For the past couple years, I have had a word to focus on pertaining to my spiritual life (which is really all of life). 2014 was "breathe." 2015 was "praise." 2016 is "pray."
I was kind of scared by that when I finally acknowledged (after hemming and hawing about) that was indeed my word for the new year. That might surprise you, because I often refer to the subject, and I even created a prayer closet.
The truth is that I love to read about prayer, to study it, to create spaces for it, but actually praying is another thing. In all of life, I tend to theorize, envision, research, analyze, much more than Do Actual Things (unless you count moving piles of books and papers around).
It's who I am (insert infomercial for The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) - I'm a very part-time consultant). But it's not all that I am. It's like being right handed - I prefer to use that hand, but it's not like my left hand just hangs at my side. The Christian life - spiritual formation, as we reflective types are fond of calling it - is about becoming ambidextrous.
...So while I do pray daily and throughout the day (sometimes in just two word sentences), I spend much more time (even in my prayer closet) reading (the Bible as well as books on Christian living / spiritual formation) and thinking than I do in conversation with God.
There are many ways to pray, and I even believe that what I do (immersing myself in learning about it) is a form of prayer, but I want to mute the volume in my brain, so to speak, to listen for that still, small voice, which is another way God talks to those who call on Him, in addition to through his Word, the Bible. I also want to intercede more for others, as well as pray through more of my own stuff, and offer praise/thanksgiving.
There are lots of prayer "formulas" - I'm familiar with most of them - and I may start trying out some of them, because they can be useful tools for staying focused...but most of all, I want to make room for God to draw me closer to him through more dialogue. That's the goal of the Christian life (and life in general) - to be intimate with our Creator.
When I finally realized my new word was "pray," it was like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. My previous words - breathe and praise - are both forms of prayer. Wait...you say...breathing is praying? Well, yes, in a couple ways.
First of all, if I stop and take a deep breath, or even just a normal one, I am waiting. I am quiet as I concentrate on breathing...not in a new age-y way, just in a this is how humans relax kind of way. Secondly, there are actually breath prayers, i.e. talking to God while you inhale and/or exhale. I haven't explored that too much (and yes, it can get all mystical, but it can also be more physiological), but, and this leads into my word for the past year, I love the worship song that says "breathing in your grace, breathing out your praise." Breathe in: Lord, I need your grace. Breathe out: Lord, praise you for being with me. And so on…
Another way it fit is that recently, I have had the recurring word, "path." It came up a lot in my reading of Psalms and Proverbs. I especially like "ponder the path of wisdom." The path is often referred to as leading a righteous life, following God's design for human flourishing. One of my favorite books is Pilgrim's Progress, which I am going to be rereading this year.
I'll come back to the word path, but the other word is another analogy, which is house. I have always been captivated by the little booklet My Heart Christ's Home, and I'm actually going to be using a study guide with that in our church's women's Sunday School starting up in a few weeks.
I had an epiphany when the word "pray" came to me, because I realized that it encompassed both metaphors - the path is practicing the presence of God (praying constantly as the Bible tells us to do, so being mindful of Jesus while we are doing life) and the house is quiet time, the portion of the day we set aside to be alone with the Lord - reading his Word, meditating on it, and praying. I think the path can tend to come a little more naturally to extraverts, whereas introverts attract to the house. But we both need both.
We rolled out of bed and into the breakfast room (well, not really, but at the rate I'm telling this story, I figured I better speed things up) where we enjoyed two kinds of quiche - ham & cheese and vegetarian - also, fresh berries, which my husband had mixed with granola and yogurt. I normally don't eat until lunch, but I can't resist free food (well, included with our stay) and I needed to fuel up for our hike at Point Lobos, "the crown jewel" of the California State Parks, "the greatest meeting of land and sea in the world", just south of Carmel and north of Big Sur.
