Spiritual Practice – Reading Fiction

Okay, you might think this is a stretch, even for me, when I can find a spiritual practice in anything; but hang with me a minute, and I’ll explain. Fiction is what has kept me sane during this pandemic. You see, as a therapist, it is my job to keep all my clients sane, so who keeps me sane?

Well, apparently, it’s Robin Hobb. My spiritual director recommended Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, the first book of The Farseer Series, and 12 books later, I’m still enjoying her writing. It’s a riveting fantasy with memorable characters, but with even deeper themes running through the book about racism, spirituality, loyalty, etc. I’ve been unable to put them down. 

I’m sure no one would argue the spiritual power of The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, or A Wrinkle in Time. So, here are some other books that have resonated deeply for me from the fiction world.

I may have read these several times and still watch the movies to cheer me when I’m down.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series: I had a disagreement with my bestie when this book came out. She said it was of Satan because of the wizards and witches (see the last paragraph for a rebuttal). Of course, that gal never read the book. For me, the series overflows with Gospel themes: love, loyalty, friendship, bravery, doing the right thing even when it’s hard, and ultimately laying down your life for your friends. Beautiful!

Susan Howatch’s Glittering Image: This is a classic for people in the world of Spiritual Direction. It speaks of our true and false selves and how we need to peel back the onion of the glittering image we present to the world to find our true selves.

Angie Taylor’s The Hate U Give: I may have read this book twice AND watched the movie. Talk about an education in systemic injustice: so much goodness and pain in one book. Everyone should read this one.

Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games Series: Talk about a hard look at the 1%. The Capitol is where the money is, and all the other districts starve. Or The Capitol could be compared to America, which uses most of the world’s resources. This book is about the hard facts of war and what it means to sacrifice for those you love. Good stuff.

Jan Karon’s Mitford Series: I have to include this since I read all fifteen books. Such a charming town, and the main character, Father Tim, is the priest we all wish we had. He is kind and loving, gentle, and awkward. So fun to read.

Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing: Opens our eyes to how slavery separated families and the repercussions—beautifully written. 

Honestly, I could write on this topic FOREVER! So, I’ll end with one of my own.

Jacci Turner’s The Retreat: I wove a storyline in with spiritual practices, so you feel like you’ve been on a retreat after you read it! At least, that’s what the reviews say.

I’d love to know how fiction has encouraged, challenged, or informed you spiritually. Drop me a line and share a book!

Photo by Mark Neal on Pexels.com

Spiritual Practice: Journaling

Journaling

I always say I’m not a journaler, but I just typed an update on the computer in a journal file that I’ve kept faithfully since 2009. And, if you dug around in the recesses of my basement, you’d come across boxes of notebooks I’ve been writing in since 1977. So, am I a journaler? I guess I am.

Where’s the breakdown? I think the problem is that when I think of journaling, I imagine a diary, something people cherish and update daily. I tried that as a child, but I had little success. My life was just not that interesting. I tried again when my life finally did get that interesting, those diaries had to be burned!

We need a new idea of journaling that includes a broader definition. Here’s mine: Journaling as a spiritual practice is any way of keeping an account of the work of God in your life. If that is true, I am a journaler.

Eight years ago, I took a spiritual direction class that included the book, Journaling As a Spiritual Practice: Encountering God Through Attentive Writing, by my professor, Helen Cepero.

As part of that class, we did the journaling exercises set out in the book and after the class, I continued. The difference was I only wrote in this journal once a month when I was on my silent retreats. I have continued this practice for eight years now, but never really thought of it as journaling because it wasn’t a daily practice. Still, over time it has become a record of the work of God in my life through the tremendous experience of the last eight years. It counts!

What about the boxes in my basement? When I was eighteen I arrived at college as a newly minted Christian. I didn’t know anything about being a believer so I found the first mature looking Christian I could and asked how to go about growing my faith. She suggested that I find a spiral notebook and divide it in half. In the first section, I was to read the Bible and when something stood out to me, write it down. In the second section, I was to draw a vertical line down each page and use one side for writing out my prayers and the other side for writing the answers to those prayers. This was very doable and I’ve been doing it for forty years. I don’t often go back and read the old ones, but the idea of having boxes full of forty years of answered prayer is very encouraging. It counts!

So, how do you make journaling work for you? I think a journal can be as different as the person writing it, or drawing in it, or painting in it, or placing photographs in it. I’ve seen some people who cherish their journals and go back often to re-read them. They are modern-day examples of memorial stones that people of ancient times set up to mark a spiritually significant event. Some find writing too cumbersome and prefer to draw or paint. I have a friend who does a photography blog, which is very much a way to journal. It counts!

