A Quiet Place

Once a month I slip away for a day of solitude.

If you are thinking, “Wow, that must be nice, but I could never afford that luxury,” read on.

When I first considered a day apart each month–a day to leave all the demands of life and ministry behind in favor of several hours of simply being in God’s presence–it seemed formidable. Could I make the time? Surely it would be impossible to incorporate this into the rhythm of my life. And even if I could, what would I do? Oh, wait…it’s about being, not doing. (That was enough to make my Martha personality hyperventilate!)

But, honestly, desperation is the true mother of invention…or at least of intention. A deep desire to simply be still before God was gnawing at my spirit like a hungry infant demanding to be fed. Eventually I gave in, reserving a day at my favorite retreat house. It was glorious! I came home refreshed and refilled. So I studied my calendar and chose one day I thought I could spare each month for the next three months. Then, at the end of that three months, I booked a day for the next three months–without carefully studying my calendar. It became no longer about a day I could spare. Now it is about putting the retreat day on my calendar and scheduling everything else around it. Who would have thought it would work? Not me! Yet I’ve integrated this into the rhythm of my life and, amazingly, have never felt the time was ill-spent. Everything has gotten done that needed doing.

 

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Yesterday was July’s retreat day. As I got on the road, I had an overwhelming sense of Father God welcoming me, inviting me to just come and be with him. After the flurry of throwing my “stuff” in a bag (more about that in a minute) and getting out the door, his invitation triggered a necessary slowing down. Funny how that aligned with the need to literally slow the car as I left the highway for a country road. As I made the last turn onto the narrow lane that leads to the retreat house, I smiled at the cows lolling in the shade, lazily chewing their cud, hardly noticing my noisy intrusion into their morning reverie. I pulled up to the house and disembarked to the hearty welcome of croaking bullfrogs who inhabit the pond. Again I smiled. Peace began to flood my soul.DSC_1622

As is my habit, I made some coffee and then went out to the porch swing with my prayer book to begin my day with God. Sipping coffee while praying the Morning Office in the midst of the frogs’ song with a gentle breeze wafting across the porch…peace that passes all understanding.

I always bring “stuff.” I’ve wondered if I do this because I’m afraid God won’t show up and I’ll need something to fill the time…something to do. But God has never failed to show up, and I have never felt the need to do anything on these retreat days. My bag of “stuff” usually includes my Bible, my journal, a coloring book and markers or colored pencils (don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!), a book or two of a spiritual nature, and my camera. What I have learned is that any or all of these things may be God’s “tools” for the day–things through which we connect more intimately. Yesterday it was the camera. (Truth be told, it often is.)

DSC_1733I wandered down one of the trails, snapping pictures of the flowers and a critter or two, marveling at a couple of brightly colored birds who were not willing to sit still for a photo shoot, taking in the glory of God’s creation.When I had my fill, I returned to the house and settled again on the swing in solitude, occasionally journaling a snippet of DSC_1772conversation with God, but mostly just basking in the slowness and simplicity of the day.

Later, back at home, I looked at the pictures I’d taken. I realized that many of them contained insects feasting on what God provided. I hadn’t necessarily seen them from behind the lens, perhaps because they were so small or because the sun’s glare washed them out of view. Yet there they were, getting their fill. And I realized that I, too, had gotten my fill of God today–enough to sustain me through another month of life and ministry.

A day of solitude will do that for me. I bet it will do it for you, too.

 

The remedy for anxiety? Forgetfulness.

It’s been awhile since I’ve written anything here. Life has been…well, just life. Spent a few weeks planning and enjoying a family vacation. Transitioned to office space after years of working from home. Finishing up a course of study that I began two years ago. Just life.

But suddenly life has amped up a bit. Change is in the wind. My body and my mind are reacting, and the result is anxiety. I’ve been fortunate during my lifetime not to have to deal with depression. But anxiety? That’s a different story! I can become almost manic when faced with life-changing decisions. Why this fear and anxiety? Because I remember.

