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.
Today is Halloween and my daughter is dressing up like a crazy cat lady.
In the 13th century she would have been killed.
Sounds ridiculous doesn't it?
It's amazing what fear can do especially when its conduit is religion. Fear and superstition can be passed down for centuries!
How many times have you or another remarked on the black cat that just crossed your path?!
In graduate school, a man studying to be a therapist told me, in all seriousness, that demons took possession of cats so to be wary of them. Years later a woman told me that black cats were associated with witchcraft and satanism so she would never own one. A couple of years ago I told a friend how interesting it was that shortly after being trained in Reiki I noticed how our neighbor's 12-year-old cat began spending oodles of time at our house wanting to be petted. She said, "Well, you know what they say about cats and evil." Clearly she did not trust cats or Reiki!
All of these people are sincere, intelligent people, but their belief (or what they may even call truth) arose out of fear and superstition from around the year 1232.
At that time, Pope Gregory IX wanted unity in the Church so he looked to weed out heretics and heretical beliefs (people and beliefs not conforming to the Catholic faith [now remember there was no Protestant faith at this time]). He also wanted to stop local lords and their mobs from unjustly executing people for heresy before any kind of trial was held. So he initiated the Papal Inquisition thinking it would bring more order to the process and give heretics an opportunity to return to the Church before being killed. He issued the Vox in Rama to Germany's King Henry hoping he would stop the spread of the heretical Luciferian cult. In this papal bull he mentioned some of the cult's devil-worshiping practices, including how Satan took the form of a black cat. And with that document, the demonizing of black cats and their owners began.
Black cats were killed and any peasant woman who owned cats, especially black cats, was automatically suspect. Soon the killing spread to all cats as fear heightened with the Black Plague. Thinking that getting rid of evil cats would get rid of the evil disease, people unknowingly exterminated a needed predator of the rats that housed the fleas that later on many believed were to blame for the Plague.
Choosing the fear-based path can have far-reaching consequences. From generation to generation others follow the fear trail marked out for them.
Here in America, Europeans brought with them their fear-based beliefs about black cats and witches which fueled the Salem Witch Trials in the late 1600s. To this day, black cats' bad reputation continues to haunt them as shelters report that they are passed over for the brighter white and orange cats. And violence toward cats, in particular the black cat, escalates on Halloween.
So let's pause (no pun intended!) for a moment and let black cats beckon us away from the path of fear & superstition. Let every cat and their owner be a reminder that we all hold such beliefs whatever person, people group, or animal we may choose to fear, blame, and even (God-forbid!) exterminate.
In writing this post, I found I wanted to blame Pope Gregory IX but realized I needed to dig a little deeper into the story rather than automatically (and easily) demonizing him! Each time we catch a fear and/or superstition-based belief arising within us (who or what we blame may clue us in), let us become aware of the fork in the road.
We don't have to continue down the same path tread by our ancestors. Yes, it may be harder and take longer but as Deuteronomy and Proverbs urge, we can choose the path of life with discernment, wisdom, and kindness.
Black cats and crazy cat ladies will thank us. Future generations will, too.
One day last week, I had just begun my twenty minutes of silent meditation, known as Centering Prayer, when I began to hear the sound of a synthesizer from 1986.
Not long after, I heard the voice of El DeBarge sing out, "Who's Johnny? she said and smiled in her special way..."
I was not smiling.
I couldn't even remember the last time I heard this song. Maybe you can't either. For a refresher, I've posted the video below so you can better imagine this scene with me...go ahead, have it playing while you continue to read. I certainly didn't expect to hear it during my time of Centering Prayer!
My husband had no idea I was downstairs in silent meditation. I had no idea why he was listening to El DeBarge in the room beside me (especially early in the morning)! I was just about to yell, "Hey, what in the world are you doing? I'm in the middle of centering prayer!" when suddenly I remembered some words from author and former Trappist monk, James Finley.
I had been reading his book, Christian Meditation: Experiencing the Presence of God and he repeatedly addresses external and internal distractions that occur during silent meditation. When they come (as they always have and always will because we're human), Finley advises that we:
Here was an excellent opportunity to enter more deeply into Finley's words and into my meditation practice! So I internally gave El DeBarge permission to endure and returned to an inner meditative awareness. What was I aware of inside? It certainly wasn't a peaceful calm! It was anger and annoyance!
I wanted to yell out, "Hey! Enough of El DeBarge already!" Perhaps a deeper, inner curiosity won out because rather than resist them, I decided to allow my feelings of anger and annoyance to arise, endure, and pass away. They endured a long time.
