holder on the wall. When Epiphany, also called “Three Kings Day,” arrives on the 6th, we gather the stack of cards and lay them end to end, attaching them with tape.
After all are attached, the kids form whatever path shape they want leading to the nativity with its Christmas star overhead. Some years it has been a swirl, others a zig-zag of jagged turns, and once it looked almost straight! Isn't that the journey of life?!
They choose which Magi to accompany, then for the next 30-40 minutes, we join these learned “Wise Men” from the East on their journey to meet Jesus, Love Incarnate. Their journey (and ours) begins with the first card they are set on. As the Magi move toward the manger, the name(s) on each card are read and a blessing is said for each person, family, or group.
It’s usually something simple like, “Thank you for being part of our journey…
…may you be blessed with peace & joy this year.”
…may the love of God be with you.”
…may you continue to give and receive love.”
Throughout the prayer path, we pause when we hear, “Who’s that?” or “Do I know them?” We get the opportunity to introduce names and faces to each other. There are memories shared and stories told. We discover new friends on the journey. And we get to enjoy the humor and beauty of the cards themselves (deciding that some need to be added to our crafting and collaging materials!).
When we reach the last card, we say a prayer for all of those beyond the cards who are part of our journey and we theirs. Our prayer ends with acknowledging that although we’ve made it to Jesus with the Magi, it’s just the beginning of this year's journey of incarnating Love.
*Magi from Build Your Own Bethlehem by Gertrud Mueller Nelson and The Christmas Star from Afar Wooden Nativity Set and Book
My friend, Betsy, recently shared with our Centering Prayer group the Jewish practice of "100 Blessings a Day" (as mentioned in the Talmud). It's a way of cultivating gratitude (& awe!) by finding 100 things you are grateful for each day.
I can’t help but think of The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon and his weekly “Thank You Notes” segment! Whether weekly like Jimmy or daily like the Talmud, our own practice can be just as fun and meaningful. We might even choose some background music for our “100 Thank-Yous (if you want Fallon’s music, one fan has put it on a 14-minute loop).
Says Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer, “True prayer is a bursting forth of the soul to God. What can be more natural and more human than turning to God’s listening presence with our thanks and our burdens?”
As we get ready to say goodbye to 2020, most of us would agree it has been a year of burdens for all of us (some of us more impacted than others, some burdens heavier than others). But before it leaves, pause with me and see if you can "burst forth" with 100 things (no matter how small) for which you are grateful.
My little family of four decided to do this (without music for now). So in no particular order:
Once we started, it was hard to stop!
“Whoever does not see God everywhere does not see Him anywhere,” said the Hasidic Kotzker Rebbe. It's also true that whoever sees God everywhere can see God anywhere...even in 2020!
May we enter 2021 with the gift of 100 Blessings (our Thank You-Notes to God).
So you didn’t see the Christmas Star.
And your plans for Advent fizzled with the busyness of your schedule.
Your own to do list continued to grow as the need around you continued to expand.
And now it’s two days before Christmas!
But you still have the deep longing to connect with God.
Are you disappointed? Feeling guilty? Angry?
It’s true God’s mercies are new every morning, it’s also true that they’re new every moment.
The majority of people I met with in Spiritual Direction this week thought their spiritual preparations for Christmas were a bust.
“We have this moment,” I reminded them.
Here’s what happened…
Some looked over the last few weeks and discovered ways God had been with them the whole time! Even in the daytime chaos, even in the quiet darkness of their insomnia at 3am, God was there!
Through guided prayer, some were surprised at who appeared in their imaginations to speak words of wisdom or simply remind them that they were not alone.
At the end of their sessions, I heard:
“Wow, I thought I’d lost any chance to get in touch with God in a deep way before Christmas!”
“I feel like I just received a Christmas gift before Christmas!”
“Knowing how God has been with me even when I haven’t been aware has changed everything for me.”
“This has been so meaningful, I have missed being at church through Advent but now I realize that I’ve never truly been alone. The Communion of Saints feels real to me and I feel so much relief and hope.”
All was not lost! The guilt, anger, and disappointment disappeared in a moment.
If you’re reading this, you’ve got this moment, too. Here are a couple of ways to enter into it:
Light a candle & or listen to the sounds around you as a way of becoming present to this moment. Now…
Every moment is a gift.
