Strength Made Perfect in Weakness

By Mark Cutshall, Spiritual Director

Do you ever get lost in a thicket of words from a directee and silently confess to yourself, “I don’t know where all this is going.”

The first few times it happened, I panicked. Like a hungry squirrel in winter, I raced around inside trying to find a nugget from Tilden Edwards or David Benner I could offer my directee. Nada. Nothing. I had to fast from another’s faith, and feast on my own, true God.

Do you ever lose focus with a directee when it matters most? Recently, one of our kids, who somehow grew up overnight when we weren’t looking and turned 21, had a friend who totaled our car. The next day in a direction session, I felt deflated, unable to fully listen to the story my directee had entrusted me to hold.

Having been a spiritual director now for four years, I feel more and more human. Growing self-awareness mirrors back new wrinkles of my own nagging limitations. Still, in these crevices of self-doubt I find myself lingering longer with the questions, laughter and laments of the directee whose story holds me closer to my Creator.

Jesus told Peter, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”

What was Jesus asking Peter to consider, to embrace? For me, it’s when I own up to my ego, that I rediscover my fault lines and need for continuous healing.

Sometimes, in that moment, I’ll sense an unexpected invitation. It reaches me upstairs in my mind on the way to my heart. Like a hummingbird who finds a way to comes near, the invitation is to stop, listen, and pray again, with eyes wide open: “You, Jesus, have found me. You loved me into being and companioned me all those years when I had no idea. Stay near, for I can’t do this alone. Keep leading me, holy Trinity, so that through my broken pieces I may hold the story of another who can find their hope in You.”

Getting lost in the thicket, again, is inevitable. So is Grace. In the in between, I wait, watch, receive and feel alive.

My Roots Go Deeper

by Gwen Shipley, Director of Formation

Be the change you wish to see is cliché by now. It rolls easily off the tongue but is not nearly as accessible as that favorite sweater you reach for this time of year–or is it?

The distinct seasons of the Northwest make it the perfect climate for growing things. For instance, we are the world’s largest hop-producing region. On the lane I have been privileged to call home for most of three decades, there is a different crop growing in every direction I look: apples, pears, alfalfa, and yes, hops… As summer turns to fall this year, the cooling Concords that used to sacrifice their aroma before September sunsets is now just an olfactory memory, replaced by new homes and the sound of barking dogs. The rest, however, remains unchanged…rooted, growing, producing. Still.

In the spring of each year, the trees, gray-brown and silent through the winter, begin to flirt with the idea of turning green. Look closely and you will see swollen nubs up and down the branches where new shoots will appear, followed shortly by delicate flower petals that eventually become infant apricots, miniature apples and the tiniest teardrop pears. After a long summer of taking in nutrients, soaking up the Cascades’ spring runoff, and lounging in the sun’s heat and energy, they will offer up their mature bounty in service of the world’s hunger.

The hop vines—bines, actually–behind our historic kiln will hang heavy, collapsing under the weight of their lupulin-laced cones into a waiting truck bed as the top-cutter slices them from their wires. They will be processed and shipped the world over. What were once vulnerable seedlings will have grown into acres of lush, climbing vines 20 feet tall. Each year, when we return from our week-long beach trip, we marvel at the metamorphosis that has taken place.

What if this kind of change we long to be and see can result from so little effort—from indirect action? What if by regularly and intentionally putting ourselves in God’s way, something transformative can happen in us, growing fruit simply because we are rooted in deep soil? This is the role of spiritual practices like silence, solitude and stillness, combined with the often more familiar habits of scripture, community, worship and service.

RELAX. The sign in my bedroom reminds me every morning of the perennial invitation to learn the unforced rhythms of grace, echoes of, it is God who works in you… I stop to notice with a slow breath and a listening pause, taking in the presence of God. My roots go deeper.
This time of year, especially, I am reminded that seasons do change, growth, transformation does happen. Harvest does come.

Gwen Shipley
Director of Formation

Sufficient Mercy

 

by Margie Van Duzer

 

Mercy

There are seasons in my life where I have a sense that God is at work in me, appearing to be helpful in my sanctification process.    Then there are those times where I’d have to say not so much…. These last few months have been in the not so much category. I am not saying God is not at work, nor am I saying I don’t see God at work – I am just saying that I don’t see God at work shaping me into being more the person that I think God would want me to be. I feel stuck. 