When the feelings did pass, a thought took their place. This thought pointed out how much I want (even demand) things to go my way...or else! I expected silence with no distractions for 20 minutes and the moment I did not get what I wanted, my anger surged to the surface!
I don't know about you, but when I have an expectation, I tend to expect it to turn out like I envisioned (perfectly). And if it doesn't, I just know it will be ruined (or at least that's how my thinking goes). Have you ever considered how much you internally (or externally) demand things go your way? One of the benefits of meditation is one becomes more aware of things like this!
Though insightful, this thought wanted me to cling to it and spend time mulling it over, perhaps devise a plan for transformation or soak in shame. Instead my time of meditation was inviting me to let ALL arise, endure, and pass away. In specific Centering Prayer language, the moment I notice I'm engaged with (clinging to) the thought, I gently return to my sacred word, the symbol of my intention to consent to God's presence and action within.
Entrusting all of my responses and reactions (and plans for transformation) into God's hands, I allowed myself to return to the deepest truth offered in the present moment--I am fully loved by God just as I am. The humbling thought about my expectations eventually passed away and there was a brief calm (but even that is not to be clung to!).
I would like to say I continued to neither cling to nor resist any distraction, that I allowed every external sound and internal feeling, thought, memory and bodily sensation to arise, endure, and pass away. BUT, half-way through Scritti Politti singing their 1985 hit, "Perfect Way"...
Becoming yourself is.
I knew a brilliant young woman who needed to leave professional ministry to become herself.
Her life was on track to eventually earn the title of "Reverend" in a mainstream denomination along with its retirement benefits. The problem was that this denomination was neither a fit nor was the position of senior pastor. After a long season together in spiritual direction, it became clear that while she had given it a valiant effort,
she was living a story that was someone else's, not hers.
When I was in college, there were para-church ministries who planted the idea in students' minds that if you really loved Jesus you would let go of your secular job pursuits and come on staff with them after college.
As an adult, I watch how some believe leaving a "secular" job to go into professional ministry proves how much one loves and is devoted to God and/or the Church. And it's lauded by many, especially when a big pay-cut is involved.
So many gifted scientists, lawyers, business men & women, machinists, musicians, and others have left their "secular" callings because they thought loving Jesus and the Church meant to do so. And it is true, sometimes Jesus does call us to leave one job for another, as he did his ragtag group of fishermen and tax collectors turned disciples. Although notice if he or Paul called the folks who financially supported them to leave their jobs!
The problem lies in labeling jobs "sacred" or "secular," elevating one over the other, and allowing that to become our primary lens for discernment. Guess what happens? People end up in full-time ministry jobs that are an ill-fit (for them and for those around them).
Ever had a pastor who you could tell had a different calling? I once worked for a senior pastor who was a very gifted naturalist. I learned so much about reptiles and plants from him and watched how his face lit up when he talked about creation that every time I listened to him preach or sat in staff meeting, I wished he'd followed his God-given giftings instead!
Remember 16th century Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther? Well after the word "vocation" had been institutionalized to mean full-time church work, he broke it out of the box again by reminding people that since all are called to the "priesthood of believers," all jobs are ministry! Loving Jesus doesn't mean you must leave your job and become a professional missionary or monk. You can be both right where you are!
Read what Luther wrote in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church:
"...the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks...all are measured before God by faith alone."
...the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks...all are measured before God by faith alone. -Martin Luther, 16th century
Ever witness someone operating out of their giftings? It's as natural and stunning as a sunrise. One year my daughter hated math and the next year she loved it. The difference? She had a teacher gifted in math! Said Saint Basil of Caesarea, "God the Creator has arranged things so that we need each other." Isn't that the truth?! We need creative and compassionate electricians, inventors, counselors, accountants, nurses, yoga instructors, athletes, social workers, childcare providers...their presence changes the world, no matter how big or small.
So how can you begin to identify your vocation? Author Frederick Buechner writes, "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Am I ever glad that math teacher didn't go into full-time ministry! Instead she's living out the presence of Christ in the classroom, where so many, like my daughter, need her.
By the way, that young woman I mentioned at the beginning is now in a vocation she loves which has nothing to do with professional ministry. It's a better fit for her (and for this world)!
Glory be to God.
What would you call a man who shovels his driveway in a blizzard?
How often I am like that man!
Any season of the year, I can be caught with my proverbial shovel in hand.
This morning I'm thinking back to another man.
A farmer who was also a pastor of one church and a handyman for another.
Keep this fact in mind.
He used to begin his mornings sitting in the dark, seated at a table in silence (or I began my mornings seeing him seated in the dark at a table in silence).