No matter how much chaos surrounds you, no matter how much is left on your to do list, God's mercies are available.
Peace & joy to you this Christmas.
“Are you afraid of leaving your congregation alone in the dark with God?” I asked a pastor who simply could not understand why I would blow out all candles during a Longest Night Service.
He’s not alone. We tend to rush to bring light into darkness in the same way we rush to fill silence with sound.
Pastors, especially so.
They feel the weight of proclaiming and reminding. Wanting to make sure people know there is hope and “Jesus is the Light,” they constantly talk about hope, repeat Jesus’ name, and keep the lights on, candles burning.
Honestly, they’re just as afraid of the dark as most.
As a Spiritual Director, I’ve had plenty of pastors on silent retreats and plenty who don’t want to come at all because silence is scary. It seems unproductive and too revealing…which is more frightening?! Given my years as a church staff member and years working with church staff members, both are equally so. So much so, some never dare to come or they walk away from the discomfort never to return to a silent retreat.
But discomfort is a doorway to deep transformation. And pastors can be like helicopter parents trying to shield those in their charge from the awkward and uncomfortable feelings that come with silence and darkness.
But, have you ever experienced God in silence? In darkness? I have. I’ve also watched and listened to stories of how others have experienced God in silence and darkness. And guess what naturally arises? Hope. And guess where people discover the Light of Christ? Arising in their midst, even from within their very selves!
After all, God is everywhere--within and without.
The Psalmist proclaims in Psalm 139:12, “Darkness and light are alike to You.” Then he goes on to talk about God forming him in his mother’s womb (another place of darkness where God is present and at work). No lights needed. God is there. And are we not born from our mother’s womb and continue in the womb of the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being?
Light and dark are part of every life and God is with us equally in both.
Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is in our midst, even within our very being (Luke 17:21). So we do not have to be afraid of the dark, the inner light never goes out. It just may take some time (& discomfort) to become aware of it.
14th century Persian poet, Hafiz of Shiraz, echoes this reality when saying, “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.”
For some reason this scares us, so we look to pastors to talk to us about the Kingdom rather than experience it for ourselves.
However, when a pastor (or anyone!) dares to sit in the discomfort of darkness and silence, allowing uncomfortable feelings to emerge and giving themselves permission to rest from all the doing, they begin to radiate trust.
This trust allows them to entrust those in their care to the discomfort of silence and darkness because they know God will meet each person in whatever way is needed.
Right before an overnight silent retreat a person came up to me after dinner and in all seriousness said, "I'm on the verge of a panic attack the closer we get to going into the silence, I don't know if I can do this." I replied, "I can see why it's scary to you. Know there is a nurse here if needed. And, you're free to leave, but I hope you'll give the silence a try." The person stayed and now they sign up for almost every silent retreat!
In befriending silence and darkness, the discovery is made that rather than be afraid of them, they in fact, can be a gift—an opportunity to be still and know that God is everywhere, in our mist, within our very being.
A few weeks after talking to the one pastor, another emailed me and asked if her Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, could use my liturgy for their Longest Night Service. Mine had been the first liturgy she had come across that included blowing out candles and letting people simply be with God in the dark. She thought it would be powerful, especially this year, to let her congregation experience God’s presence in the darkness.
I could not help but smile.
Advent is a time of gestation. Much like the discomfort and anticipation of pregnancy, we wait on the arrival of what is deeply hoped for and anticipated.
A few weeks ago I was in a sensory-deprivation tank floating on 1500 pounds of salt. It's supposed to be (and usually is) relaxing but that day I kept squirming around...like a baby in the womb.
Last year I went to a Benedictine Sister for both Spiritual Direction and healing touch at a monastery where I would be facilitating a retreat the following day. During the time of laying on of hands, when she got to my abdomen she said, "We are in the womb of God who is birthing us. Birth pains are difficult, but we WILL be born."
I teared up as I heard these words of deep hope, because I had been restless then, too.
In liminal space, I felt the strain of being "betwixt and between," especially in relationship with my own religious institution where the leadership continued pulling back from engaging contemplative practice with each passing year. Knowing the transformative power and wholeness found in contemplation and action, I continued to hope. What this hope looked like in regard to my faith community, I found myself full of questions with no easy or sure answers.
Her words of hope spoke to my soul but did not take away the struggle.