I was complaining to God about this recently, especially about my chronic struggle with anxiety.  I am so tired of it and wish it would just go away. I then go down the spiraling thought process about how little faith I truly have, how this proves what a weak Christian I really am.   Who am I to be guiding others in the life of spiritual formation? You get the picture. 

It was in this mode that I began reviewing the readings for our next CFDM Guidance conference. This September we are spending time looking at some of the mystics in church history.  Once again, I was struck by how much I admire one of my favorite mystics, Catherine of Siena. She only lived into her early thirties but was a powerful spiritual force in the 14th century. If you are discouraged about the state of the church today, just investigate that time period.     Evelyn Underhill says Catherine lived in a time of “almost unequalled ecclesiastical degradation.” At one time there were even three popes not just one, due to clerical corruption and power struggles. And yet Catherine taught of church unity, played a significant role in convincing a pope to move back to Rome from Avignon, and was sought after as a spiritual director by many women as well as men in church leadership.  People flocked to her. She had a godly authority that was powerful. She was a wonderful model of deep theological truth combined with an intimate love and connection to Jesus. And yet….

Catherine was very self-aware and one thing she struggled with was what we now call holy anorexia. It begins with fasting as a spiritual discipline but then shifts to symptoms of anorexia.  Catherine was aware of this shift and prayed that she could eat. She tried to stop fasting but could not. “Over and over I have prayed and do pray and will continue to pray to God for the grace to live as other people do in this matter of eating…it very often makes me sad that I have not overcome it….I for my part don’t know what else to do about it….” She referred to this as a “weakness”.  

This reminds me of Paul’s own thorn in the flesh that he prays God to remove yet God tells him “my grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness,” (2Corin. 9). I have heard this over and over and somehow, seeing it in Catherine’s struggle, encourages me anew.  She was incredible. She clearly had such a love for God and about as much influence as one individual could have for God’s kingdom, and yet still struggled with her own weakness that caused her to doubt her faithfulness to God. 

But during this struggle, she continued to affirm God’s mercy. I have framed in my prayer room a prayer/poem written by Catherine that my son hand stamped for me.  The central line in the writing is simply “I know that mercy is your hallmark, and no matter where I turn, I find nothing but your mercy.” 

I have recently read that the word mercy in English is the translation from Greek word “eleos” and the Hebrew word “hesed”. The Greek word has the same root for olive oil, oil that is associated with comforting balm.  The Hebrew word means steadfast love. We Americans might think of mercy as simply being released or forgiven from something we have done wrong, but it is so much more than that. It is fundamentally God’s incredible love that is a balm to our brokenness, soothing to our soul.  Even when the wound still exists.  

Rather than focusing on my weakness, Catherine’s words remind me again of God’s soothing mercy.  I am steadfastly loved in the midst of my falling short. I am reminded again that my life is about living into this mercy, no matter what I may feel about my spiritual progress. Catherine embraced this mercy in the midst of her own personal struggles. I pray I can more fully follow her lead.   

 

  

 

As I Hear the Birds Sing

by Judy Aiton, CFDM Alum

 

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Earth springs forth its Mercy, 

Space and time to no avail.

Tender shoots rise, 

Upping their magic,  

Encouraged by the Son. 

 

Spirit soars, 

Oh, merciful One, 

Lift high my wings 

To see the beauty of it All. 

 

Light of dawn, 

Moves the day, 

Soaring sees, 

Then rest and sing 

A show of Truth, 

Beloved child of God. 

 As I listen to bird songs in the morning, I hear praises to God. “Glory to God in the Highest” welcomes the day into existence. In like manner, Humanity sings its symphonies of the heart–so many voices in various keys, creating beauty in the silence, a harmonious whole. 

Yet suffering hearts of those who cannot sing, exist. They, too, speak in their silence adding to the work, yearning for grace. In the quiet rest of our hearts, we can listen to our own suffering. In that, by the grace of God, Light shines and sheds the Truth in our sorrow so we may sing again, adding to the beauty of life on this earth. 

Hope springs forth. 

 

*CFDM encourages practices that help us notice how God is present in all things. To learn more, visit http://www.cfdmnorthwest.org. 