Only a coffee mug close at hand.
The first time he startled me. Six in the morning. I was in the building earlier than any other staff member (I had thought). Certainly not expecting to see the shadow of
someone in the side room!
But soon I became accustomed to him sipping his coffee with the lights out. Not moving until the sun came through the window. I came early with an armload and head-full of work to get to, I had no time to sit and stare.
Rumor among our large staff was that he was lazy. They, too, would see him sitting while they rushed in and out of their daily blizzard of ministry activity. Who had time for such an outlandish thing?
One day I stopped and asked him what he did in the silent darkness of the church basement.
He smiled and after taking a sip said,
"I wait and let the pieces fall into place for the day."
Driving my kids back to Tennessee from my rowdy and fun family's 65th reunion in Pennsylvania several weeks ago, I asked my kids to tell me about their favorite moments of our trip.
My shy 10-year-old daughter said, "Well, my favorite thing is that I surprised myself...I actually carried on conversations with people! I was even funny. AND, I surprised myself because I actually enjoyed it!"
Her surprise was met by my own, for I was not only overjoyed but completely caught off-guard, not expecting to hear this out of my quiet, catlike girl, especially not as her favorite part of the trip! It was a good reminder of how we often pigeonhole ourselves and others.
The term "pigeonhole" was first used in 1864 to describe placing a person or thing in a narrow or confined category that resembles a literal hole a pigeon roosts in. As you can imagine and see from the picture, the borders of the pigeonholes tend to be pretty rigid so it's up to the one roosting to leave the safety of the confined space.
Speaking from experience, we often let our expectations keep us from discovering and entering into the "new thing" the Spirit of God is inviting us to discover, whether it be within or without. Instead we keep rehearsing (& posting) old stories and viewpoints. A look over our social media posts or reflecting on recent conversations inside our heads or with others can reveal a pigeonhole or two we roost in.
But might our continued pigeonholing be fear in disguise? For once we venture outside a particular pigeonhole we can no longer dwell within that hole again. After my daughter said she surprised herself by enjoying a conversation, she can no longer claim she's too shy to carry on a conversation (or enjoy doing so)!
Bursting out of the pigeonhole takes courage...what a beautiful spiritual practice she invited me (and now you) into! Let's try it:
* Take a moment and look at the above pigeonholes. Maybe even sketch them out and put a word in each box that you would use to describe yourself (begin with yourself then branch out to another person or situation).
* Now let the below words from Isaiah 43 or II Corinthians 5 blow through your pigeonholes.
“Forget about what’s happened;
don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?"
"...we don’t evaluate people by what they have or how they look. We looked at the Messiah that way once and got it all wrong, as you know. We certainly don’t look at him that way anymore. Now we look inside, and what we see is that anyone united with the Messiah gets a fresh start, is created new. The old life is gone; a new life burgeons! Look at it!"
* Whether experienced as a gentle breeze or wild wind, stay with it for a few moments. Notice which words are being ruffled. You may experience this as a feeling of resistance or fear around a particular word, you may have immediate knowledge as to which word is being blown forward, or you may be more visual and imagine how the words are affected.
* Is there a particular pigeonhole you're being invited to step out of? Write it down, pray, and tell someone! This will help you spread your wings and fly, carried by the currents of the Ruach, the Holy Wind. And, you may even find, much to your surprise, you enjoy it!
More than I thought.
In 2009 I had emergency back surgery for a ruptured disc that caused the worst nerve pain I have ever felt...paralyzing lightning down my leg and out my right toes leaving me screaming.
After the surgery, I'd hoped the muscle pain and sciatica I had experienced on and off since high school would finally be gone...it wasn't. I did physical therapy (having already done chiropractic). Again I was hopeful...it didn't help.
Whenever the pain would hit, I'd chalk it up to accidentally bending or twisting and tweaking an old basketball injury. It would have me either in bed or on the floor with my feet up on the couch for days. I thought my active life of hiking and carrying stuff (like my own little girl) was over. I (& those around me) started treating my back gingerly, making sure I did not lift or do anything that could trigger that familiar shooting pain. You can imagine what I looked like whenever I walked and sat down or did anything that included my back (amazing how much does!).
One night at a breathwork class, after observing me, the instructor told me to read John Sarno's The Mindbody Prescription, saying it would help. I thought this was laughable. I'd undergone the knife and physical therapy, how could a book help? Undeterred she told me how it had helped a friend with my kind of pain. At the end of our time she said, "You're so young, I just don't want you to be in pain the rest of your life." What did I have to lose? I read it.