Contrary to idealistic views of hope, theologian Jurgen Moltmann (known as the theologian of hope), writes in Experiences of God, "...whenever faith develops into hope it does not make people serene and placid; it makes them restless. It does not make them patient; it makes them impatient. Instead of being reconciled to existing reality they begin to suffer from it and to resist it."
The Sister's words of hope gave me deep permission to accept the struggle and discomfort as part of the process of rebirth.
When I realized that it was not wrong, but natural, to be squirming in the float tank, I found myself smiling with a newfound acceptance. Instead of trying to be still, I playfully allowed my arms and legs to stretch and move however they wanted. It felt freeing.
If I could allow this restlessness in the float tank, how about other in places of my life?
After all, Saint Paul reminded the people in Athens of the perennial truth of their own Greek poets when he quoted, "For in him we live and move and have our being."
Sometimes we rest, sometimes we walk, sometimes we wriggle in the womb of God.
We've got magnetic, chocolate, and cheese Advent calendars and we've just started lighting our Advent candles, but something my daughter said stopped me in my Advent tracks.
"I hate taking down our fall decorations, I feel like I missed out on enjoying them as much as I could have."
To which I replied, "But you're in the house all day, everyday!" (She's doing virtual school the entire year.)
To which she replied with a smile, "But I'm worrying a lot, so am I REALLY here?"
We both laughed.
But I heard her longing and it got me thinking about how we often miss the gifts that are right in front of us like beauty, rest, fun...
She is often busy with virtual classes during the day and often does homework right before bed. We're often busy with work and household chores during the day and often are on our phones or falling asleep watching Netflix. Days and evenings can easily come and go in a whir of busyness and distraction.
So a few hours later, I said, "I have an idea. Every evening before bed beginning December 1st, let's put down phones and homework, shut off the television, and turn off all the lights except for Christmas lights and candles. Let's sit in silence together for the number of minutes matching the day it is, which means we begin with 1. You can sit or lie down, eyes open or closed, and just take in the surroundings. What do you think?"
My daughter and husband were on board immediately, my 10-year-old son nodded slowly but with some skepticism (which makes me particularly excited for him!). So I'll set my Centering Prayer timer for 1 minute tonight and we'll enter into the Silence.
A new Advent practice. Doing nothing. But present to everything.
Whether in the morning, during a lunch break, or before bed, whether the 1st or 14th, you might experiment with Silence as both a way of entering into and a companion during this Christmas season.
A young chaplain, exhausted and frazzled by her job in a busy hospital during this time of COVID and tending to her own young family, met with me online. She wanted to know why she simply could not do the self-care things that she encouraged others to do, especially during a time when she really needed them.
I said, “Well, there were times when Jesus was exhausted, too. So if he was, you will be, too. And your soul probably doesn’t want anything else to do! Want some help in discovering what it wants instead?”
Experiencing relief simply by being reminded that Jesus experienced exhaustion but also intrigued, she said yes and I had her go get a piece of paper and a pen.
There’s a simple practice I developed for a silent retreat years ago that I still revisit with those in leadership or caregiving positions whether inside or outside the church. A cup or glass and a Sharpie are also an option but a journal and pen were easier for her. Note: You might want to stop reading and grab paper and pen, too!
Then I walked her through these 3 Steps for Discovering Your Soul's Thirst:
She was surprised. First, by how quickly her cup filled up (she didn’t think she offered that much!) and more importantly, what she circled had nothing to do with another thing to do! Instead of another item on her to do list, her soul was craving the gifts of “presence” and “being seen.” This led to reflecting on her week and a guided prayer with Jesus.
“Where have you been invited into or even experienced ‘presence’ and ‘being seen’ this week?” I asked her. She quickly realized that it was not in her times of trying hard to do self-care or connect to God during a formal service or quiet-time, but an out-of-the-spotlight interaction with two people in a hospital room had brought a deep feeling of connection, presence, and being seen. It was a holy moment being offered to her to savor once more.
After a few moments, I asked her if she was interested in meeting with Jesus by the well that she’s been passing out cups of Living Water beside. She said “yes” and we moved into a time of guided prayer based on an interaction at a well between a Samaritan woman and the Jewish Jesus as described in John 4:4-10. When walking groups through this prayer, I offer a little more context that I didn’t need to do with the chaplain but will briefly offer here.
