Going Deeper with God Through Discernment

by Mark Cutshall

 

If you were to take some time and listen to what’s going on around you, what things would you hear? Beyond the air conditioning overhead or the barking dog outside, what if this simple act of listening could open the door to the deeper inner stirrings, questions and desires for distinguishing where God is living and moving in you? Here are three areas of awareness that have helped me discover the unfolding work of God in my life.

Cutshall November 2018

 

God’s loving presence  

 

First, consider that God is already present with you and in you. Paul’s words to the Greeks are for us: “Yet he (Christ) is actually not far from each one of us, for in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 27-28). Discernment takes place in God’s loving presence. Being present to God who calls you beloved matters greatly to Jesus. His last words to the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane were a farewell gift of his heart’s desire: “Stay awake.” Pay attention. Listen. In the midst of darkness, and in the new day, consider how much God loves you, then ask the Holy Spirit to meet you and reveal where God is already at work.  

As you prayerfully listen for God, what thoughts and emotions emerge for you?

 

Our spiritual posture

 

Discerning God in and through the Holy Spirit involves our spiritual posture–how we position ourselves to approach, participate with, and receive from the Lord. A vivid symbol of this for me is what I affectionately call the Jesus Chair, a wingback chair my directees use in spiritual direction. It’s got an upright, inviting feel. The chair has “held” countless stories, honest emotions, and unedited prayers. Another picture of spiritual posture for discerning God is captured in the two outstretched hands on the cover of Henri Nouwen’s book, With Open Hands: Being open to seek and know God involves being vulnerable to trust God for what he wants us to receive.

What words and pictures would you use to describe your spiritual posture?   

 

A regular practice

 

Acknowledging God’s presence through a posture of openness, vulnerability and trust helps us to practice discernment. As you carve out some time in your week to listen and pay attention, and as you participate and discern the work of the Holy Spirit, the practice of being with, noticing and communing with God will become more natural. You’ll likely see patterns develop, rhythms that involve a new appreciation of place and prayer. Give yourself time. The psalmist encourages, “For the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word, I hope” (Ps. 130:5). Discernment can arrive suddenly in the blink of an eye, and it can roll into view like a patient, wide, flowing river. And because God is the author of surprise, we might even take a cue from, of all people, the wicked witch, who in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, was certainly paying attention to notice and make it clear that, “Aslan is on the move!”

What appeals to you most about living into a new rhythm of being with God?

May these three areas of awareness reveal to you God the Father who loved you into being, Jesus the Son in whom you have new, eternal life and the Holy Spirit who leads and guides and empowers you, even now, as you continue to go deeper with God.

 

 

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Psalm 33:5

by Gwen Shipley, CFDM Northwest Co-Director

Psalm 33:5 – The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.

Confession: Reading the Bible is sometimes hard for me. I’ve had to learn to like it–again. I struggle to believe what it says some days, if I’m honest. But it’s also true that I am reclaiming its truth, its beauty, its gifts, redeeming it from a lifetime of utilitarian approaches to scripture. I confess to it here because it’s an integral part of my journey from a very young age. It’s especially difficult when an absence of righteousness seems evident or profound injustice momentarily prevails; when natural disaster or disease ravages a nation. And it’s a humbling reality when I find myself directing a spiritual formation program whose aim is to nurture an unapologetically Christ-centered approach to the human experience! While a lifetime’s exposure to the Bible helped me know about God, the knowing God would only come over time and with intention.  It would come by being with God.    

I was reminded along the way, that you can know about someone without knowing them. I was reminded again recently while sitting in a dark theater with a small but diverse crowd watching “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I listened to others’ sniffles and sobs in between my own as the friends of Mr. Rogers, Yo-Yo Ma among them, recounted the impact Fred’s life had had on theirs. From the very opening moments of the film, each of us was moved beyond our capacity to maintain a detached movie-going demeanor as, one by one, family, friends and associates told how they were changed by being in the presence of Fred Rogers. Of course, I knew about him. So did millions of Americans. But the people who lived and worked with him, they knew him.

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The story of his lifetime of service to children grew more compelling as he revealed that as a child, he himself suffered from debilitating anxiety. As a method of managing it, “My mother told me to always look for the helpers,” he says.  That line came back to me recently when I came across Psalm 33:5:

…The earth is full of [God’s] unfailing love.