As we were driving along the coast, my husband (eagle eye), from behind the wheel, spotted a whale! He pulled over and we raced out on the rocks to see it. Sure enough, there was a sightseeing boat (definitely getting an eyeful) not far from where we could see the spouting blowhole and then a quick glimpse of it breaching. In all our years of coming to this area, we had never seen a whale, so this was quite a treat, even though (as usual) we had forgotten to bring binoculars.
A little farther on (keep in mind, the total distance from the hotel to our destination was only a few miles), he spotted the whale again! So once again, we pulled over, and ran to the beach (sandy this time, thankfully). It was Carmel River Beach and there were others there, but farther south, and none seemed to notice, despite us jumping up and down and pointing...so it felt like a special whale showing just for us. Thinking back on it, I am reminded of how it's like following Jesus. He shows up unexpectedly, but the more we seek him, the more He reveals himself to us. Meanwhile, we're beside ourselves trying to get others to discover and enjoy this wonderful treasure with us, but they are caught up in the cares of this world, and our enthusiasm comes across as lunacy to them.
A few minutes later, we entered Point Lobos (I almost said the wardrobe), parked at the farthest lot, and began our adventure on foot. As if the crystal blue water at China Cove wasn't enough beauty, we were treated the sight of harbor seals mothers and pups sunbathing and frolicking. We lingered there, gazing over the cliffs into the sheltered cove and out into the endless ocean. Continuing our hike, we found a set of stairs and climbed down to a gorgeous white beach, watching the waves and admiring the seascape.
Up at the top and out on the trail again, a man and his wife pointed out a sea otter to us and let us use their binoculars for a closer view. That brought back memories to an earlier anniversary, our first time at Point Lobos, when I had been pining to see a sea otter (my favorite ocean animal), and sure enough, God brought us several to enjoy (and again, my husband was the one to spot them first). As we walked on, we encountered a family from the Bay Area - it turned out that the man had just got a job in our county (in San Rafael, where I grew up, one town south of our town) and was about to start work. We encouraged them about the possibility of moving to Marin (from the east Bay) and all that it could offer their family.
We made our way back to the car (saying goodbye to the seals one last time) and tried to drive out to Cypress point, but there was no room in the lot, so we drove to Whaler's Cove (where we had seen the sea otters that other time), and hiked out there. We found seals again, but the dads this time - we could tell because each of the big lugs was on his own rock...except when one would go for a swim and another would steal his "recliner."
I had told my husband about reading 1 Peter, so we had decided to read it aloud to each other, which we did in a private little spot we found overlooking a secluded cove. We only got through the first chapter, but it was just right. Then my husband convinced me to steal away under the roped off area and climb down to look into the beautiful water in the cove, which we did for a few minutes, but I couldn't full enjoy it since I felt like an outlaw!
As we hiked back, we saw a group of Japanese tourists pointing out to sea - a whale sighting! We kept vigil, me with my camera/phone ready, but of course it didn't resurface, so we walked on, and then there it was again, with no one else to see it but us. This was the clearest view yet and I even got some semi-decent pictures, albeit from a distance. My husband was convinced it was the same whale all three times. I wasn't so sure, but either way, it was an amazing blessing for the first full morning of our trip to be graced with glimpses of such a magnificent creature, and that just we two would be privy to that unique beauty of God's creation.
That was our second divine appointment and in less than 12 hours. There would be two more to come that afternoon and evening, and another the following morning, which I hope I can relate in the fifth and (Lord willing) final post...but it might take sixth or seventh installment...