Wild and Free

by Rev. Terry Tripp, CFDM Northwest Co-Director

It’s a sacred space to be lost in wonder

To safely rest in the midst of you

Lord fill my heart till its full-on hunger

It’s a holy thing to be wild and free

This verse from Jason Upton’s song has resonated in my mind since I heard it recently.  And it came home to rest in my heart as I watched my 5-year-old grandson swing without fear at the family cabin.  His heart, full of hunger for the thrill of the ride, is heard in his joyful laugh.  John doesn’t hesitate to jump into air, believing that his legs will skillfully manage the stick he is supposed to land on.  Though he climbs to a platform 5 feet up, for him it is as tall as the vulnerability in him to take the jump.

JT on Beach Swing '19 (2)

The vulnerability of it, the wildness of it, the freedom of it; brings to mind what Jesus meant when He describes entering the Kingdom of Heaven this way in Luke 18:16, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”  This is one of several illustrations in that chapter, Jesus uses to describe entering the kingdom He came to inaugurate.  In some way or another they all point to vulnerability as the opening to our soul’s home.

We are invited to be vulnerable; to divest ourselves of surety, to trust an unknown outcome, to lean into God doing something in us before we know anything of it, to not defend ourselves before others, to trust in what we don’t get in life as God’s goodness to us, to in fact believe in a God who invites us to an upside down view of the world.

An upside-down view requires us to show up with who we are, be present in the moment, intend love, not grasp for control and leave the results of our encounters to God’s hands.  The world would have us right-side up, in control and accomplishing our spiritual lives.  Rather we are invited to jump and look from the bottom up; accepting that therein lies the paradox: we must take the vulnerable jump – hunger for God – without knowing what holy place we will land in.

John’s swinging is wild and free, hungering for the freedom of flying in the air. He leans back looking up into the madrone tree branches above him and the big sky that hovers.  It is not perfect, but to him, who only knows he wants to land on the stick; jumping with hope and hunger for the ride is worth the vulnerability of it all.  We land in the Kingdom by hungering for God with vulnerability, finding ourselves on a wild and free ride.

This is what we teach and invite others into tasting in CFDM.  We are now accepting applications for the fall start of the Spiritual Formation Program and calls for the Year of Discernment in the Spiritual Direction Program.  Join us for the ride!

 

The Gift of Love Unwrapped

By Mark Cutshall

A lot about boundless, unwavering love–the kind of mutual adoration that breathes back and forth and that can remake your heart on a daily basis–I learned from an elderly gal named Mrs. Cushing.

We knew each other for a little more than 14 years until last Thursday, April 25, when she passed away.

I was there beside her up to the end. Put my face next to hers. Kissed her. Then I must have buried my face in the those few seconds when everything stopped, when life, death, and love–the forever companioning of God in its purest form—came around.

Now, a week later, I find myself smiling. This afternoon, I’m more and more sure that before she left, there was something Mrs. Cushing wanted me to see, something never to forget, or keep to myself, a gift of love, unwrapped.

I go back to Day One, that silky, late June afternoon at Rosser’s Pet store when Mrs. Cushing came home with us. Looking back, we were all much younger: Ryan, 8; Sarah not quite 6, and Linda and me, a couple of 30-somethings suddenly wagging our tails.

It was all about Mrs. Cushing, a dachshund with four stubby legs, endearing ears, and that unabashedly long, signature nose. Those first few minutes, alone, were a gift.

Mrs. Cushing, what we come to name her, didn’t need a mirror to know she was beautiful. She knew it every time we were freely caught up in who she was, together. It didn’t take us long to freely receive, embrace and return love every time we delighted in her true Mrs. Cushing-ness: the diva-like prance around the house, the artful display of sitting up for one more, itty-bitty bite, the missile-like defense system targeted at countless innocent, well-meaning UPS deliverymen who gimped away back to the truck, and who remained on our prayer list.

The joy and freedom to give and receive love that, in God’s eyes, doesn’t reward behavior with a dried-up dog biscuit “as long as you do it my way,” is what Mrs. Cushing taught me.

More than once this little dog would sneak up on my sometimes lazy need to be by myself and taught me something else:

Love walks and follows and travels beside another. It’s how stories are born, and how conversations can turn minutes into hours and weeks into years. Mrs. Cushing had a knack for finding and seeking to devour discarded chicken bones. In these urgent moments, I was loving her. Love kneels down. Love reaches in and goes after what can hurt and harm and choke off life. Love protects.