We worry about our past and are consumed with guilt for what we have done. But God wants us to see and delight in everything through love. … God wills that, of all the qualities of the blessed Trinity, we should be most certain of and take most delight in his love. Love brings power and wisdom down to our level. When we repent, God forgets our sins through his courtesy. So too, he wants us also to forget our sins and leave behind both depression and anxiety.         -Julian of Norwich

I have lived long enough that my list of screw-ups could fill a book or two. Some were just garden-variety poor choices that caused momentary discomfort of one sort or another. Others were blatantly sinful, and the consequences far-reaching. The point is that I remember them and I don’t want to add any more guild or painful memories to that repertoire! Now, that can be a good thing…right? But it can also be a fertile bed where anxiety takes root.

Julian of Norwich suggests that God would have us follow his example: he has forgotten my poor choices and my sins the moment I repented of them. For me to continue remembering is tantamount to putting my fingers in my ears and singing “lalalala” at the top of my lungs. I can’t hear God clearly when I am so busy second-guessing decisions in an effort to avoid making a mistake. It’s hard to trust God when I don’t know what he’s saying.

But if I refuse to remember the poor choices I’ve made and focus instead on God’s grace and mercy, his faithfulness to work all things for my good (i.e., transforming me into the likeness of Jesus), might that anxiety dissipate? Might I then be able to simply ask God for his provision for my need, for his wisdom and counsel? And might I then expect to experience the peace of God, that peace which seems impossible when the winds of change are swirling around me? Hmmm, that sounds familiar…

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.      -Philippians 4:4-7 [ESV]

Are you anxious today? Or depressed? Either way, perhaps what you are feeling is rooted in remembering, in reliving past mistakes and sins. Try following wise Julian’s advice: Forget! Follow it up with God’s word: Rejoice, give thanks, and pray. Then open up your heart for peace that surpasses all understanding to flood your heart and mind. Thanks be to God!

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Catalpa Musings

In my backyard stands an old catalpa tree. I’m not an arborist, so I have no idea how old she is…but she is definitely old. Her trunk is hollow now, and yet she stands firm. At least one of her lower branches has a hollow place in it, too. There’s another hollow where her trunk divides into two main branches. Lots of space in that old tree.

Despite the local utility company regularly hacking off her branches that grow too near the electric wire (I nearly weep each time they attack her with their saws), she continues to spread her branches, providing perches for all sorts of winged creatures–raucous bluejays, tiny finches, fat robins, cooing morning doves, brilliant red cardinals, and even the occasional black buzzard who stays way up in the top and never for long, thank God!

For many years the squirrels nested in the hollow at the split, and then they mysteriously moved out. It didn’t take long to figure out why–honeybees had moved in! But this spring a brave little squirrel has made her nest in the hollow of a branch. I sat mesmerized one morning watching her carry up twigs and leaves and all sorts of makings for a cozy nest, laughing as she would scamper along the branch only to suddenly disappear into the hollow.

DSC02090Chipmunks play around the base of the trunk, scurrying in and out of the hollow’s big opening. A few years ago a raccoon checked out that big hollow, perhaps considering it as a new home? He didn’t stay long–another opportunity for giving thanks to God!–and the chipmunks resumed their scurrying.

The leaves of this old catalpa are wide and deeply green, providing luscious shade for the back of our house. Even on the hottest of summer days, I can find cool shelter from the sun under her broad canopy.

She sort of reminds me of a wise old woman… In late spring she produces beautiful white, sweet-20160607_065239smelling blossoms en masse, like a full head of white hair. Her bark reminds me of an old face, wrinkled with age. Her hollows are like an empty bosom, ready to receive whoever needs the nurture of a safe and protected space. Her branches welcome all sorts of creatures who bring delightful music and bright flecks of color to the vibrant green of her leafy canopy.

God is so very present in the most ordinary things of life, always with something to teach or share. That old catalpa tree inspires me. I want to be like her as I grow old. I want to be a warm and welcoming soul for those who need nurturing. I want my life to be decorated by the comings and goings of all sorts of people. I want to be wise, not despising my gray hair or my wrinkles, but rather considering them evidence of a life well-lived…by God’s grace, a life lived for his glory.

