This may be figurative for you as in, “There’s no going back to church as it was before the pandemic.” Or it may be literal, as in, "I'm not going back…period."
I have heard both. Pastors and parishioners come to spiritual direction wrestling with what the future looks like for their particular church and the Church as a whole.
Others come with the discovery that church attendance was part of a checklist they found relief from during the pandemic when it was no longer something they “had to do” because they couldn’t do it!
But things are beginning to open up. As more people receive vaccines and mask-mandates are lifted, some are feeling a growing pressure to figure out what they’re going to do when it comes to church (this includes pastors!).
Some tell me how much they miss being with their congregation and cannot wait to go back to in-person worship without the worry of virus spread. While these folks have regularly tuned-in to online worship, just thinking of returning to the building brings joy. It will be a type of homecoming to a family and place they long to see and be.
Yet this is not the sentiment of everyone.
Two months into the pandemic, a long-time church-goer said to me, “It’s astounding how little I miss church. That's definitely saying something to me.”
This person regularly comes to spiritual direction and regularly helps those in need, yet they have experienced a growing disconnect with their church over the past few years. The pandemic only heightened, or brought to the surface, what was covered by obligation and comparison. While those around them seemed to be enjoying and feeling nourished by the Sunday morning service, everything felt forced and inauthentic to them.
In spiritual direction they recalled continuously leaving spiritually starving and angry. They recounted every positive-thinking, heart-opening spiritual practice they have tried…and nothing changed. Their discontent and disgust just grew. The pandemic was in some ways a grace, offering a break from the inner turmoil of whether they should stay or leave.
Overly-simplistic truths like “Church is the people not the building” offer little help because church and church-going can be complicated depending on one’s personality, childhood, personal beliefs, and present experience of church-going and church-people. I know this, because I, too, have wrestled for decades, and continue to wrestle, with all that is intertwined with church/Church.
It’s been a long, liminal space for everyone. This threshold, or in-between time, can lead to deep questions or the acceptance of a clarity that has been clouded over by a sense of coerced duty and/or loyalty (whether the pressure comes from within or without).
Could leaving church actually be a sign of spiritual growth? It just may be.
My directee craves more than their congregation can offer. They want to go places theologically and spiritually their congregation is unwilling—perhaps unable—to go. Conversations have failed to lead to Shalom (peace and wholeness).
Even after many years, they may need to heed Jesus' call in Matthew 10, to “shake the dust from your feet” and leave. No need to demonize the pastor or congregation, it’s simply time to move on and continue one’s journey on and toward the path of Life. It’s not easy. There’s no one-size-fits-all way of leaving a place and people one had hoped would be life-giving.
It requires a lot of trust.
As my directee has wrestled with their discernment, I have never given them reasons to stay or leave or suggestions on how to stay or leave. I just listened. Ways of wisdom always arise as we release our stranglehold and wait for God's guidance (for the Holy Spirit is the true Spiritual Director, after all!).
So whether you are joyfully anticipating resurrection through returning to a beloved congregation or grieving the realization that you need to let something die for belovedness (including beloved community) to be born again, spiritual direction is a safe place during the in-between.
In spiritual direction, you will find permission to let your own inner wisdom be your guide. Allow the feelings of pressure and dread to speak. Listen to what your body has to say. Pay attention to the images your soul is offering. Become aware of patterns in the ways God has been at work in your own life story.
For God has been and always will be fully present to you and in you. The fullness of God's presence is equally with the person who worships in a church building (with 15 or 5000 people) as with the person who worships in ways that do not include a church building and its congregation.
To a group of young men, 13th century mystic, scholar, and Dominican priest, Meister Eckhart, said: "Whoever truly possesses God in the right way, possesses him in all places: on the street, in any company, as well as in a church or a remote place or in their cell…” (Walshe, 2008, Talks of Instruction, 6). He also once said,
Some people prefer solitude. They say their peace of mind depends on this.
May the wisdom of Meister Eckhart give us the boldness to listen to our own—and to stay and leave as the Spirit beckons.
Imagine you are being photographed and interviewed for Humans of New York. What story do you tell?
“We are the stories we tell about ourselves,” proclaims Rabbi Rami in his Guide to Forgiveness (p 65). If this is true (and our love of stories, as evidenced by the popularity of Humans of New York along with Netflix and novels, show it is), then it’s important that we know what stories we’re telling.