My inner cynic stirred but the wise counsel of Fred’s mother persisted. Might we see more of the unfailing love of which the psalmist says the earth is full if we, too, always looked for it? Maybe I would even find it in scripture—if I always looked for it.

While the Bible is claimed to be a narrative of God’s unfailing love, I just as often find it billed as a “manual for living” (Proverbs) or a recitation of “moral obligations” (Ten Commandments, Beatitudes, etc.) or weaponized when the “authoritative word of God” (Gen-Rev) seems necessary. All of these hold varying degrees of veracity but with a relational significance hopelessly remote to the deepest longings of my soul.

It was adding regular spiritual practices–like *lectio divina--in an environment of freedom and grace, that opened me once again to the Spirit’s invitation to an encounter in scripture with the God whose Beloved I am, whose you are. Yes, perhaps I could find God’s unfailing love—even there. I chose to trust that whatever else was needed would follow.

As it turns out, Fred Rogers was an ordained minister whose pulpit was a television studio. He, too, had come to view the words printed on the page as an invitation to encounter the One to whom they refer; he valued solitude and silence…and scripture. I wonder if the reason he could be of such help to others is, in part, that he had trained himself early to always look for the ways that the earth was full of God’s unfailing love–and looking for the helpers was one of those ways. Perhaps we can still learn from Mr. Rogers. Perhaps if we always look for it, we will discover that…

…The earth is full of [God’s] unfailing love.

 

*CFDM is rooted in Ignatian spirituality which places an emphasizes seeing God in all things. Spiritual Formation 1 facilitates this kind of seeing beginning with the practice of encountering God’s love through reading for transformation as well as information. If you are interested in learning more, contact us at http://www.cfdmnorthwest.org.

 

Sanctuary

by Margie Van Duzer

 

Stained Glass

“As He who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct:  for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” …. Now that you have purified our souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart” I Peter 1:16, 22

“But you beloved, build yourselves up on your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God.  Look forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.  And have mercy on some who are wavering”…Jude vs. 20-22

My church community has recently felt that God is inviting us to consider what it means that our space of worship, our sanctuary, is to be understood as both “safe” and “holy.”  In connection with a recent art installation many folks were invited to share their views on sanctuary.  A few focused on holiness but I noticed that for most folks, the emphasis tended to be all on safety.  What did it mean that our sanctuary was to be a place where people could come as they are, free to be themselves, and still experience the love and mercy of God?  This captures the idea that sanctuary is a refuge and place of safety for all.  And this emphasis makes sense.  With all that is happening in our world, there is a pervasive sense of anxiety and fear that seems to be growing stronger of late.  We want folks to feel safe in the presence of God.  We want folks to be able to be honest about who they are without fear of rejection.  Folks want to know that God loves them and desires to be merciful to them. I believe it is absolutely necessary for one to feel safe in order to truly experience the love of God. Hence, for years I have had (the perhaps arrogant?) audacity to argue against the famous line from CS Lewis’s Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe where Aslan, the Christ figure is referenced:  “Safe?” Said Mr. Beaver, “Who said anything about safe?  Course he isn’t safe.” I disagree with Mr. Beaver.  I firmly believe we need to see God as safe in order to truly experience God’s love and mercy and feel safe ourselves.

And certainly there is historical precedent for this understanding of sanctuary. In the Old Testament there were hints of claiming safety at the altar.  As early as the time of Constantine when the church community began to build sanctuaries for places of worship, the spaces were not only set apart for worship, but under certain conditions, fugitives had immunity from arrest while in the sanctuary itself.  Even today some refugees seek protection from deportation in the sanctuaries of churches.  Clearly, then a sanctuary is a safe place.

And yet… I have found myself troubled by the lack of conversation around what it means for our sanctuary to also be a place that is somehow holy.  The very word, “Sanctuary,” comes from the Latin word Sanctus which means holy or sacred. The Greek word for holy, hagios, carries an implication of being set apart.

In the book of Isaiah, God is often referred to as “The Holy One” – It is there we have the famous line “Holy Holy Holy” referring to our God and Isaiah 6 captures this sense of the sanctuary well:  “Woe to me. I am a man of unclean lips”   Nothing particular “safe” about the flying seraphim and burning coals on our lips. So yes, in some ways the sanctuary is safe but it also is a place that is “other”, “set apart” where there is some sense of purity, righteousness and a sense of God’s awesome otherness. Yet, we as a church community are not talking so much about sanctuary being such a holy place, and I’ve been wondering why.