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What’s stopping you? For the next two weeks, try a journal of your own design. Find a way to make it work for you. The point is to record the work of God in your life. Maybe it will be a purely mental journal, or a list of bullet points, or some kind of fitness tracker where you note significant aspects of your workouts that have filled your soul tank. Think outside the box – or in this case the notebook.

*For more on spiritual formation exercises, check out my new book, A Tale of Spiritual Awakening.

Photo credit Top

Photo Credit Bottom

Spiritual Practice: Visio Divina

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Today we will talk about Visio Divina (Latin: Divine Seeing). It is very similar to Lectio Divina which you can read about here. Instead of meditating on scripture or poetry or other holy writings, you are meditating on something visual.

There is a great precedent for this in scripture (visions and dreams, metaphors from nature) and in history with icons, as I discussed in my last blog.

Basically, we approach a picture or something in nature, with openness and spend time (about 20 minutes) gazing at something beautiful or meaningful with a prayerful attitude. Then, you ask yourself some questions. The following set of instructions comes from the Patheos website:

As your prayer deepens, open yourself to what the image might reveal to you. What does it and the Spirit want to say, evoke, make known, or express to you as you attend to it in quiet meditation? Become aware of the feelings, thoughts, desires, and meanings evoked by the image and how they are directly connected to your life.

(choose one of these images to try)

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Does it evoke for you important meanings or values, remind you of an important event or season, or suggest a new or different way of being? What desires and longings are evoked in your prayer? How do you find yourself wanting to respond to what you are experiencing? Take the time to respond to God in ways commensurate with your prayer: gratitude, supplication, wonder, lament, confession, dance, song, praise, etc.

Then spend some time journaling your insights. I find this spiritual practice very refreshing and look forward to trying it with you for the next two weeks.

Let’s see how we do!

 

The Closet is No Place to Live!

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My Zumba instructor is at least 75 lbs. overweight. I wondered when she came in to replace the petite blond, with impossible abs and a tight rear, if people would leave the class. Surprisingly, the class got bigger. As my new instructor danced with joy, her jiggly bits happily bouncing to the music, I started thinking about the power and freedom of authenticity. What does it mean to be your true self in front of the whole world?

You see, none of us could ever hope to look like my first teacher, but all of us could look at the second and say, “Well, if she can do this workout, so can I!” It was freeing not to be held up to an impossible standard, even if the standard was only in my mind.

I’ve just had a similar “coming out” experience. For the last two years, I was asked by my Christian employer to keep my advocacy for the LBGTQ community under wraps. My advocacy didn’t fit into the parameters of my employer’s theology. Because I loved and wanted to keep my job, I submitted to this request.

The problem is that when you agree to muzzle yourself about something important to you — to live in the closet — it has negative effects on your life.

First, you feel like a hypocrite. If I believe that equal rights is a justice issue, and I don’t speak out about it, then I’m promoting an unjust system. But, I justified my silence with the hope that I might be able to be a voice of reason from within my organization, so I stayed. Still, I felt bad about it every day.

Second, you spend a lot of time walking on eggshells. Walking on eggshells is exhausting. Wondering if pressing “like” on a Facebook post will get you fired is not a good way to live. I have a friend who was going through the exact same thing with me, and when we talked, we’d often end our conversations with, “At least I’m not fired today!” Until I was.

Third, you live with a muzzle around your mouth, constantly monitoring what you say to make it palatable to your bosses and others. Being muzzled is not fun. My dental hygienist says I’ve been clenching my teeth. “It’s the muzzle,” I say.

Forth, you become paranoid. Knowing that my Facebook posts were being monitored, that conversations were being reported, made me anxious. It felt like I was in the Red Scare, that I was about to be accused of being a communist at any minute. I just love gay people for Christ’s sake! Literally, for Christ’s sake.  Aren’t there bigger things we should be putting our energy into? Sex trafficking, racial injustice, world hunger…

Fifth, I lived in fear of the backlash. Would friends and relatives not like me if I came out of my self-imposed closet? Thankfully, for the most part this turned out not to be true. Sure, there were the exceptions; like being unfriended me on Facebook by someone dear. But, the support from friends and supporters was overwhelming! Even those who disagreed still assured me of their love. And the beautiful stories that started coming our way, almost daily, from gay friends, and parents of gays and those still living in closets, were worth it! What a privilege it is to be a safe person to talk to! There are so many who have no one in the Christian community they can trust with their hugely painful story.