Amen and amen.

 

 

Suitable for the Old

We…have to stop comparing ourselves with the young. The characteristics of the young are perfect for the young but unsuitable for the old.  -Barbara Stanford, Gift of a Lifetime

As the Baby Boomer generation ages, you would think our cultural stereotypes regarding youth and aging would flip. There are so many of us Boomers–it seems we should easily extol aging as something worthwhile, something beautiful, something to be treasured. But that’s not quite happened (at least, not yet), perhaps because the majority of Boomers are so busy trying to hang on to youth by engaging in youthful pursuits.

I am ready to admit that I am no longer young. What’s more, I’m glad. Being young was wonderful…well, mostly…okay, sometimes. It was hard a good bit of the time, though I didn’t always know it. I sometimes look back on my life and wonder, How did I ever manage all that? I don’t think I could do that today. And I’m absolutely right, I couldn’t. Nor do I want to.

That’s the point. I don’t want to. I don’t long for the days when my children were little; I now enjoy them as adults. I don’t miss the days when I believed multi-tasking was essential to a life well-lived. There’s something to be said for giving one thing my undivided attention. I see now that I’ve spent way too many years rushing from one moment to the next, often without really experiencing much of it.

As I let the dog out thisdsc_0561-2 morning, I spied in the faint pre-dawn light our resident cardinal sitting in his winter-woody bush. He was facing the east, awaiting the sunrise. Just waiting. As I settled on the sofa with my cup of hot coffee, I gazed out the window and pondered that cardinal. Had he been sitting there all night, just watching and waiting for the sun to rise and a new day to begin? I contemplated how God keeps watch all hours of the night, how I can sleep peacefully because I know beyond any doubt that God never sleeps, and the deep joy that comes with that sure and certain knowledge rose in my heart. I consciously welcomed it, just as we welcomed the sunrise, Mr. Cardinal and I.

I am grateful for the time I have now to sit quietly and reflect.

In my younger years, I had little time for watching the sun rise or to just sit and ponder in the early pre-dawn light. I was too busy serving breakfast, packing lunchboxes, getting kids out the door to school, a husband off to work and–as the kids got older and the economy got tighter–myself, too. And it is only with the passage of time and the experience gained in a lifetime that I have certain assurances about God, including that he is always watching over me and all his creation.

As I navigate this aging process, I am trying to be attentive to the cultural stereotypes I consciously hold, and even more attentive to those I might be holding subconsciously. (For example, why do I prefer to think of myself as “aging” rather than “old?” Perhaps because aging indicates movement and old sounds final/done? ) I want to embrace this inevitable process with grace, even to welcome it with joy and delight. A slower pace, more time to give, finding and savoring joy in the present moment–these beautiful treasures are definitely suitable for the old!

 

The Battle on Two Fronts

My husband and I went out for breakfast this morning to celebrate his birthday. As our slow_down_sign_reed_college_portland_oregon_2013conversation drifted to his recent retirement and the changes we are experiencing, he commented on how nice it is to be able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast on a weekday morning, having nothing he has to rush to do. As I thought about his comment, I became increasingly aware of my own state of being. I was revving up. We had finished our meal, and I was physically preparing to rush on to the next thing. Except, there wasn’t a “next thing.”

It seems to me that my body is hard-wired to rush. It’s not that I have a lot of nervous energy…I’m not a leg-jiggler or a foot-tapper. I don’t drum my fingers. I’m not even particularly energetic. But my body is always poised to move on to whatever is next on the to-do list.

As a wife and mother,  a homemaker, a businesswoman-turned-pastor, I have been busy the majority of my life. I learned early on that time management was essential to successfully juggling my varied roles and responsibilities. My days were for the most part carefully planned to maximize every minute so as to accomplish not only what I needed to get done, but also have time for what I wanted to do. It was not uncommon for me to pack more into a day than was feasible to do. I’ve conditioned myself to be productive, and to be productive requires being on the move.