Perhaps talking about holiness can make us feel more distant and make us seemed removed from others. Perhaps a God who is high and lifted up seems less accessible, less safe. At a time when we want to be inclusive and loving, it may suggest an element of exclusivity.  Holiness does not abide me “just being me, however I am.”  It makes claims on me.  It wants to touch my unclean lips with a burning coal.    Maybe talking about holiness can feel judgmental.  And if that is a possibility, maybe it is better to avoid the topic of holiness altogether.

This is where my reading of the above verses from I Peter and Jude have come alive for me.  These verses clearly speak to the importance of holiness in our lives as Christians.  But they also speak to the centrality of giving and receiving God’s loving mercy.  Both are core attributes of God and both are to be central in our lives as Christians.  If we are to reflect Christ in our lives, both are to be a part of who we are as God’s people. We are to be both holy and lovingly merciful.

When Peter and Jude were writing these words of holiness and mercy, there was much disunity and disputed theology within the church.  It was an unsettled time.  Peter exhorts his readers to live lives of holiness then soon after calls them to love deeply, even those they disagree with.  Jude reminds his readers that they are to grow in their holy faith, and then he then immediately comes back to God’s mercy that leads to true life, full life.  And after all of that, he exhorts his readers to be patiently merciful to those that are not as strong in the faith as they are.  Holiness and merciful love all bound up together in faith practice.

I do not have a formula that puts all this neatly together. I can’t tell you what it looks like. I wonder, however, if some of what we have lost is an ability to imagine that we can be welcomed and loved – that we can be invited to enter the sanctuary just as we are confident that God’s loving mercy will enfold us – and yet also that in the presence of God’s holiness we may be called to change.  Maybe.  What I can say with confidence however is that somehow we must always remember that Scripture never lets us separate holiness and mercy.  Both are intimately connected with each other and together they point to the very nature of God.  And as God’s beloved community both holiness and mercy must be found in our sanctuaries and in our lives.

 

Where God Dwells

by David Hicks

One of the books that we have used in the Formation 1 program is an old spiritual classic called, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, by Jean Pierre De Caussade. He talks about our tendency to miss seeing God in the places where He most longs to reveal Himself – in the ordinary and mundane, even in the places that we often think are hurting or destroying us. De Caussade says that God often comes to us, “in events that we imagine to be our ruin.” He goes on to say something that shatters most of my sacred pre-conceived notions of how God works in our lives. Sometimes, “there is no remedy for this darkness but to sink into it.”
I sometimes reflect on Psalm 40 where the psalmist is praising God for, “lifting me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire.” I sometimes imagine myself in that pit desperately clutching to the sides trying to keep from falling further into the depths of what I just know is death and destruction below. I look up and cry out to God for help. I try and picture Him leaning over the edge of the pit and grabbing my arms, pulling me to safety and security and placing, “my feet on a rock”.
But maybe I have the picture wrong. Maybe it’s not so much about me waiting for God to reach down and lift me out as it is my letting go and falling into the darkness I so dread because in the darkness is where His presence is waiting for me. Maybe He is not above me, but below me, waiting for me to fall, not so much into the darkness, as into Him. “There is no remedy for this darkness but to sink into it.” Maybe the place that I most fear is the place where He most dwells.

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The story is told of a man who tripped and fell off a cliff. Clutching at the grasses on the edge of the cliff he finds that he can put off his fall for a moment or two. “Is there anyone up there?” he cries out. “Yes”, came a reply, but nothing further. “Who are you? Why don’t you help me?” shouted the man. “I’m God”, said the voice, “and I will help you, but you must do exactly as I say.” “OK”, whispered the man. “What do you want me to do?” God says, “First, let go!” The man thinks for a moment and then says, “Is there anyone else up there?”
Sometimes surrender to God is not so much a movement upward (the most logical direction), but a movement downward, seemingly deeper into the darkness that we dread. Maybe God is actually present in the dark places that we fear to go in ways that are unseen, unknown to eyes that do not see “by faith”.
De Caussade says that it is in these dark places, “that God, veiled and obscured, reveals himself, mysteriously bestowing his grace.” I must admit that the idea that God may actually dwell in the darkness that I most fear is a difficult one for me to grasp. But then it is my grasping that often prevents me from falling into the grace that is my soul’s deepest desire. Who would have thought that the way out might actually be down rather than up.
To me, this is one of those “leaps of faith” that I find so difficult to take. Darkness, pain, suffering, affliction are things to avoid not things to embrace. They are things to get past quickly not things to linger in, finding a deeper place of God’s presence. “Let go”, God often says. “for the place from which I will lift you up is not from above but from below, from underneath you, from those places you most dread, for even there, I AM.”
Trial and suffering fills our lives but I am coming to see them as Jacob did when he encountered God at Bethel. “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” (Genesis 28:16)