In the story we discover that Jesus is physically tired and thirsty. The Samaritan woman is spiritually tired and thirsty, though she hasn’t admitted it yet. He asks her, a woman and enemy of the Jews, to help him with his physical thirst, later saying he can help with her spiritual thirst.
He begins with his own vulnerability, his own parched soul.
In so doing he reveals himself as a Friend of her Soul and promises he can give her Living Water that can become a wellspring within her, deep and lasting. She can draw from it at any time.
This same promise is offered to our thirsty souls today. We don't have to wait for another time in the future, we don’t have to wait until chaos or external need subsides.
Jesus is already waiting at the well, in the heat of the day.
He begins with his own thirst which offers an invitation for another to be honest about hers.
When we pause from passing out cups in Jesus' Name, we can hear with the Samaritan woman His words, “If you only knew what God is offering...you would have been the one to ask for a drink, and he would have given you living water.”
Shall we ask for a drink?
As you close your eyes, imagine the well you've been passing out cups of water beside. It may be a literal well or a metaphorical one, like your place of work. Whichever it is, you find Jesus waiting for you there. You might greet Jesus and allow him to greet you. Take in the scene with all of your senses (what do you see, hear, smell, taste, touch?).
Be there a while and become aware of your thirst. What does your soul thirst for in this moment? You may have circled it on your cup.
Trust, be curious, remembering that Jesus is a Friend of your Soul. Ask him for a drink of this water he's offering that deeply renews and restores.
What is Jesus' response? Perhaps he offers a word, action, expression, instruction, or maybe he simply wants to be there with you...
Allow the scene to unfold. You might continue a conversation like the Samaritan woman did or take a refreshing drink, or simply rest there, whatever your soul needs at this time. Be there with Jesus, drink deeply. I'll close with a prayer.
Says the prophet Isaiah, “Yahweh will always guide you, will satisfy your needs in the scorched land; he will give strength to your bones and you will be like a watered garden, like a flowing spring whose waters never run dry.” Says Jesus, “The water I shall give you will become in you a spring of water, welling up for eternal life.”
Friend of Our Soul, may we drink deeply and discover within our own lives the ways you invite us to care for our souls even as we care for the souls of others. Amen.
At the end of our time, the young chaplain, calm and with a smile on her face, said, “Just what I needed. I’m still physically tired but my soul is invigorated. I can be both. That feels so good.”
How many of you are giving, giving, giving? Or producing, producing, producing?
Years ago, a Spiritual Director offered me a great image after hearing my story of burnout as a youth pastor. She said, “People in ministry often stand by the Well passing out cups of Living Water to others and forgetting to drink from it themselves!”
I was so busy being productive and constantly giving of my time and energy that I had neglected my own soul. I mistakenly thought my stamina and ability to be productive was soul food because after all, it was in service to God! My subsequent burnout said differently. EVERY area of my life was impacted…physical, emotional, mental, relational, & spiritual. No area was left untouched because all areas are interconnected.
We have a tendency to separate the body and soul, but according to the Hebrew language, there is no division between the soul (“nephesh”) and the body. So, YOU DON’T HAVE A SOUL YOU ARE A SOUL! You may have heard this before, but it’s true. You are a living, breathing, physical being, A WHOLE MADE UP OF MANY PARTS. Any of those parts can be trying to get your attention and tell you the truth.
My own dualism 20 years ago, viewing my body as separate and of lesser importance than my soul caused me to not listen to the wisdom my body was offering me. My body became a hurdle to my spiritual work and this was a major reason I burned out.
Over the years, I’ve met with countless pastors, ministry leaders, those in nonprofits, and care-givers of all kinds who come to Spiritual Direction in a similar state…weary and parched from trying so hard, giving so much, and on the verge, if not in the middle, of burnout.
What were their indicators that their souls were parched? Here are some…
Any of these sound familiar?
How about you, what are the indicators that your soul is parched?
I know Thanksgiving is coming up, but what if you stop giving to others just for a moment?
Offer a cup of Living Water to yourself by listening. Are there any parts of you (or your life) that are trying to get your attention? Do you need help listening? Or help stopping?
Spiritual Direction is a great place to stop and listen for the wisdom within your own life, your own body. I promise, these parts of you are eager for you to listen to the wisdom they hold. They are only a moment’s notice away—and will give thanks when you finally pay attention!
Next week we’ll take a look at what your soul is craving (& it's more than pumpkin pie!).
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.