My life has changed significantly in the last six months. I quit my marketplace job to spend more time in ministry. After two years of providing care for my mother, she suffered a stroke and died. Subsequent weeks were spent tying up the loose ends of her affairs. Then my husband retired, and the holidays were upon us. With the whirlwind of activity behind us, we are settling into a new routine, a slower pace. Time to relax over a leisurely meal, or go to a movie in the middle of the day. The problem is that my body doesn’t know how to do that. I feel as though I’m fighting a battle to make myself slow down. That’s the battle on the physical front.

But the battle is also being fought on another front, a spiritual front. All this busyness I’ve prided myself on over the years has also conditioned my spiritual self to stay on the move. I devoured books, yet couldn’t really tell you what I’d read. I would have a revelation from scripture, but wouldn’t remember it days later. Rather than take the time to process what I read and perceived, I was rushing ahead to the next spiritual thought or epiphany. Now I am learning how to sit quietly and listen–really listen–for the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Solitude is becoming something I desire regularly.

Equally important, I am learning to be still and truly listen to others. Just as I rushed physically from one thing to the next, I also rushed conversations. The temptation to think about how I wanted to respond or simply being impatient to move on to another topic meant that I often didn’t give attention to the other person’s words, much less to what might be hiding behind them.

I’m learning that it’s impossible to be attentive to the present moment when the body and the spirit are persistently rushing on to the next thing on the to-do list or on to the next thought. This business of slowing down is hard though! The battle against pushing forward, refusing to idolize both physical and spiritual busyness, is intense.

The lesson that needs to settle deep in my spirit is this: What’s next is not guaranteed. Only this moment is real. To rush past it is to lose the battle and forfeit the opportunity to experience God in the here and now. And so each evening I thank God for all the blessings of the day, the ones I caught and the ones I missed, asking him to reveal those overlooked blessings so that I may be consciously grateful for them, too. My prayer is that this tool–this examen at the end of the day–will help me win the battle of being fully present on both fronts, physically and spiritually. Amen and amen.

 

Clarification

Yesterday I posted an update here. A good friend and trusted colleague contacted me after reading that update to share a concern that my thoughts as expressed there might be misconstrued as heresy–Pelagianism, specifically. Knowing that I am not a heretic, it was gently suggested that I take the post down. Because I didn’t have time yesterday to address the misunderstanding, I agreed that this was the appropriate action to take. That call, however, came a few hours after the update posted and, therefore, was read by some. Consequently, I want to clear up any misunderstanding as to my meaning.

Particularly in American culture, it is common to begin the new year with a focus on self-discipline, especially when it comes to limiting food intake and sedentary inclinations. With that in mind, I began that post by repeating a comment made by someone else that suggested God limited himself by giving us free will, and how that concept of self-limitation had been rattling around in my mind.

First potential misunderstanding: By “limit” I was not suggesting that God compromised his purpose or his divinity in any way. What I meant was that God chose to create humans with the capacity to decide whether or not we would love him. He could have hard-wired humans to love him, but that would negate the very concept of love. So God limited–restrained, controlled–himself in that he made a choice about what qualities he would give to his creation. And one of those qualities had the potential to grieve the heart of God.

I went on to reflect on my own experience of being parented and parenting…

I grew up in a well-controlled environment. That control was often exercised through manipulation, so that’s what I learned to do. “Limiting myself” was not an option I considered when it came to my will! I was well into adulthood and my children were mostly grown before I came to understand my own manipulative behavior in trying to get them to do what I wanted them to do. It was certainly easier in some ways to employ manipulation, bending their will to what I thought was best for them, rather than watch them make poor decisions. But once I understood the lack of love in that kind of manipulation, I had to learn to limit myself. And more than once since then I’ve felt my heart would break as I watched one of my kids live out the negative consequences of their willful choices.

Giving us free will was risky. God was taking the chance that his beloved humans would choose not to love him. And that’s exactly what we did. What’s more, God knew that we would. It seems to me that it would have been so much easier on God to just create us subject to his will, rather than allowing us to choose whether or not we would be. But making someone love him was not truly love, as there is no sacrifice in it. Perfect love always requires sacrificing manipulation in favor of freedom.