 

David Hicks is a regular CFDM faculty member for the Formation program and a guest presenter for the Spiritual Direction program

 

Freedom

by Rev. Terry Tripp

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What is freedom if it is not interior?  What I mean is you might be free from injustice on the outside, but you may be judging yourself on the inside.  And that is not the freedom that God gives.  For the Apostle Paul debates the judgment of the law versus freedom in God’s Kingdom begun in the life, death and resurrection of our Lord:

“For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  Galatians 5:1

Contextually, Paul is debating how keeping the Jewish law does not save, nor does it give freedom.  He goes on to talk about this freedom being born in us through the indwelling Holy Spirit, who affirms and transforms us day by day.  The foundation being love.  The love that Boni talked about in our June blog.

Yes, we celebrate this week our freedom as citizens in a great country.  But we cannot be blind to when love does not rule and when therefore all people are not free.  It is the human beings’ right to know the love of their Creator and find freedom inside and outside to live in that non-judgmental love.

I think though for our purposes, pointing out that self-love is often the hardest to come by is where I want to land.  That only in that self-love is there freedom within and then, freedom without.   Most of you know my own story.  But a concise version goes like this; born with cerebral palsy, I have spent most of my life learning to accept and love myself.  My awkward contortions, tremoring and inability to sometimes even write my name, let alone fall asleep without medication, are constant reminders that I am in that category of unique and different – often garnishing stares by strangers who know me not.  Those who do know me, seem to forget its presence.

A life-time of living with what you don’t want has become my calling card.  But it also has become that divine encounter with a God who did not make it different and yet, has allowed me to do every activity and be in every relationship I ever wanted.  God doing in me what I can’t do for myself.  That is freedom.  That is love.  That is what Paul means.

CFDM NW is all about teaching freedom, living free, and being more in love with God who produces it all.  Our nine months Spiritual Formation Program begins again this September with our 11th cohort (applications can be found on our website: cfdmnorthwest.org).  And we begin our 8th Spiritual Direction Program, as well.  For more information see our website.  Meanwhile, celebrate freedom; inside and out.

Beloved of God

by Boni Piper

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Overlooking Admiralty Strait, is an acre of land I sometimes call “My happy place”. There is a peace that comes over me here that I relish. There have been profound moments with God here.  As usual, he speaks in the silence this place provides.  It was here I felt God’s love so profoundly, here he comforted me when sorrow overwhelmed me, here where the Lord pressed upon my soul the words, “The Lord has promised good to me. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed I have a beautiful inheritance” (Psalm 16). It’s not this plot of land that is my inheritance, but the presence of God in my life. “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices.”

Interestingly, it was in this little cabin on a cliff that the CFDM Formation Program was born. At that time CFDM NW only had a Spiritual Direction Program in the infant stages of development. Julie Anderton was the director of that program.  We spent hours here, days even, discussing two things. 1. How to improve the Spiritual Direction program. 2. How people really do go deeper in their life with God. Concluding that happened through practicing the spiritual disciplines God sets forth in scripture, the Formation program for CFDM was born. It became my passion from the first year of its birth.  Many things have changed since then and a year 2 was added, but the purpose has stayed the same:  To facilitate a Christian’s experience of God in order for them to know who they are to God and who God is to them. And in knowing that, to live a life for the sake of Christ and others.

One of the greatest joys of my life has been to see Christians come to realize how much God loves them. To watch them truly believe that they/we are the Beloved of God!  Why don’t we already know that? So many Christians are paralyzed by their guilt and shame and as a result, hide from God and become useless in the Kingdom. Do we not truly believe that Christ’s sacrifice was enough to forgive and redeem us? Do we not truly believe the Holy Spirit’s presence in us actually empowers us? “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5).  For many people, CFDM’s Formation year helped them look at the yoke that bound them. Many have experienced moments of freedom and the intimacy with God that allowed them to cast the yoke of slavery off. Most came away knowing they were God’s Beloved and he was their Savior, the lover of their soul. And I was one of them!

