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"...
Like a blazing sun your light shines...
my fears flee from your sight,
your fire consumes them.
Yesterday was my daughter's birthday.
An eclipse-chasing friend of ours in Seattle has been reminding us of this epic birthday since we first announced we were moving to Tennessee.
He's most certainly an eclipse prophet, for it absolutely lived up to all the hype he continually forecasted for 9 1/2 years!
Given it's the day after, you've already proclaimed, heard, or read the descriptions like unbelievable, beautiful, incredible, amazing, epic...
And having a birthday fall on the eclipse was a once-in-a-life-time event. But the scene I want to recall isn't about my daughter's "totality" cool birthday, but my 7-year-old son's experience of totality.
During the partial eclipse we sat on our porch, watching my 11-year-old open some gifts and taking "moon bites" out of cucumber slices then checking the moon's progress to see who guessed correctly. We also read Psalm 21 in Nan Merrill's Psalms for Praying. We couldn't help but laugh as we read verse nine...perfect, even the Psalms were in alignment.
My son was super excited, describing how big of a bite the moon had taken out of the sun, checking NASA's website and announcing when we could see the sun's corona in Oregon. Then 7 minutes away from totality here in the Nashville-area, he melted down in absolute terror.
With the shift in temperature and light, overwhelming fear descended upon him as he became aware that he was about to experience for himself what he had only read or talked about or experienced through the stories of others.
Being in total darkness during the daytime and seeing the diamond ring effect in-person sank into his little mind. He was nearly inconsolable as we all laid down on a blanket in our front yard to look up into the sky through eclipse glasses. All of us were trying to pay attention to the moon while at the same time reassure him. Even as he was being held tightly by his daddy, he was still yelling, "I'm scared, I'm scared!" as the sun and moon approached perfect alignment.
Then totality happened.
We took off our glasses and gazed at a sight so other-worldly that we sat bolt upright. At that very instant, his fears fled just like the Psalmist said they would!
He then proceeded to melt down because after seeing it, he wanted more than a taste (just as the Psalmist said he would)!
As a spiritual director, I witness a similar scene with silent retreats.
People sign up for a silent retreat full of anticipation. It is something unique they have never done before and in this culture it's also very rare (even among Christians). They tell friends and family who laugh or scratch their heads not knowing why someone would pay to go be in silence!
Then the day comes. It's about to become real.
Some are nearly hyperventilating due to anxiety (that's no exaggeration). Getting ready to head into extended silence for the first time brings all kinds of fears to the surface.
Yet at some point, as they slowly sink into the Silence, they begin to align with the Spirit of God within them (who has been there the whole time, holding them even as they've inwardly screamed, "I'm scared! I'm scared!").
Then totality happens.
And this indescribable union with the Beloved sends their fears fleeing.
At the end of the retreat, the very people who were so full of panic at the beginning are now in tears because they want the experience to last longer. They find themselves fumbling to find the words to describe what their tears are already saying...that was epic.
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."
What do we do with deep questions?
While similar to last week's Trading Theological Certainty for Freedom, rather than inviting us to ask the questions, I want to consider what to do once a difficult question is voiced.
Why? Unfortunately we're masters at offering too simplistic of answers and explanations whether in conversation or from the pulpit. Instead, let's keep a few things in mind and heart:
Be wary of easy answers.
Whether you are on the giving or receiving end, an easy answer is often not a gift. Writes poet-philosopher David Whyte in his poem Tobar Phadraic, "Be impatient with easy explanations..."
Indeed! Have you ever cringed, felt a shot of anger or been further weighed down when you've read or been offered an easy explanation? You may have wanted to shout, "What I'm wrestling with isn't that easy, if you can't do better than that, don't say anything at all!" If tempted to give an easy answer in response to a person's painful situation or deep question, bite your tongue (especially if it's getting ready to spout "spiritual" words) and offer your simple presence instead! And if said person longs for you to give them an answer, let Rich Mullins' song lyric from Playing Hard to Get be your guide, "And I know it would not hurt any less, even if it could be explained."
Live the questions.
Jesus put it this way, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matt. 7) He just doesn't tell us when or how. So we're to continue to ask, seek and knock.
Rainer Maria Rilke put it this way, "I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." You can read even more in his 1908, Letters to a Young Poet.
Engage the imagination, body, intuition and other people.