My point here is that my instinct is to satisfy my own will, regardless of the means. But God offers me a better way. God invites me to love by limiting myself, those natural tendencies and instincts that do not reflect his perfect love. Again, God doesn’t make me do that. I get to choose: God’s way or my way?

Now, to deal with the second potential misunderstanding: Pelagianism. As I understand it (I am not a theologian), at the heart of the Pelagian heresy is the belief that humans can exercise their gift of free will by initially choosing God. So if you read my post and thought that I was suggesting that, I apologize for my lack of clarity. Scripture says–and I believe–that no one comes to God apart from Jesus (John 14:6), and no one comes to Jesus unless God calls them (John 6:44). Furthermore, Paul says quite clearly in Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

So, let me be clear…I believe that I could not have come to the knowledge of Christ nor attained salvation through His atoning death on the cross apart from the grace of God. It is by the grace and calling of God that I considered Christ, not through any initiative of my own. God in his grace and mercy sought me out, but it was up to me to respond, to accept and receive the gift of salvation offered in Christ. God didn’t make me do that. I was given a free will to choose to believe in Christ or to reject God’s gift. That is the story of every single Christian I know. Christ was not forced upon us. Christ was revealed to us by the grace of God. And we are able to decide whether or not to accept Christ because when God created human beings, he lovingly gave us free will. God didn’t have to do that. He did not have to exercise his creative power in that way. But he did. Thanks be to God!

So, how do we respond to such an extravagant gift? When I consider THE GOD of all that is, seen and unseen, choosing to give me this precious gift of free will, offered with perfect love, I am overwhelmed. And so I choose to exercise that beautiful gift by bowing daily before God in prayer, asking for the strength to limit myself…to discipline myself…to submit my will to his. Amen and amen.

decide

 

 

 

Loved

A last minute gift to buy…

Presents to wrap…

Christmas cards begging for their addresses…

That special someone’s favorite Christmas cookies left to bake…

Yes, ’tis the season, all right. Perhaps you are calm, heart fully prepared for Christmas. What a blessing!

But perhaps, like most people I know, you are caught up in the flurry of activity that consumes us this time of year. Even when we know we are missing the point, many of us can’t find a way to escape the frantic demands our minds place on us as we strive to create the picture-perfect Christmas for those we love.

Having lost my mother to a stroke just three months ago, I have been in an emotional fog. I’ve felt grief and loss, of course, but also anger and fear and confusion–and little pinpoints of joy here and there. The swirl of emotions was wearying and I couldn’t seem to escape it, so I sought out the help of prayer ministers. As Mary prayed with me, she shared her sense that I have been struggling to “put the pieces together” as in a puzzle, but that what God desired was for me to STOP and allow him to simply hold me and love me. In spite of the demands of Christmas–all that was yet to be bought, wrapped, addressed, and/or baked–I stole away for a day. I retreated from all the activities and preparations, escaping to my favorite quiet place where there was nothing to do other than receive the love God was offering me.

In the story of Mary and Martha recorded in chapter 10 of Luke’s gospel, we find Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha is quite busy in the kitchen. If you know the story, what has probably come to your mind is the contrast between obedient Mary and distracted Martha. It is every Christian woman’s challenge, is it not? At some point or another we have to deal with the sting of conviction that those words bring. But I digress… Setting aside whatever angst we may feel about that story, I would invite you to see Mary healingtouchsimply allowing Jesus to love her. Perhaps He has one hand resting on her head as she sits quietly in His presence. Now see Him extending His other hand to Martha, inviting her to stop her scurrying about. See Him creating space for Martha to also sit with Him so that she might simply receive His love, too. Now picture yourself in Martha’s place.

In the whirlwind that may be swirling within you and around you as you make your way through these last days before Christmas, I pray that you will retreat from the busyness, from the wearying swirl of emotions…escaping to a quiet place for as long as you need, until you, too, experience the love of God wrapping around you, calming and comforting you as nothing else can. Then your heart will be ready to share the Gift you have received: the love of Immanuel, God-with-us.

May your Christmas be blessed with the joy and love and peace of Christ.