I haven't been on the floor or in bed due to back pain since. Seriously. That was 8 years ago!
Over the past eight years, beginning with that book, I've learned three things:
My physical self is interconnected with all other parts of myself. How I am spiritually affects how I am emotionally which affects how I am physically and all can affect how I am relationally. What's happening relationally can affect how I am mentally and emotionally and physically and so on. If we choose to dissect and isolate any of these when we have dis-ease or pain in any given area, we miss ways of healing that come when we consider the whole of us.
A lifetime of being a "good girl" coupled with perfectionism affected my body. It led to the suppression of anger and other unwanted feelings which finally erupted in physical pain. My unconscious thought physical pain a better choice than emotional pain. Locating an old area of injury and a socially acceptable place of pain (back pain is what ulcers used to be!), that's what it chose. It's interesting the games our minds can play (thinking that they're helping us)!
Seeing God as a Divine Task-Master perpetuated my good girl-perfectionist cycle. Since we become like the God we adore (as I mentioned in last week's post), my inner critics had no problem replicating this God-like perpetual drivenness to accomplish and improve. Be better. Try harder. Be (or at least act) perfect. And it's no surprise that snippets of Scripture would often run through my mind to back up these "commands"! Anytime I fell short, which of course I did since I'm human, I took the feelings of anger and shame and stuffed them. Eventually my body would no longer "play these reindeer games" (it began warning me in junior high but it took me a long time before I would or knew how to listen!).
Now my body is my friend. I view it as part of the whole. It tells me the truth. When I feel nerve pain begin in my toe, I know that if I don't tend to what feelings are running under the surface, it will soon start in my back. My God-created body has invited me to not only reflect on my God-created emotions but even my image of God. As my image of God has undergone healing and transformation, guess what? It's affected my mind, emotions, relationships, and yes, my body. Thank God for that gift of back pain.
Over the years, the simplest and best prayer practice I've found for healing our image of God and teaching kids how God loves them is based on a prayer found in Matt, Dennis & Sheila Linn's book, Simple Ways to Pray for Healing.
In that book and in a previous book, Healing Our Image of God, they reiterate how we become like the God we adore! So if the God we worship is critical, judgmental and condemning, guess what? We're going to be critical, judgmental and condemning! If the God we picture is stoic and distant...you got it...we're going to be stoic and distant. And this can be passed along from generation to generation.
One way to heal our image of God is to realize that God loves us at least as much as the person who has loved us most.
Take a moment to consider your image of God. What words or images would you use to describe your view or understanding of God? Would you like others to describe you in these ways? If not, your image of God may be in need of healing.
Or perhaps parts of you have a healthy view of God and parts of you do not. This prayer has been instrumental in the on-going healing of my own image of God. My inner critic can often have a very sanctimonious sounding voice and when I'm vulnerable I can easily mistake it as God's until I bring to mind a person who has loved me most. This immediately exposes the false god and I am able to not only receive God's love but let God join me in my vulnerable place (which is transforming).
After facilitating this prayer with countless people, I've tweaked it from how it appears in the Linn's book, like adding the love of a pet because some people cannot recall a person who has loved them in a healthy way. Or sometimes a pet is how God wants to best communicate love to us at a given time.
Here's the prayer for you to try:
Receiving God's Love through the Person or Pet Who Loves You Most
I hope you'll try this prayer for a week and see what happens! A bonus is that it makes us even more grateful for the person or pet who has loved us so well...and what happens then? We cannot help but love them back! It becomes a love circle of giving and receiving (which is exactly what the Trinity is)!! Now that's a beautiful image of God!
I am grateful for freedom.
And to those who have made my freedom(s) possible.
I am grateful I have the right to vote and worship God how I choose. I am grateful I got to marry who I chose. I am grateful I do not live in daily fear in or outside my home.
And yet in the midst of all of my gratitude this July 4th, I am reminded of Frederick Buechner's words about peace in Wishful Thinking:
"...we are homeless even so in the sense of having homes but not being really at home in them. To be really at home is to be really at peace, and there can be no real peace for any of us until there is some measure of real peace for all of us. When we close our eyes to the deep needs of other people, whether they live on the streets or under our own roof-and when we close our eyes to our own deep need to reach out to them-we can never be fully at home anywhere."
I think the same can be said about freedom. Can there even be real peace without freedom?
Will you join me this July 4th in asking the question, "Who is not free yet?"
Who is not free to worship how they choose?
Who is not free to marry who they choose to?
Who lives in fear inside/outside of their home?
Who has no voice in religious, political, and business institutions?
It shouldn't take too long to identify at least one person if not an entire group of people.