Continuing on with our 48 hour 14th anniversary adventure...we left off in dreamland on Sunday night, but let me back up a little bit. I wanted to read God's Word before going to sleep, so because we were on vacation, it felt right to play "Bible Roulette," you know where you randomly open the good book and see what you find. That can be pretty hit or miss, but with the way things were going, I wasn't surprised when I hit the jackpot. I turned to 1 Peter and read the whole book, because it's short (a mere five chapters) and amazing and I had already underlined a bunch of stuff in my little travel Bible, such as:
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense for anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if it should be God's will, than for doing evil. ~1 Pe 3:13-17
That passage was especially reassuring because the week leading up to our trip, I had (and still have) a Christian hating atheist trolling my Facebook page. He hasn't liked my page or commented, and he uses his page rather than his profile, so banning him is not an option. What he does is to "like" all of my posts (many of which he disagrees with) using his vile, blasphemous profanity-laden Facebook page name. From his page, I know that he was part of the Mormon church and that his son is homosexual and just got "married." Reading those verses reminded me that instead of being angry with this man for bullying me, I need to pray for him (which, in fact, I had asked my readers to do) and receive his insults as confirmation that I am doing good, and so to continue to fight the good fight by speaking the truth in love.
The book of first Peter also says two times to be "sober minded." That seemed appropriate also, what with this being our first alcohol- free anniversary getaway.
That night I actually heard a verse in my dream and I woke up with it in my head (the only good thing about having to pee in the wee hours): "Be at peace with everyone as far as it depends on you." (Romans 12:18) That seemed to apply to all things - the troll, friends (and strangers) whose values are postmodern rather than Biblical, and more importantly, my family, especially my husband. After the dark night of the soul, I had researched marriage books (despite the fact that we have a whole shelf of them, mostly unread) and ordered one called The Couple's Survival Workbook. I chose it because it's not a book that you use with your spouse. It's something you do on your own to help bring change in your own character and communication, the theory being that if you approach your marriage differently, it will change, even if your spouse doesn't. I have been crawling through the book, but it's really good stuff, and if I had to encapsulate what I've been learning into one sentence, it would be that verse from my dream.
I was really hoping I'd get this story wrapped up in three parts, but as I write, more things are coming to me, so at this rate, it may be a five parter...or more (eek!)...but I'd prefer that God lead my pen (so to speak) in His good time than to tell it my way and miss something He wants me to say. Continue to part four...
Yesterday my husband and I celebrated 14 years of marriage. We actually started the party two days before that. Every year we get one or two nights away to be by ourselves, something very foreign to us, what with children ages 13, 10, and 8. Usually I start planning about four or five months before 8/11. This year, though, was different. We had come through the dark night of the soul, culminating in the worst Mother's Day on record (if I kept records, that is). We were bruised and battered, our marriage tattered, but not shattered. We were still totally capable of rhyming, though. That goes back to our first date, when he took me to the children's section of a bookstore and read me "Oh, the Places You'll Go." I really had no chance after that. A man who fed me Chinese food and serenaded me with Dr. Seuss was clearly a keeper.
There was another hitch with this romantic getaway I had to plan. No alcohol. We had not had a drop since that no good terrible very bad night, and the plan (at least in my mind) was to never have it again. Or at least not for years and years. It wasn't that either of us was an alcoholic - it was just that it had become a problem (his tendency to overindulge and my hypersensitivity toward that because of an alcoholic stepdad). It complicated and escalated arguments. It brought our marriage to a state of crisis. And it had become a crutch for our relaxing "couch dates," which meant both that we weren't fully relying on God and that it was masking trouble between us. In other words, alcohol had become a wedge and an idol. It was very subtle, and we had gone through periods of no drinking (sort of recalibration), but always with the intention to return to moderation (i.e. sticking to the rules we had agreed on in terms of quantity, frequency, and type of beverages). And yet, I could look back at all our most memorable fights and point to one thing - alcohol. It was either the cause of conflict or it had turned a disagreement into something much more ugly.
We had spent the last four anniversaries in the wine country. Clearly that was not meant to be for this first ever sober celebration. My initial thinking was to isolate. As an introvert, that thought comes pretty naturally to me. My husband, on the other hand, is an extravert, so I did have him to consider. But really, he would be happy anywhere there were two things - me and fish ("have rod, will cast anywhere"). I very nearly booked us a cabin on the lost coast where I figured I could hole up reading and writing while he fished, with walks and meals together in between. My motherly self vetoed that, because there was no cell service and wifi was spotty. I cannot relax, let alone retreat, if I am not assured of communication with my kids - not just for emergencies but for their good night check-in and chat. Perhaps when they are all teenagers, I'll get over that.