If the stories you share with others and the stories that live in you were turned into a movie, a series, a novel, or a HONY Facebook post, I’m curious what they would reveal as to who you are (at least in your own mind or who you want people to believe you are!). It’s worth consideration, so let’s ask some questions:
If you were to share 3 life-defining stories, what stories would you tell? When you start thinking through your stories, maybe you discover there are more you want to tell, so try 7-12 stories. Maybe you write down the titles or a brief synopsis to begin with, then take a look at them. Notice how your collection of stories define who you are and how you approach and move through life.
How many of your stories include tragedy and/or suffering? How many of those stories also include redemption and/or resurrection? Notice any elements of surprise or suspense.
Who are you in the stories you tell? What role do you play? Are you cast as the victim? savior? hero? rebel? fool? Is your soul happy with that role? We may not realize that we are playing a role someone else has written for us. Or, we might discover we are typecast in a particularly unfavorable role.
Thinking of stories of harm, hurt, anger, and resentment that continue to burden you…
Are there any stories that need to be edited or re-storied? Which ones are crying out for a rewrite?
Even as strong feelings exist around them…
Is it time to assign new meaning or step out of a role that no longer fits? As Rabbi Rami reminds us--feelings come and go, stories can last a lifetime. (p. 79). We do not have to wait until our feelings are all resolved before we move forward with our life. Sometimes feelings resolve as we move forward with more wisdom and creativity than before.
Your stories matter. Are you beginning to see how that is true?
The story that lives in you shapes who you believe yourself to be (as well as who you believe God and others to be). It also shapes the way you tell stories about yourself to others.
Says Gertrud Mueller Nelson, in Here All Dwell Free, “Know your story, or your story will live you.” If we don't know the story we are living, we can easily get caught up in or be entrapped by our feelings of resentment, bitterness, and anger. They can define us by becoming the soil out of which our story grows.
Misunderstanding, hurt, harm, suffering...they are all a part of life. Everyone’s story includes them. But not everyone allows them to be transformed.
Maybe it’s time to revisit your stories or to write down the names of people in those stories who have caused you harm. Then consider what God has done and is doing with and through those stories. You might be surprised.
A beautiful re-storying is found in the book of Genesis in the story of Joseph and his brothers (a powerful retelling is found in Stephen Mitchell’s book, Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness). After being sold into slavery by his own brothers due to jealousy, years later a famine forces them to seek food in Egypt, where Joseph, who was once a slave, has risen to power and is now in charge of the food supply. He recognizes them, though they don’t recognize him so he plans a creative way for the revelation to occur. His God’s-eye view of his own story allows the present story to unfold with compassion and creativity rather than revenge. Or maybe that is the best kind of revenge!
After the surprising reveal, Joseph invites his brothers into God’s larger story of redemption when he tells them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). He does not pretend the harm did not happen, he just transforms the harm.
Harm happens and usually people don’t mean to harm you (you’re just in the way of their happiness) but sometimes people do. Either way, you are not condemned to your story of suffering, a new story awaits. Will you join in the ongoing work of the Author of Life in transforming your story?
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.
“Must be hard being 10 and already going through dark night of the soul,” 14-year-old, Lainey, said as the two of us drove back from her fencing lessons.
Her comment about her brother caught me off guard.
As a Spiritual Director, I companion adults going through Dark Night of the Soul, but I had not considered how children may, too. I know that children suffer depression which in adults can coincide with Dark Night, but I had not seen Dark Night through a child’s eyes (even though our most memorable moments with God often happen when we are children).
For those not familiar with the concept, Dark Night is a stage in the spiritual journey that Saint John of the Cross experienced and wrote about in the 16th century. He gave words to the “spiritual crisis” that occurs for those seeking union with God or to embody Perfect Love.
Whether happening gradually or initiated through a tragedy or hardship, Dark Night can be felt as emptiness and dryness. Our go-to spiritual practices no longer “work.” Those activities and places of belonging that once brought us enjoyment, no longer do so. We suffer disappointment, doubt, disorientation, discomfort, disillusionment, and even the utter disintegration of our thoughts and feelings about God, ourselves, and life. In experiencing this loss and grief, depression can occur.
We ask questions like, “Who am I?” “Who and where is God?” “What’s going on?” “Why can’t things go back to ‘normal’?” “What is normal anyway?” “Will this ever end?”
This liminal space is entered into many times in our lives as we find ourselves in places and situations we would rather not be (like in a pandemic!). We are in that “in-between” of who we were before and who will be after…it’s definitely uncomfortable. My 10-year-old joins the rest of the planet in this communal Dark Night of the Soul.
He’s asking, “Who am I?” “Who are my friends?” “Do I even have friends anymore?” “Will friends recognize me when I do go back to school?” “Is virtual school even school?” “Will I ever play baseball or basketball again?” “Will I even love sports again?” “Things are too stressful in the world right now, is it always going to be like this?”