We went on many walks together, chased a lot of squirrels, and watered a lot of lawns. We were regularly companioned by our very svelte, black tuxedo cat named Johnny, and our Labrador/Boxer named Buzz. Up one block and down the other, with Mrs. Cushing often leading the charge, the threesome took us on an Incredible Journey that inevitably created new opportunities to love our two-legged neighbors.

Several months ago, I noticed her pace beginning to slow. Why the bloated belly? Get her to the vet. Tests. Decimal numbers on a clipboard. A cold and naked examining table, and a diagnosis. Management but no cure. Think not in terms of years, but months. Attends for a dachshund? No thank you.

As days waddled on, I found myself looking at the calendar more than usual. Then, one afternoon, I poked my nose in the family room to check on our patient. Love wanting and needing to know how things are going.

There she was. This beloved creation was stretched out in her bed, dreaming away under a blanket, no doubt with the ankle of a frantic FedEx guy firmly in her grip.

Looking back, as I gazed at her in her bed, her health now in certain decline, I realize now I was seeing a picture of the kind of true, honest Sabbath God most desires:

With me, you can stop. Rest. And just be.

My imagination went off leash.

What if . . .?

Without thinking, without trying, I remained in this luxurious moment, thanking God for this little dachshund who made real to me the gift of love, unwrapped.

# # #

Help surrendering to “the slow work of God”*

by Gwen Shipley

 

In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.  (Isa 30:15 NRSV)

 

Do you ever feel resigned to a situation you seem powerless to affect, one that continues to plague you despite your best efforts? If I’m honest, my attempt to authentically consent on the go can sometimes disintegrate into a feigned surrender to the present moment accompanied by a resigned, “Whatever.” Clearly, they’re not the same.

My intentions were good at the beginning of Lent: Each time the impulse to say, “Whatever” came knocking, I would resist as an act of embodied remembrance. I would give up entitlement to ease and “welcome everything that comes to me today because I know it’s for my healing…” because hope lies in knowing that the God who makes all things new is already and always at work. That was Week One.

Three weeks hence, I am painfully aware of “the slow work of God” and reminded that I’m exactly where I need to be: always returning to the love of God. Here are various ways people have learned to do so and are helping one another.    

 

When exploring unfamiliar roads, Google often asks if I’d like to “re-center map.” Going deeper with God often leads me down similarly unfamiliar paths. It is reassuring at those times to remember that transformation neither originates with us, nor does it proceed by some perfectly executed plan of action. It happens as we return again and again and again, surrendering to the One who makes all things new, one present moment at a time.

In Week Four of Lent, looking toward the cross, hoping in resurrection, that’s…Really. Good. News.

*From “Patient Trust in Ourselves and in the Slow Work of God” by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

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Photo by Eileen Pan on Unsplash

as i wait…

by Mona Chicks, CFDM contributor

As a kid, it seemed like decades passed between each Christmas. I loved the lights, the colors, the cookies, and of course the presents that each Christmas brought. One of my most cherished memories is driving around town in our old green Impala station wagon with my grandparents and great aunt, laying in the back looking out of that big window at all the Christmas lights on the homes in our town. I had this sudden realization that, after all of my waiting, it was finally here! It was Christmas Eve!

as i wait...

Advent is just that – a time of waiting. We join the people of Israel in waiting for our Savior. Unlike that first Christmas, though, we know how this story plays out. We know that the Savior would not be born in a palace, but would be born into the lowest of circumstances, and turned into a refugee. We know that instead of challenging an oppressive regime as a military leader, this Savior would challenge the oppressiveness of religion. We know that instead of rebuilding an earthly kingdom, he would initiate the growth of a relational Kingdom – a people adopted as sons and daughters into the holy family.

And so, as Advent begins, we wait again. We participate in a season of waiting because we are still waiting – we are waiting for Jesus’ return, for a time when all sorrow and sadness will cease, when God’s Kingdom will be complete.

Have you ever noticed that when you wait for something, when it finally arrives it is immediately more precious? What if this Christmas was like that for you? For me? What if, instead of being buried in the chaos of the gift lists, post office woes, meal planning, and decorating, we instead set our sights on the expectation of the coming of the baby Jesus? What if we could do all of those things but with a sense of awe and wonder in the knowledge that our Savior is coming?

O come, o come Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice, rejoice o Israel
To you shall come Emmanuel

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.

 

 

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.