So, what does it feel like when the closet door swings open and the fat girl comes out to dance? Ahhhh freedom, sweet freedom.  I feel at peace, lighter, happier even as I mourn the loss of all that I knew before. I feel the hope of living an authentic life. The thing is, I’m extremely aware that my hardships over the last two years are only a tiny taste of what my gay friends live with EVERY SINGLE DAY! As my wonderful husband is fond of saying, “The closet is no place to live.”

So, this is me, folks, I’m not the perky blond you might think I am. I’m the fat, dancing Zumba instructor with all of my jiggly bits out for the world to see. I love gay people and I want to help them heal from the pain the church has caused them and provide a safe place for them to be with Jesus. I’m sorry if you’re disappointed in me, but I’m not sorry enough to stay in the closet any longer.

I’m too busy inviting people to dance with me! Would you like to dance?

 

Beautiful Photo Credit: Ragen Chastain: 5’4, 284 pounds. Photo by Richard Sabel

A Grief Observed…Mine

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Continuing to reminisce about how life was two years ago when Micah went missing. This is what I learned about grief.

Having my son missing for almost a month now has been the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I think the next closest was having my daughter in Sri Lanka after the Tsunami in a very dangerous situation, but at least then there was contact.
In the counseling world, they say that the person who won’t speak has the most power. I understand that in a new way now. Micah, for whatever reason, has chosen to keep us out of the loop of his grand adventure and the silence, as they say, “is deafening.”
So, I’m learning a lot about grief, and I thought I’d write it down so when Micah is older and has children of his own, and those kids do something really scary, I can send him a copy of this. That’s a parental prerogative right, to say, “Touché!”

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1. Grief comes in waves: I knew this from when my dad died and I had to switch to waterproof mascara because I never knew when I’d be crying. Thankfully I gave up mascara altogether during Micah’s first deployment to Afghanistan. The grief now is always just below the surface. I’m not a good faker so when some poor innocent folks say, “how are you?” they tend to get more than they bargained for.
2. It is really hard, nearly impossible, not to let your mind go to the dark side. Focusing on the negative possibilities has been overwhelming. The list of bad things that could be happening to my son is unending. These thoughts can suck you down into the “depths of despair” as Anne of Green Gables would say.
3. Sometimes, I can get my eyes off the waves and onto Jesus. These are the good days when I remember that the name Micah means “There is no one like God.” I remember he was named after the prophet of Justice. Just because he’s trying to work out his heart for justice in a way that will harm him, doesn’t mean God can’t use this to build him into the man he was created to be.
4. I can swing from the above #2 to #3 and back to #2 in a heartbeat. Pity the fool who gets in my way. Some days I wake up mad and just can’t shake it. Some days I wake up sad and can’t shake that either. You know the “stages of grief?” Yeah, I’ve met them all, except acceptance. I only flirt with that one from a distance.
5. Hope springs eternal. My husband and I clutch our phones with manic fever awaiting good news.
6. Life happens; we are expected to do our jobs in the midst of this pain. This is both a blessing, as it gets our minds off our current troubles and a curse as we feel we are unable to give 100% to our jobs. We have other children that need our attention, time and love. We have family and friends that are hurting too. We try to stay present. Sometimes things fall by the wayside. When tragedy strikes we tend to pull inward into a protective shell. Friends get shut out. Social obligations get neglected. It happens. Hopefully, there is grace.
7. Sleep is elusive for those who grieve. I have trouble going to sleep. I’m exhausted all the time, but when I get in bed I’m either overwhelmed with sadness or my mind starts circling the ‘what ifs.’ That is why I’m writing this blog at 12:38am. David goes to sleep okay but never makes it through the night. He wakes up startled, heart, pounding as if there were an emergency. And there is; only it’s one we have no control over.
8. We must work hard to treat each other with kindness. David and I are working overtime to love each other well during this season of grief. I clean the house, he cleans the house. We hold each other and cry. We pray. When I’m angry he doesn’t take it personally. Having a partner in grief is really helpful.
9. Having the presence of God and a supportive community is really amazing during this time. We have been buoyed by the love and support we feel from our friends right now. I honestly cannot imagine doing this alone. My friend Bob has been searching the Bible for universal promises. So far he’s found only four. Two of them are: We will suffer and God will be with us. I’m sure glad those two go together.
10. God gives us emotional “manna,” right when we need it. He’s given us letters, songs, movies, phone calls, rainbows, pictures on websites of Micah and even a video. These little encouragements have been enough to keep us trusting Him when we would otherwise give up. The picture above is from the occupy rally in D.C. this week. He is in the green shirt. Yep, that’s my boy.
These are some of the things I’ve observed about grief so far. I’ll keep you posted. Are there any observations about grief you want to add?