Now here’s what makes Dark Night different from depression. When depressed, it’s a good idea to seek counseling and/or receive medication which hopefully helps us emerge from the darkness of depression with great relief. And while there may be inner relief from the suffering (which is something to celebrate), there may not be inner transformation. One may be grateful to simply return to oneself.
During a Dark Night, rather than seeking a way out of the darkness, we are led deeper into it (a Spiritual Director is really helpful in the dark!). This is the place where God loosens our attachments to all we may mistake for God, life, and our true selves.
It can be painful to have these attachments revealed and painful to let go of them. After all, we might really love being known as the athlete, whether spiritual or baseball! We might cherish the feeling we get in imaging and relating to God in a certain way.
However, when we emerge from Dark Night, we not only find relief but we are also transformed. We no longer see or exist in the world in the same way we did prior to the darkness. In other words, we do not return to ourselves, but are a new, truer Self!
An expanded heart is the fruit of the Dark Night. We see God, ourselves, and the world in deeper and wider ways and we are free to love God, ourselves, and the world in deeper and wider ways.
A different 14-year-old girl shared an image that came to her during our Girls’ Group-time of listening to the instrumental song, Unfolding. It offers a beautiful and striking image of what it’s like to come through Dark Night of the Soul:
I saw a newborn fawn.
The fawn had outgrown the only world it knew and she was witnessing the moment of it breaking free of the old and opening its eyes in the new one. As her words convey, the birth process is messy--so is being “born again” into a new way of being and seeing! This is my hope for our world. In the words of Matthew Fox, “A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste.”
In the meantime, we have the birth pains.
Last night I talked with my son about his struggles and the possibility of counseling. With his permission, I share what he said: “Mom, I don’t think I need counseling right now, I have no problem discussing my feelings with you and Dad. And yeah, I’m learning new things about myself, but I’m mad and nothing helps. I hate sports right now. Lainey’s discovered a sport and mine are gone. I can't do anything right. I don’t know when it will end, maybe it never will. But I don’t need any other voices right now, what I need is you.”
At 10, he’s being led deeper into the dark and I’m going to sit with him there, as a Spiritual Director and Mom. Together, in this womb-like darkness, we’ll wait and trust that the God we cannot see or feel, is truly Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”
Anxiety. Anger. Heaviness. Headache. Nausea. Nerve-pain. Tension. Tears.
My 14-year-old woke up way too early this morning and as we met in the hallway both of us bleary-eyed, she said, “Ugh, I’m feeling everyone’s collective stuff.” “I hear you,” I replied.
This is normal. We are all interconnected so you’re not alone today if you are feeling more than your normal share in this liminal space. Jesus felt his people’s collective pain. He shares in our suffering.
However, at this point, unlike Jesus, we often go searching outside ourselves for a remedy that can only come from a deeper place within. Understandably, we want a quick fix. We want to feel better and we want others to feel better.
So we are apt to compulsively scan the horizons of social media, news, books (even the most holy ones!), and other people (even the most holy ones!) looking for “good news” or at least a reminder that we are not the only burden-bearers. But no amount of memes, quotes, or conversations can offer what that pit in our stomach is crying out for.
It knows something, that discomfort, that pain. It has stories to share (for our bodies hold memory). You actually don’t need any new insights, you need to trust the ones you already have! So what do you already have? What do you know in your depths? I trust you know something to be true in your bones. What is it?
Here are some additional ways to listen to the wisdom within (God’s own Spirit dwelling within your own being, your own story, your own body).
By the way, when I asked my daughter what she knew to be true in her bones, her worried brow immediately softened as perennial wisdom rushed from the depths to the surface. She sang, "Don't worry about a thing. 'Cause every little thing gonna be alright."
Bob Marley, Julian of Norwich, Saint Paul, and Jesus, would all agree.
I told a friend the other day that as more political signs go up around me, the angrier I become. Most assuredly I wouldn’t be as angry if they aligned with my own ideology…how telling!
My reaction reminds me of the immense draw to live on the level of agreement.
Do I agree or disagree? If the latter, criticism comes quickly followed by detaching from the author, politician, doctor, Facebook friend, family member, neighbor…write them off…case closed, act as if everything is fine.
But this kind of dissociation never works for me in the long run. It's not case closed. Pretending, ignoring, and stuffing feelings ultimately turns into back pain and headaches which is not loving myself (which then leads to the inability to truly love my neighbor). See last week's post for more on loving oneself.