I thought back to our earlier anniversaries when we had enjoyed going to the Monterey peninsula. We had stayed in Pacific Grove, but in recent times, we had gone to that area with the children (homeschool days at the Monterey Bay Aquarium), so now it was hard for me to think of going there without them. There was one place that I didn't associate with our kids, but it had always seemed too ritzy: Carmel-by-the-Sea. Also known as Carmel. But not caramel, though that's good, too. If there is one thing I enjoy as much as (and sometimes more) than a vacation, it's researching a vacation. So I got to work and found a bed and breakfast right by the beach, in our price range, without a wine and cheese hour (cookies & tea instead) - am I good or what? No, I can't take credit. God led us to The Sandpiper. The proof of that will be in the next post...
Death begins at birth. From the moment of conception, we are on a journey to the grave. None of us knows the span of of our lives - some don't make it past the womb; others experience well over a century of history in the making. We are all dying, but do we say it would be better never to have existed? Few believe that (though sometimes others make that "choice" for them) and fewer still intentionally end their own lives. Why do we cling to life when know death will eventually overtake us? Why do we embrace life all the more as we deteriorate?
The cycle of birth, life, and death in our natural bodies parallels with our spiritual existence. When we are born again, what follows? Death, death to sin and death to self. And yet unlike our new birth, which happens instantaneously, death to self is a process. A series of deaths, if you will. On our way to eternal life, we die a thousand spiritual deaths. Though our sins are forgiven, our sinful nature continues to tempt us to live for ourselves rather than dying to ourselves and being conformed to the image of Christ, in whom we were created and have been redeemed.
These thousand deaths to self are usually little deaths. They are uncomfortable but bearable. Sometimes, though, after following Jesus for a long time, we slip into complacency, and we quench the Spirit rather than put to death certain persistent sins. And then it happens. The Dark Night of the Soul. When God, in his love and mercy, disciplines us so severely that we may even wish we were dead. He shows us the destructiveness of our sin and how it is killing His spirit in us. We have to die an excruciating death to self or else be enslaved by it and lose our lives.
Sometimes it is not our own sin. When we are married, we are one with our spouse, and when God is dealing with their sin, it feels like we are dying as well. It could literally be a dark night, the darkest we've ever experienced, brought on by the worst fight we've ever had with our spouse, in which the sin was being killed, but it went out kicking and screaming. The battle was not with flesh and blood, but in the spiritual realm. It felt like the end of everything had come and there was no hope, but actually it was just the opposite - it was a new beginning.
You rose from the ashes, scarred and weary, humbly clinging to the One you felt - for that dark night - had abandoned you. You were badly shaken, fearful, and desperate. Then you became empty and numb. The damage seemed irreparable, your house utterly ruined, your garden desolate...but something caught your eye - a tiny, green shoot that sprung up overnight. You had a glimmer of hope. That God had extinguished the old life, so that you could start a new and better life together. It would take lots of time and more struggle to heal from the fatal wounds, but this body, this one flesh made of husband and wife bound together in Christ, would eventually be stronger than the previous union, and the new house God was building would far surpass the old.
Your Dark Night of the Soul would give way to a bright and glorious morning. But you would need to be patient. And keep dying. Dying to self. Weeding out sin. Basking in the light of the Father. Drinking in the water of life of the Holy Spirit. Abiding in the vine that is the Son. Growing (with all the pain that entails) in the body of Christ, beginning with your own family.
The Dark Night of the Soul had another purpose, too. It brought you back to your first love. It woke you up to the truth that God is the only one who will not let you down. You may have felt abandoned, but He was with you. He wants you to depend on Him alone. To put all your hope in Him, not another human being. Only His love is perfect and His love is all you need. This is also why you must forgive.
