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.
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.
Ever find yourself angry when someone did not do what they were "supposed" to do or be who they were "supposed" to be?
Whether it's a relationship with one person, your whole family or even your church family, there's bound to come trouble and disappointment.
I was recently asked how I had discovered peace given my own disappointments and struggles. I was encouraged because this meant the person sensed peace in me where they had not before! The truth is, peace began to fill me when I started practicing letting go of the way I had pictured things. When I loosened my grip on demanding things and people to be how I wanted them to be, I was in for a surprise!
Guess what happened? Scales fell from my eyes and I began to see how God was providing for me in ways I simply could not see when I was demanding how, when, and who. When I shifted from feeling angry and filled with bitter disappointment when "how, when and who" did not come through it was like the moment in Genesis 28:16 when Jacob exclaims, "“You were here all the time, and I never knew it!"
We all have idealistic pictures as to how our life and relationships should look.
This comes as no surprise, our culture schools us in desire and what it should look like so we pursue and learn to create illusion. This is especially true during holidays or important life events and stages. We have expectations. We long for the perfect experience or outcome.
Actually, the core desire in the idealism is usually good. At the core I find the longing to give and receive love in all its forms from belonging to delighting. It's what we do with the desire as to whether or not it leads to life (and peace). As I observe my own life and the lives of others, here are some places we can go with desire so it remains life-giving:
We can lament.
The process of letting go of what we desired and pictured is difficult. God knows this, it's one reason why there are laments in the Psalms. In a perfect world, our relationships and society would not be so filled with wounded people wounding people (including ourselves). When we do not have the deep relationship we wish we had with a person or the co-workers we pictured, the church we desired or the family gatherings we had hoped for, we can allow ourselves to name, express and feel the loss.
We can let go.
From small, daily letting go to larger, deeper letting go, the smaller ones prepare us for the larger. For example, take Psalm 27:10, "Even if my father and mother abandon me, the Lord will hold me close." Who exclaims such a thing? Someone who has experienced God's steadfast love in the small betrayals and so trusts God in the big ones. This person recognizes that when others cannot provide, God can. Can you relate to others being unwilling or unable to come through? Just like the Psalmist, we can begin to release our stranglehold, our white-knuckled clutch, on whoever or whatever is not giving us what we want, need or pictured. We can transfer the people, situations and ourselves into the hands of God.
We can be on the lookout.
Perhaps one reason the text in Luke 17:21 can be translated either the Kingdom is "within or among you" is because both are true! When I let go of demanding a particular person or group meet my need then I am freed up to see how God is providing everything I need. It could arise within me or come through other people or parts of the created world I did not expect. Recognizing the ways the Spirit of Love is speaking from within ourselves takes practice. Yet sometimes when life is particularly overwhelming, no matter how strong our spiritual life, we are unable to access the Kingdom of God within us. This is when the Body of Christ (when functioning as intended) can step in and offer the steadfast, creative love of God.
May we allow lament and letting go of the way we pictured things to clear our eyes and create space that we may see and receive the Kingdom of God.
This week's post, Trading Daily Quiet Time Guilt for Pots & Pans somehow posted last week. Now normally this would cause me to scurry to find a way to fix it or beat myself up for it happening at all.
Is it it even a big deal? No. But my internal critic doesn't differentiate.
However, I surprised myself. After an initial, "Oh, that's not what I wanted to happen," I let it be. Hallelujah! I think that response deserves it's own post.
I'm in the midst of trading perfection for serenity. Small step by small step. One day at a time.
There's a little phrase in the extended well-known Serenity Prayer that I spent a lot of time with last year at the suggestion of my spiritual director who noticed my constant pursuit (and exhaustion) of doing/being better. See, my internal critics (or rather my whole family of internal critics) think they're helping me by constantly bombarding my mind with their own version of the Lowe's motto, "Never Stop Improving."
Here's the thing: these critical parts want me to be happy. So they tirelessly work to search, compare, and judge to find the perfect standard then work tirelessly to reach it. They think that if/when I reach that standard, I'll be happy. Here's the problem: Perfection in this world isn't possible.
Now being over forty and a spiritual director, you'd think I would've figured out by now how to give up the pursuit. But just as it is in the life of those I work with in spirtiual direction, it continues to be a step-by-step, part-by-part journey of transformation for me as well.
"How about being reasonably happy?" asked Sister Maria one morning last year, "Are you?"
I briefly thought before answering this Sister of Mercy, "Yes, I am!" Both of us smiling she said, "Well how about trying that instead? Read the extended Serenity Prayer," she counseled. So I spent the better part of a year with it.
As I've prayerfully introduced the extended prayer and its whole "reasonably happy" idea, s-l-o-w-l-y my inner critics have started to give up their former jobs and trust that being "reasonably happy" is all that is needed (and expected). So now whenever I'm upset about the way something has turned/is turning out and I'm in a perfectionistic snit, I say to myself, "It's not perfect but are you reasonably happy with it?" The answer has always been "yes" and the moment I surrender perfection, I immediately feel relaxed in body and mind.
As a spiritual director I cannot help but invite people to befriend their humanity and extend grace to themselves during times of "failure," both large and small. I watch and listen, just waiting with them to see how the Holy Spirit is working/will work in and through all the mess and imperfection for their good (as Saint Paul reminds us in Romans 8:28).
How grateful I am that my blog post didn't go as planned! I was offered yet another reminder of serenity. AND the bonus of an invitation to you. If you happen to see me flailing, drowning in perfectionism, don't hesitate to say these two words: "reasonably happy." My inner critics and I will thank you.
It's your turn. You step up to the plate and get ready for the pitch.
How do you hold the bat? Are you gripping it tightly?
My son's first season of Little League just ended and I watched the kids step up to the plate one by one with bat in hand. Most clutched it with all of their might, hoping to get a hit. And isn't it easy to see why a death grip might translate into a better chance to make contact with the ball?
The truth is, it doesn't.
Don't believe me? Watch the below video by Don Mattingly, MLB player, coach and manager. In holding the bat loosely, a batter has a better opportunity to not only hit the ball, but increase their bat speed. In other words, with less effort, they hit it harder and farther! Isn't that a paradox?!
We tend to have a death grip on all of life.
Harder equals better, so we think. This is especially true of the spiritual life...so much efforting. For many of us, we try really hard. If we don't get the results we want, we try harder. Our tendency can be to believe the more Scripture we read or the more we pray, the better Christians we'll be or the more God will love us. Instead we just add spiritual practices to our list of compulsions. We white-knuckle spiritual disciplines like we do people and other parts of our lives, hoping that in doing so we'll have more control and favorable outcomes.
Thomas Keating once said, "When we do less, God can act." He wasn't advocating lack of practice (it's still important for 6-year-olds to practice baseball skills!). The difference is in how and what we are practicing. Are we stepping up to the plate and squeezing the life out of the bat over and over again hoping for a different outcome? Or are we holding the bat loosely trusting that when the ball comes, we'll have the strength and power we need? Keating was inviting people into Centering Prayer, a way of prayer that seems counter to our way of life...being still in silence.
What if we relaxed our grip a bit? What if we practiced holding all things (and people) loosely? This kind of paradox-holding may be the spiritual exercise you need today. So whatever the practices are that help you release your stranglehold on life, those are the spiritual practices for you right now.
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.