The growing rift, polarization, and lack of neighborliness leads me to ask, “Who is my neighbor?”
I can’t help but think of Jesus’ parable of an enemy coming to one’s rescue in a time of need (see The Good Samaritan). Or his words in the famous Sermon on the Mount,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…" Matthew 5: 43-44
Ugh. How do you actually do this?
Realizing that we see our own reflection in the faces of others—both the shadow and the light—can add to the pressure. The shadow within is hard enough to face, it can be twice as hard when I see it in the face of others (if I’m even willing to admit I do)!
Who wants to admit that the narcissism detested in someone else can be a mirror reflecting the narcissism residing within one's self? Note: This doesn’t excuse or downplay the narcissistic actions by the other.
When Jesus boldly expanded on his Jewish lineage saying that not only are our neighbors those who belong to our family/group and those on the margins of our family/group, but so are our enemies, it must have stunned his audience.
Even though it was consistent with his teachings about the Kingdom of God and his prayer that life on earth reflect life in heaven, we sadistically like the idea of some people not being included.
But the love of God includes everyone. Jesus reminds his listeners, right after telling them to love their enemies, that God sends rain for those who do right and those who do wrong. And like the moon reflects the sun, we're to reflect God.
So how do we integrate the shadow and light of others, especially that of our enemies? And why should we even try?
When it comes to why, enemy-hating takes up a lot of space in our inner world. It crowds out what is life-giving.
Jesus knew the fruit that hate bears. It depletes our inner energy and resources, crippling our ability to live a life of Love within and without.
“Hatred destroys finally the core of the life of the hater…hatred tends to dry up the springs of creative thought in the life of the hater, so that his resourcefulness becomes completely focused on the negative aspects of his environment.”
Whoever we hate holds power over us. When we release the hate, we release their power over us, and free up that energy to love. Hatred, like love, may start out small (one act or one person), but it quickly overflows into everything and everyone.
So again, what are we to do? How can we begin to release criticism, anger, and hate?
Since curiosity is helping me release the anger and criticism toward myself, I’ve been experimenting with curiosity in the shift toward loving my neighbor/enemy.
What might happen if I chose curiosity over criticism with my "neighbor"?
Another political sign went up, this time with a flag on the porch of someone I’ve never met. Going past their residence, I looked at the signage and their house with curiosity:
After a few wonderings & questions (without providing hypothetical answers!), I found my face softening and a willingness to actually have a real conversation rather than a hardening and hiding in my anger. Honestly, I was surprised.
I experimented with a friend when the conversation turned to politics and we wanted to criticize a group of people. When we shifted to curiosity, the critique faded. Surprise again!
The most recent opportunity happened when someone disagreed with my schooling choice for my kids. I asked some questions instead of focusing on defending myself. They began asking questions. We left the conversation still having differing opinions, but smiling and looking forward to future conversations.
Curiosity may be the spiritual practice for this season.
May it be a step on the path of peace, a way of wisdom, a beginning in embodying the love of God, especially toward all of those putting up political signs!
Finding yourself triggered more than usual with thoughts and feelings of rage, resentment, and judgment? I know I am.
And it's not just toward others (we'll focus on that next week)!
What are we to do with inner voices of critique and judgment, chronic dissatisfaction and frustration? How do we not let ourselves be beat up by them? Is there another way?
Jesus once summed up the entire Scriptures by saying, “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-38)
“Loving your neighbor as yourself” is to “loving the Lord your God,” as the moon is to the sun.
The former reflects the latter.
Like the line from his prayer to the Father, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,“ Jesus teaches and prays for wholeness—inner and outer continuity, authenticity, alignment. Oneness with God, self, and neighbor.
“Loving yourself” is inextricably linked to “loving your neighbor.” Think of those best friends necklaces with two halves, both are needed to make the heart whole.
So let's begin with our part--ourselves.
Tell me, how are you loving yourself these days?
How would you characterize your inner conversations? Are they best friends necklace worthy? Is your inner landscape characterized by harmony and peace? What/who is your inner world reflecting?
Given I resonate with a One on the Enneagram, inner critique and compulsive improvement of myself (& others) along with their counterparts of rage and resentment are easily accessible. They are often lurking, looking to supplant the inner voice of Love. When that happens, I cannot relax so compulsive doing is often the result (and a red flag).
Recently, someone brought up a class series I taught a while ago and said that what continues to stick with her most was how I started every class with the invitation to be curious.
I usually write these three phrases at the top of the dry erase board or handout:
“Be curious. Be compassionate. Be aware”
Given the subject matter is designed to go deeper, I know most classes will challenge our surface-level survival self (our ego). In response, people can expect to experience resistance (and all manner of feelings). That's not bad. There's wisdom in the resistance if we look.