I have often said, “I just don’t get grace. It makes no sense!” But year after year I witnessed Grace and my soul has been melted/healed/empowered to live more fully “For the Sake of Others” (Spiritual Formation 2). Leading CFDM programs has given me more than I could ever hope to give to those in the programs and I am truly thankful.

Thank you to all the participants, faculty and Board that journeyed with me through years of Spiritual Formation. I don’t think there has been any calling in my life that has fed me more.  I am so blessed to know Gwen Shipley also has the Formation passion. As she partners with Terry Tripp in leading CFDM, I know God will continue to pour out his blessing.

I will be continuing my work in Path from Poverty (pathfrompoverty.org) and hopefully, spending more time with my grandchildren. My heart is full, and so,

for this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name.  I pray that out of his glorious riches, he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.  And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!   (Ephesians 3)

May it be so!

 

 

Go Back to the Garden: Invitation to Formation

by Gwen Shipley, Spiritual Director

 

I grumbled while dressing to attend the evening lecture on “Extending the Harvest.” It was still early March and I have a love-hate relationship with gardening. I show up mostly when I feel like it. But I wanted to spend time with my daughter, so I went. Inspired, of course, I spent the next day clearing raised beds and pruning bushes! There were:

  • Breathtaking tendrils of baby yarrow daring greatly
  • Spent raspberry canes pleading for the dignity of removal, no longer fruitful
  • Several inches of black, fertile soil waiting to receive whatever comes next

It was amazing to see what life waited to be discovered under layers of dead leaves.

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My body awakened with the fresh air and activity, my mind cleared, and my spirit stilled. In the uninterrupted solitude, restorative images begin to surface:

Age 3: Wandering, barely awake, into the yard; Spring morning, air just beginning to warm; finding Mom among flowers under a crisp, blue Colorado sky; airplane high overhead, engine humming. Perfect peace.

Age 6: Living in Washington; finding Mom randomly throughout the day a few yards from the farmhouse in the large strawberry patch, apron filling with bright red berries. She couldn’t resist bending to gather them whether on her way to the mailbox or coming in from hanging clothes; feeling loved, entirely cared for, completely at rest and immersed in the gifts of each moment sans worry or fear. Only concern: Being in touch with my source of sustenance.

Age 12: 9 am, before the temperature reached 105 degrees; water the garden while Mom “worked harvest.” If it was alive at the end of summer, they paid my way to camp with a friend; my first meaningful work.

Unlike Wendell Berry, the agricultural poet/theologian, my farming capital is spent. I’ve tried to recover it like I’ve tried to make myself like alfalfa sprouts. But please–I’ve done my time in the Columbia Basin and Yakima Valley blowsand. It’s over. And as to weather, I prefer it warm and sunny. So the post-lecture inspiration was short-lived.

A few days later, though, I felt a gentle nudge in prayer: Go back to the garden. I ignored it at first. (I’m not the only one, right?) It seems it’s only after getting there, that I remember why I love being there.

  • I remember the perfect peace, the integration of body, mind, spirit
  • I see nature’s cycle at play reminding me of God’s processes in my own life
  • I engage in meaningful work and experience deep gratitude
  • I become fully immersed in the present moment

So why do I resist? Maybe it’s the sore back, dirty fingernails and thorns. Maybe I feel inadequate or frustrate easily over a lack of productivity. Maybe it’s just too much work. Perhaps I forget why I go, and what actually happens there—for me, for it. Eventually I made my way.

To the rhythm of digging, snipping, and stopping occasionally to enjoy the sights and sounds, my mind drifted to another garden, a Genesis 3 garden where everything was good; where the first humans enjoyed all that was provided for all that was needed; where there was no fear or shame, just beautiful surroundings, meaningful work and good company. Peace and perfection.

It’s no wonder Joni Mitchell’s lament over having missed Woodstock comes to mind: “We’ve got to get back to the garden!”

Andrei Rublev’s painting, Trinity, suggests an open invitation. “Come,” says Father-Son-Spirit…

  • Enjoy us in silence, find us in solitude, settle with us in stillness
  • Participate in service
  • Listen in scripture
  • Learn in study
  • Join in surrender
  • Dance in celebration
  • Revel in nature…and endless more possibilities

As with gardening, so it is with spiritual practices. It’s easy to show up only when we feel like it.  It’s hard to remember why we do, and what is happening. And certainly life’s weather can impact desire. Yet, good guides remind us that spiritual practices are “an invitation to a journey” not an end in themselves. They are simply a doorway into being, and into being with God.