We are unworthy, selfish recipients of His grace. He gives it unconditionally and so we must freely extend His grace. Receiving and giving grace is the most direct path to healing. This is assuming repentance and change are underway (be it ourselves or our spouse or both). That the death really happened on the Dark Night of the Soul and the new life together began - whether it be a literal night in which it all culminated or a more gradual coming into the light over time. If morning has broken, then the work of rebuilding trust must begin right now.
It may feel like there is a void where the sin used to be. You have to discover who you are as a couple without that thing. So it's not just the person "with the problem" (really, just that particular problem) who will feel loss and pain. It was enmeshed in your marriage and now there's a hole where it used to be. It feels kind of drafty and weird. We may thirst and hunger like we never have before. It won't always be this way - over time, love will fill it - but for now it is a way of keeping the death real (when we are tempted to forget or minimize it) and a vivid reminder to turn to Jesus to fill us. His love poured into each of us will trickle into the hole, eventually transforming it into a well, deepening our marriage as our souls are rejuvenated. Where sin once poisoned us, life giving water will flow.
While brushing my teeth, I was reflecting on the way I use Facebook and how it is actually a spiritual metaphor:
With people I don't know well who are my Facebook friends, I see Facebook as a way for us to get to know each other better - reading posts, viewing pics, liking, commenting, etc.
With people I do know well, but with whom there is a barrier to spending time together (either life or geography getting in the way), I see it as a way to maintain the friendship and let it continue to flourish, in the same way as I described above (reading, viewing, liking, commenting).
In both cases, Facebook is a way of spending time with people, but with the ultimate motivation (where possible) of being together face to face. Not because we feel obligated, but because we are actually drawn to each other, both by what we experience through our online interactions and by our history of being with each other (even if it's been short, brief, etc.). We want to get together and we make plans to that effect, even if it's months (or sometimes more) between visits.
These interactions take place throughout the day or week in short, but relatively consistent bursts.
And now...drum roll, please...the spiritual analogy:
When we intersperse our day with Scripture, prayers, praises, thanksgiving, worship music, and keep a constant (albeit constantly interrupted) awareness of God, it helps us maintain and grow our relationship with Him. It also makes us desire Him more. It motivates us to set aside time alone with Him, which should be what we most look forward to. We may not make it happen every day (Lord knows I don't, though I wish I did), but by "practicing the presence of God" (see book by the same name), we are nourishing our spirits and the longing we have to be intimate with our Creator, Savior, and Lord.
I wrote this several weeks ago, thinking I would finish it the next day (ha!), but I've decided it stands on its own, though it only covers the first part of what I called it...
The alternate title was Failed Resolutions, Lenten Abandonment, and The Demise of the Prayer Closet, but at least one (facebook page) reader, who also happens to be a good friend, encouraged a more positive sounding outlook, so I took out some of the angst. It also turns out I've already blogged about giving up (for) Lent, so there's no need to repeat myself.
It's been an interesting week. Last Sunday evening our community group, hosted by the aforementioned good friend (hereafter referred to as AGF) and her husband, discussed whether there is such a thing as following or not following God's will when it comes to making decisions about our life (not about right and wrong). It came up because we're doing Storyline, Donald Miller's new project, and in it, he posits that when it comes to our vocation, we are free to choose what to do, same for marriage, and other life altering choices, that there is no one right path. Naturally, this brought up a discussion of Calvinism and God's sovereignty. Our church is Reformed (PCA), but not everyone in it is (welcome to Marin County). One person said that only applied to salvation. Others agreed that God doesn't expect us to consult him about what color socks we wear.
I struggled with the simplistic way that Miller offhandedly threw this out there, with absolutely no theological basis even mentioned. But as the discussion went on (including a disagreement over whether our church was really Reformed, despite my saying that our pastor told me from our first meeting that he was a "winsome Calvinist"), a light went on. If God really is sovereign, then sure, we can "choose" whatever path we want, because he's actually writing our story anyway - we just think we're choosing. Maybe this was what Miller was implying, since the book does, after all, purport to be a tool that helps us find our individual stories and how they fit in with God's greater story. My AGF pointed out the distinction between being puppets (which is often how Calvinism is misinterpreted, including by me for many years) and being characters in God's story.