Given what we're presented with on a daily basis right now, there's plenty of subject matter to challenge our survival selves, isn't there?!
At any moment, fear may be triggered, or anxiety, anger, resentment, rage, envy, sadness, guilt, shame, even numbness and avoidance. Instead of harmonious, our inner world begins to look like a daily war zone where there isn't the space or ability to give and receive love since it's all about surviving the day.
What can bring peace to the inner chaos? Certainly not more "shoulds"!
Fortunately, God offers us paths of peace.
One that I've found is choosing curiosity over critique. It almost immediately relaxes inner tension, opening me to the inner voice of Love. Remember, it was Moses’ curiosity that caused him to stop what he was doing and take a closer look at the burning bush. From inside the fire, the Voice of Love spoke to him.
Try it. Be curious.
Once becoming aware of the tone, physical sensations, and triggers, then the next time you experience them, rather than continuing down the path of self-condemnation which can lead to inward or outward lashing out, pause.
Turn your compassionate gaze toward that inner burning (or numbness) and be curious:
Let's play with this concept of curiosity with ourselves. Next week we'll consider curiosity with others.
Facebook's "what's on your mind?" prompt has been taunting me, so here's what's on my mind. It begins with a conversation...
“You know what’s strange? Most people I see who aren’t wearing masks are Christians,” a friend who was standing over 6 feet away said to me. We both shook our heads.
Interconnected. That’s what we are with everyone & everything.
In not recognizing it, we are what the prophets lamented, “foolish and senseless people who have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear.” Which leads to little understanding of how God is present and at work in our world. After all, one way Jesus described the Kingdom of God is “like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough" (he also used the image of yeast to describe leaders’ hypocrisy).
The Reign of Love, like coronavirus, spreads in hidden ways.
We had Thanksgiving dinner at my brother-in-law’s parents’ home this past year. They live less than 5 miles away. Both were diagnosed with COVID-19. His dad died this week. My husband’s grandma was diagnosed with COVID-19 this week, too. And we await the test results of a dear friend as to whether or not he has COVID-19.
The politicization of COVID-19 and seeing people not taking it seriously infuriates me.
I can’t help but think of words found in Deuteronomy 30, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life that you and your descendants may live.”
The “you” being addressed is an entire nation of people. A nation is made of many individual “yous.” So the choice is both personal and communal, they’re interconnected. And they also impact not only those we see right here, right now, but generations to come (we’re seeing this truth with our nation’s racial injustice crying out to be healed).
Granted, the choice doesn’t always look or feel like life at the time. The path of/toward Life often does not.
In the middle of May, we decided that until the virus’ spread trended downward for 2 weeks or we could assure social-distancing measures, we needed to do our best (knowing we wouldn’t do it perfectly) to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” So we cancelled our vacation and we have not let Alex play on his travel baseball team (the latter decision harder than the former).
Does it make any difference? We don’t know. But those are a couple of ways our family has and continues to choose Life. Given our awareness of our interconnectivity to everything and everyone else, including all of you, we can do no less.
My 13-year-old daughter started animating the morning after a tornado blew through our town of Mount Juliet, TN, leaving a path of heart-breaking destruction. At first, it was a way for her to express her feelings. It then became a way for her to speak to others affected by the storm and direct people to give to The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. When she first showed me her completed animation, I was amazed by its heart and simplicity.
One scene in particular continues to stay with me. When the boy grabs hold of the extended hand, he bursts into tears. Rather than stifle them, the touch allows his tears to flow freely and the animation stops right there.
It doesn’t end on a sunny note (even though she wrote earlier in the video, “It’s going to be okay…We’re in this together.”). Having the promise of things inevitably being okay does not mean we are (or someone else is) okay in the moment. It does not mean we need to stop our tears or think there’s nothing to cry about (even if someone does have it worse).
There is a time to leap into action, to encourage each other that all will be okay, to gather in churches to sing praises and offer thanksgiving, to share Scriptures and words of hope to find strength for the road ahead.
There is also a time, especially as the shock wears off, to allow for tears, both individually and communally, and stop right there.
A poem written in 2013 about what led me to meditation & other contemplative practices years ago.
All my old ways of
finding God kept failing
And one rage-filled
day I stopped trying
Sat down wondering
if I was worth finding
Let go of seeking
and began trusting
Many are the ways
seeming right to a man
I started recalling
My ways kept putting
me in charge of
who the Psalmist
found futile escaping.
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.