While I still don’t fancy myself a gardener, God has been profoundly present to me with the grace of renewed hope as I have responded to the invitation to spend time in my literal garden. It is a direct result of centering prayer, spiritual direction, attending to my body, surrendering to community and other spiritual practices, each intended to open to the voice of God and into which I feet invited—not the result of an approval-seeking, religious regimen.

Whatever your unique and specific path, you will experience greater joy and heightened awareness by intentionally making space for God, and with the companionship of a spiritual director. Our Spiritual Formation and Direction programs are designed to help you do just that in community with others. You can register now through our website, http://www.cfdmnorthwest.org.

It’s amazing, the Life that is waiting to be discovered…

 

Stepping Into New Life

by Terry Tripp, CFDM Northwest Co-Director

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I lift my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come?

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.

He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.

The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil, he will keep your life.

The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time and for evermore.

Psalm 121

The view from my office window brought this Psalm to mind, as well as the thought that upon the beginning of each New Year, we re-up our intention to seek God in all that we do or ponder. That in some fashion we recognize that there is a new beginning and we get to start a fresh in our desire to search for and find God in the midst of all of life.  But how hard that can be if we are depending on ourselves to accomplish this “seeing”, this “paying attention”, this “intimacy” – that creates trust and beauty in relationship to God, ourselves, and others.

We can’t do it. This Psalm shouts, only God can do in us what is necessary for our well-being and bringing the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.  Our freedom is found in trusting that God will do God’s will in us, for us, for the sake of His Kingdom.  What is our part?  Lift your eyes – your desire for God – right where you are, in whatever is going on; asking for help – for God to do in you only what God can do, not you.

I recently stepped into a new relationship that has brought beauty and hope in my life. Though as all relationships go (for me at least!), the initial sense of happiness and contentment has been added to by the nitty gritty of accepting and celebrating our differences. Human beings are notorious for seeking their own well-being. Or should I just say this is on me?! My prayer has been “wait patiently” for the Lord. For my help in stepping into a new life, a new year, a new reality is God at work in us to both will and do God’s pleasure. So, I once again give up control and only seeing life through my own experience and wiring, and receive everything from God necessary for my well-being.

Where does our help come from? From the Lord God; who neither sleeps nor slumbers, but is at work in every relationship and in every experience in this New Year, to form you for God’s Kingdom purposes. A blessed New Year and welcome to the ride of 2018.

 

Honoring the Contents of Another’s Story

by Mark Cutshall

 

I live with a deficiency that’s been teaching me a thing or two as a spiritual director.

I think of it as a kind of poor man’s dark night of the soul. Before we take this to silence, a humble reminder that what’s said in this blog, stays in this blog:

I lose my keys. Like really often.

My keys will peek at me from behind the couch cushion and run. Gone. For hours. Sometimes days. It’s gotten to the point they don’t even bother to text me.

I would go on a silent retreat just to search my soul to locate them. But first I’d have to unlock the car.

And maybe here’s where the spiritual direction piece comes in. The other morning, I honestly thought I’d lost my keys for good. I moaned out loud in the kitchen and heard a familiar woman’s voice. “Honey, would you like to borrow my keys? They’re in my purse.”

Purse

My wife’s purse was right there within arm’s reach.

“Please give me the purse.”

Did I consent to this simple request? I’ll tell you what I did; I thought of the bumper sticker I’d seen one that said, “My Wife Says I Don’t Listen . . . or Something Like That.”

As spiritual directors, aren’t we trained to quiet down inside and listen for God who already inhabits the moment? How else can we truly sense, and respond to, the Spirit’s nudge?

Before Linda said, “Please give me my purse” for the third time, I was busily searching where no man should go.

My discovery: The faux leather interior of her purse seemed limitless. Inside the many zippered pockets lived a department store: Scraps of paper. Lip gloss. One red hair brush. A prescription from Walgreens. And a family of ball point pens.

Everything but the keys.

Somewhere between her nail clippers and a small forest of gum wrappers, I fell into a chuckle.

As a spiritual director, I truly enjoy listening to my directees’ honest search for self and God. Yet, in my human curiosity, I can be tempted to reach into their story and take possession of an unformed question, or an unspoken fear. Kind of like reaching into a big, black bag that’s not mine in search of things that don’t belong to me.