Then with the voice of the Holy Spirit and the entire tradition of the Holy Scriptures urging us on, let's take the next step and do something about it. Like those who gave their lives for our country's freedom.
Then this will truly be "the land of the free and home of the brave."
Can you recall a moment of synchronicity?
"Meaningful coincidences" or moments connected by meaning and means not of your own making? When it happens (or at least when I notice), I cannot help but sense that Something is seeing me and something is being communicated. A word, image, or subject matter is repeatedly offered in a variety of ways (unexpected conversations, dreams, nature, ordinary events, extraordinary events, etc.). When synchronicity occurs, I take it as an invitation from God to pay attention. In my own life, it's often a call to grow (consciously) or a signal that growth is occurring (unconsciously).
I had a moment of synchronicity last week.
On Tuesday, I mentioned Fowler's Stages of Faith Development in relation to listening to the Holy Spirit, so it was fresh on my mind a day later when I headed to Congregation Ohabai Sholom with a friend for a 4-week class on The Heart of Jewish Meditation & Spirituality taught by Rabbi Rami Shapiro. Although we had missed the first week, unbeknownst to me, the discussion for the second week was mystical Judaism's 5 Levels of Consciousness! These levels are based on the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and walk one through the deepening levels of relationship with/to God...the exact subject material of my latest blog!
Clearly I was to step further into the stages of spiritual growth! So I'm paying attention, perhaps you're beckoned to pay attention, too.
Just as I briefly shared about Fowler's stages, I'll briefly go over the Levels of Consciousness as I understood them in class.
The 5 (Ascending) Levels of Consciousness:
5. Yechida (Spirit) Singularity, pure Soul/God, no barriers between "I-Thou"
4. Chayah (Soul) "Spacious mind," connected to everyone/everything in the Universe, Truth is beyond ideology, more justice & humility expecting nothing in return, no self-seeking, Higher Self, non-dualism, "I and Thou"
3. Neshamah (Mind) "Narrow mind," ego, survival, intellectual comprehension, identity, spirituality reflects back ego/tribalism, "What's in it for me or my group?", dualism, "I-it"
2. Ruach (Heart) Emotions and "spirit" of person, personality
1. Nefesh (Body) Animal existence- breathing, eating, sleeping, walking around
Just as each of Fowler's stages of faith development are necessary, so too, are the 5 levels of consciousness. While the level of Nefesh or body-consciousness is the lowest level, that does not mean it is to be denigrated. After all, we need a body! Rabbi Rami asks us to consider, "Which [level] is calling right now?" If it's the body level, please tend to the body!
The point of the levels is to remind us that we're beckoned to grow beyond simple existence and emotions. At some point in time, we're also beckoned to grow beyond our own ego and tribe. In fact, authentic spiritual practice will always seek to move us from Neshamah to Chayah or from "narrow mind" to "spacious mind." Rabbi Rami describes narrow mind as "seeing the self as separate from and often in conflict with the world and God." And spacious mind he describes as "seeing the self and other as part of a greater wholeness we call God."
In my Christian experience, a lot of Christian reading, teaching and preaching tends to keep people in the Neshamah level or the realm of ego and tribal identity. This can be seen in viewing Christianity as the one right religion (or even narrower, one denomination as the truest or most orthodox) and celebrating being on the "winning side." It's the belief that Christian music is the only music a Christian should listen to. It can also be seen in people's image of God, often a masculine Being resembling the Greek god, Zeus. Remember, such concrete, dualistic thinking whether described by Neshamah or Fowler's "Mythic-Literal or "Conventional-Synthetic," is a necessary stage or level, but it's not the ending point.
Confused? Wondering what spiritual practices can help you shift from Neshamah to Chayah (or move from narrow mind to spacious mind)? Well, they will not look the same for everyone! This is why a spiritual director can be such a helpful companion on your journey. Plus our ego-minds are masters at using religious language to trap us in Neshamah when it's time for us to grow (we are not apt to see it on our own). This is why I have my own spiritual director!
By the way, Rabbi Rami says there are no ways or practices to move from Chayah to Yechida, it is simply pure grace. I'm not surprised, Chayah gets us out of our own way, preparing the way for Yechida, the highest level of consciousness characterized by non-dualism and Union with the Divine. This should resonate with those who practice Centering Prayer, the silent prayer of consent which prepares one for the gift of contemplative prayer or resting in God. If/when one ever gets to taste Yechida, can you guess what the earmark is? Pure Love. Of God and neighbor. Sound familiar?
Next week: More Synchronicity to Share & The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) as a Breath Prayer
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.