You live the questions by living them with your whole self in the whole of life. This is not some mind game or exam you'll be quizzed on later with a passing or failing grade (though there's bad theology out there that resembles such!). Listen to your dreams, both the daytime bidden and the nighttime unbidden. Your body has something to say to your questions, why not listen? You know those inklings, suspicions, gut feelings and hunches? Don't toss them out, they, too are valuable companions. And find at least one safe person, whether a spiritual director, close friend or family member, to engage in soul-shaping conversation. Saint Basil of Caesarea once wrote, "God the Creator has arranged things so that we need each other." In other words, we do not have to ask, seek, and knock alone.
I hope you weren't expecting a black and white explanation of how to respond to deep (and rarely black & white) questions! Whether you are asking or listening to the question, may you enter in with your whole self finding the question or difficult situation a doorway leading deeper into the transforming, life-giving Mystery.
My mom has always kept a prayer list on her fridge. I know a lot of "prayer warriors" who daily present people's requests to God. But I don't.
I'm grateful for the "prayer list praying people." I know I can contact them to add my request knowing they will routinely lift each name and situation to God. I'm just not one of those people. That kind of praying is too heavy for my shoulders.
I read nothing of Jesus or the apostle Paul keeping running prayer lists. Although I think we'd agree that Jesus was truly present with whoever was in his presence and Paul offered prayers whenever someone came to his mind. I just don't think the latter's "pray without ceasing" was about cycling endlessly through a list.
After wading through the guilt of not wanting to and not being able to pray like others, I finally discovered a way of intercession (praying for or on behalf of someone) that better fits me. And my shoulders recognize it as the light kind of burden Jesus spoke of. Intercessory prayer takes different forms. Rather than prayer lists, for me it's "presence" and here's what it looks like:
Presence when with a person. When I sit with you as a spiritual director, I ask the Spirit of God to reveal, direct, and guide you. As you talk, I listen to the holy invitations in your life. I enter into silence on your behalf willing to listen and receive whatever is offered. In short, I give you my full attention. My hope is the same when listening to a friend in casual conversation. And if you're family, well, I continue to work on it...sometimes I'm more present than others!
Presence when a person is brought to mind. Over the years I've found that when someone is brought to my mind, I later discover it's at the precise moment when prayer was needed. A conversation has come up at a later time or I've felt nudged to go beyond prayer and contact the person. Even when we haven't been in touch for years and I have no idea of their need, contacting them has always revealed something was indeed going on that needed prayer! So know, if your name or face crosses my mind or you show up in a nighttime dream, I take it as an invitation to intercessory prayer.
Presence with requests for prayer. If you ask or email me to pray for you (and please do!), I'll pray right then or soon after...maybe with you, usually silently or actually emailing you my prayer. Then I'll let it go, placing you and your request in God's hands and trusting that if I'm to pray for you again, the Spirit will bring you to my mind. If I only pray for you that one time, I cannot think of better hands (or shoulders) to entrust your burden to (much stronger and gentler than my own)!
As 14th century saint Hildegard of Bingen once said, "God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God." And on your behalf and for you, I believe this to be true, whether I pray for you once or one hundred times.
You'd rather be anywhere but here
For when here is not enough
surely it's time to be there.
Though somehow there
always becomes here
and there you are again!
So be here now.
Then you can be
I hate the phrase "holiday rush."
It seems like a cultural expectation. It's one I can let myself get catapulted into way too easily.
Whether it's allowing my December to fill up or speaking and acting like I'm constantly behind or my to-do list is bearing down on me. Plus the holidays can really bring my compulsive perfectionism to the surface which adds yet another layer of drivenness.
How present are you when you're rushing to buy presents? How much of the Christmas season are you truly enjoying as you try to attend and do everything you're "supposed to" in order to make the days merry?
I can barely listen or see anything when in a hurry. And taste...how much of my meal (especially those holiday treats!) do I actually taste when I'm in a rush? Not much.
When the Psalmist reminds us to "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8), I don't think that can happen if we're too caught up in the hustle and bustle. The next line of the Psalm says, "blessed is the one who takes refuge in him." Do I even stop long enough to allow God to be a refuge? Not nearly enough. I don't know about you, but I want to taste more of that blessing.
What if we join God in the present by tasting? It can be our Advent practice this week.
Rather than rush a meal, gulp down a cup of coffee or gobble the Christmas cookie, let's...
What will we discover? How will it shape our day? I wonder if it will allow us some needed space to notice how God is present with us, already offering us refuge (and other good gifts). Perhaps in doing something as simple as tasting, we'll taste the goodness of God.
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.