Still, this doesn't mean we don't seek God in our decision making. I mentioned that way back when I did Henry Blackaby's Experiencing God study (which I didn't finish, because my husband and I were in the midst of our whirlwind courtship - same reason I dropped War and Peace, though I did recently read Anna Karenina, and we never got past the opening chapters of Boundaries in Dating...), I brought up how we are to seek to hear from God through prayer, the Bible, other people, circumstances, and his creation (I can't remember if there were more ways it said he reveals himself). I also asked everyone if, despite their "choices," things ever turn out the way they plan/envision. Everyone agreed that no, they do not. So we think we're controlling our futures, but we're not.
The very next day...I'm driving to the grocery store and having a dilemma - do I go to Trader Joe's, like I had planned, or do I go to Costco, because I need a bunch of stuff which is more economical there. As I argued both sides (I frequently identify with the lead character in Fiddler on the Roof, who always says "...on the other hand..."), I prayed that God would lead me. Approaching the exit lanes, I saw that they were quite congested, and it would be a bit challenging to get over. It felt like a wall had gone up. I decided this meant I should go to Trader Joe's.
Of course this reminded me of the previous night's discussion and the giggling about how silly it would be to invite God into those kind of petty details. Well, folks, this is how I live my life. Not all the time, but when I do, things actually turn out better. God really does care about every decision, and though he doesn't always make it clear which way to go, he does often enough, if we just ask him. And what can it hurt? Unless we don't leave the house until he audibly tells us which color socks to put on...then, it could be a problem.
...Back to Trader Joe's, and some evidence for what I've just put forth...within a few minutes of being in the store, I looked up and saw a friend from church (who is in our community group, but hadn't been able to attend the previous night because her son was sick). She was interested in what we had discussed, so I ended up debriefing her, and we had a really encouraging conversation and exchanged hugs (always good!). A little while later, I bumped into my mom, who knew I was going to be there, but wasn't sure exactly when, and she and I had a nice chat. Then, when I was in the check-out line, I saw an old friend I hadn't been in touch with for years, but lately had been thinking about more often, and wondering how she was.
Here, I should mention that this woman and I had originally met in the religion section of a bookstore, where I had engaged her in conversation, learned she was a Christian who had been hurt by the church, and so had not been in fellowship in several years. I invited her to the young adults group a bunch of friends and I had started to bring the singles from different churches together. She ended becoming part of our group and marrying a guy in it, shortly after I met and married my husband through that same group (it was called "Catalyst"). When I talked with her briefly at TJs, she told me where she and her husband were going to church - it was such a relief to know she was doing well and still following Jesus.
...If I had gone to Costco, like my logical brain was telling me to, instead of praying and being steered (literally) away from it to Trader Joe's, I would have missed those divine appointments. Yes, I may have run into people I know at Costco, but because this topic was so on my mind, I really believe this was God's way of affirming my seeking him, even in seemingly trivial decisions.
I'll talk about the re-repurposing of our bedroom closet and the war between the two places that share one location (homeschool) in my next installment, Lord willing...
Upon Advent Eve...
Life is a liturgy. We follow a pattern of worship not just on Sunday mornings and through the church year, but in our seven day week - in each day and each hour. We need structure and spontaneity, freedom and discipline, planned time and blank spaces. The liturgy of our lives should be purposeful and flexible - day by day, moment by moment. If we aren't intentional about ordering our time, then our pattern of worship (which is what every second of our lives is) will not be consistently meaningful or guiding us to grow. Repeated thoughts and actions are what make us who we are, so liturgy forms us. It's soil that roots us - do we want to be rooted in this earth or in Christ's kingdom? It is the rhythm of our lives - do we want to dance to the music of the world or the song of our Savior? I want to follow the Son, flourishing in the light, as I joyfully move in worship of my Creator.