You know, I honestly can’t remember where I misplaced my keys that day, or how they made their way back into my life.

What I can tell you is that when I sit down to meet with my directee tonight, I’ll lay my key ring aside and focus on the person before me. My job will be to hold their unique and precious story. I will listen for God who is already very-well acquainted with the contents of their life. After all, it’s their “purse,” not mine.

 

 

 

 

 

The Fig Tree in Manure

by Margie Van Duzer

 

Fig tree

Many years ago my pastor said to me, “Margie, there are two kinds of people in the world – truth people and mercy people.  You are a truth person.”  In other words, he was gently suggesting that I had some room to grow in mercy.  I am quick to see my weaknesses and sin.  Unfortunately, perhaps even a bit more quick to see the faults and sins of others.  This is especially true for anyone who messes with my loved ones. I can quickly recall the horrible bedside manner of a medical expert who visited my son years ago.  Or, that unfair treatment my other son received in the hands of a less than enlightened basketball coach.  My kids have long since gotten over such slights. I have not. Mercy is not my strongest suit.

In one of my most recent grudge-holding moments, I came across a Eugene Peterson sermon* on Luke 13:6-9 – one of the fig tree parables. Now, I consider myself pretty familiar with the New Testament but somehow over the years I had missed this story.  And in the wonderful way that only Peterson can do, he made the text come alive. I have now spent weeks pouring over and praying with this parable.

It states:

A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, “Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none.  Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?” And he answered him, “Let it alone, sir, this year also, ‘til I dig about it and put on manure.  And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”

And as I have lived with this story I find that I have moved around a bit.

I was first drawn to the owner.  He had the instinctual response to cut the tree down. Of course cut it down!  Who needs its ugly and totally unproductive presence? And, in my imagination, it’s not just unproductive, its counter-productive – its unhealthy state is causing a stench. Get rid of it. Get it out of here. Chop it down. I took pleasure in the idea of getting rid of the bad fig tree. If I could get rid of this fig tree (and of course by extension, the current object of my judgment who I believed was responsible for my yucky feelings and circumstances), then obviously all would be well.  

Unfortunately (or fortunately?), that is not the end of the parable.  And after a while I found myself migrating from the owner’s shoes into the shoes of the gardener.   The parable continues with the gardener encouraging the owner to let it alone.  Let it be.  Darn.  Okay. So I won’t cut it down.  Still, I took some satisfaction in imagining manure being spread all around the fig tree.  Some translations use the term fertilizer but manure is so much more vivid. It brought up memories of the cattle feed lot near my grandmother’s farm, where when the wind was right, the foul aroma could make my stomach lurch. I relished pouring that manure around the feet of the person who was the current target of my wrath and indignation. Yes, I could use my Ignatian imagination prayer exercise and really get into that image of the bad fig tree in a sea of manure doing its slow and smelly work. I could pray this.  After all, I was praying Scripture.

All this is true.  However, I could not read and re-read this passage without realizing that ultimately it was a parable connected to mercy and forgiveness.  In fact, the Greek root word used in the gardener’s request to “let it alone,” is the same word used in the Lord ’s Prayer, “forgive us our sins….” I knew I was being reminded of the need to let go of holding on to my grudge, to be merciful and forgive.  Yet, one thing is to pray that prayer out of obedience.  It is another thing altogether to fully and emotionally enter into it. I could do the former, but not the latter.

This is where the last shift came.  In my imagining the parable, and recognizing my inability to fully forgive, I began to imagine myself not as the owner or the gardener, but finally as the fig tree itself. Yes, I, too, am not producing the fruit, especially the forgiveness fruit, that God would ultimately desire from me. And part of my growth process involves welcoming the manure that the gardener wants to spread around me; manure that may not smell so great, but that is doing a deep work to make me a more healthy fig tree.

As I ponder this, I once again realize that it all comes back to surrendering myself to my loving gardener.  A gardener who is patient and does not give up.  I submit to God’s process of growing me in forgiveness. I can’t force it.  I can’t make it happen.  I can only humbly bring myself to God, submitting to what God sees as necessary for my growth in mercy.

I wish I could tell you I no longer need the manure, that I am a fully healthy fig tree.  But remember, I am a truth person and so I cannot.  But, by living into the truth of this parable, perhaps, just perhaps, I am growing a bit more in understanding about God and God’s mercy.    

Margie Van Duzer

 

*Sermon from As Kingfishers Catch Fire by Eugene Peterson, pages 249-255.