Glimpses of God– The Sequel

 

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In my last blog, I talked about terror and shared the story of my recent car wreck. I hinted that my children had the ability to take me to a place of fear 100X greater than the wreck. And so, part two.
The reason I was trying to get home over the mountain at night was because I wanted to maximize my time with my son Micah who would be coming back from Burning Man. He had only two days in Reno before heading back to Fort Bragg. We had a good last two days, and then David put him on a plane back to his base. The next morning I received a call that Micah didn’t show up for work.
At first, we thought, “Oh, it’s just like Micah to get home late and not realize he has to be at work right away. He probably thinks he starts tomorrow.” But, just in case we decided to check with the airline and look at his bank account. He had made it all the way to Fayetteville, North Carolina where Ft. Bragg is located. Then, he’d gone on base, filled up his car and then emptied his bank account. So, he had either been robbed (beaten, lying on the side of the road dead?) or gone AWOL. Panic set in.
Two hours later, after a conversation with my daughter, we found that he’d talked about going AWOL at Burning Man. In fact, they’d had a big fight about it. She was sure he’d changed his mind by the end of the week, so she didn’t mention it.
The next four days were sheer torture. We’d had no word from Micah. I spent most days alternating between trust and despair. I had no words to pray so I turned to the Psalms:
“I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.” Psalm 6:6
Our friends and family stood with us and sustained us. And there were glimpses of God. One morning I was so despondent I prayed, “I just want to know that you are with me. It would help if someone I didn’t even really know was praying for me right now. I need to know you see me.” After that, I took a shower and when I came out my husband had put the mail on the dresser. In it was an envelope addressed to me from a woman I hardly know – I met her two years ago at a women’s retreat. On the outside of the envelope was a picture of birds. Under it she had written, “He is watching over you.” Inside was her assurance that I was not alone and she was praying for me! It was so unexpected, so needed. I cried tears of thanksgiving.
Two days later, again despondent I took the dog up in the hills for a walk. It was a warm, dry Reno evening, but when I turned and looked up, there was a big fat rainbow. Not the kind that arches across the sky, but a straight fat one that looked like an exclamation point, slamming into the earth. I sat on a rock and starred at it in wonder. All the promises of the rainbow came back to me and I felt God say, “This will not end in destruction.”
Micah has called us every Sunday for the five years that he’s been in the Army. On Sunday we received a Facebook message, “Alive and Safe, I love you.”
We were so relieved, he was alive and safe!
Our worry for him continues. We know he needs to go back to the base ASAP. We held on to the hope that he would contact us again this Sunday. When he did not, we again sunk into despair. We held each other in bed that night and cried.
Monday morning my husband had an inkling: It was the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. He went to a Flickr and put in Occupy Wall Street into the search engine. After two hours of searching, he was rewarded with the above picture of our boy.
Another glimpse from God. We are not alone. We stand with so many who are praying with us, and God continues to sustain us.
Many of you are going through equally difficult times right now. Let me know what they are so we can hold each other up. These things are too much to bear alone.

Glimpses of God

 

glimpses of God

I often feel more evidence of God’s presence during difficult times. Maybe I’m just more aware of what actually goes on around me every day, or my radio dial gets tuned in quicker during trauma. Maybe I just pay more attention when my legs get kicked out from under me.
Labor Day weekend was my 35th class reunion and my high school besties and I decided to make a girls weekend of it. We got stranded in a bar for several hours (a long and humorous story for another time) and played the game, “Tell me a Story.” This is a game I invented when I was young to entertain my little sister on long road trips. In this game, someone gives you a word or phrase and you have to tell a true story about your life related to that prompt. My friend gave me the word “Terror.” I laughed and said, “I’m not sure what the story will be, but I’m positive it will have something to do with my kids.” Kids have a way of pushing our fear buttons faster than anything I can think of.
Driving home from the weekend, I got a first-hand look at another form of terror. I was driving up the Sierra Nevada Mountains at night when I came upon a pick-up truck stopped in my lane with no lights on. Instant decision: plow into him or try to miss him. I swerved left, overcorrected right and plowed head-on into the guard rail at 65 mph. I won’t go on about all that happened next. I won’t tell you how I found out the guy in the truck was a four-time DUI offender and plastered. I won’t tell you about his wasted female passenger who I thought was coming up to ask if I was okay but instead asked for a ride to the next town. Or the sheer miracle of how I walked away alive and unbroken even though my car was totaled and sitting in the same lane as the truck. I will say that I finally had the clarity to get out of my car and onto the side of the road. Then Brain-Trust in the truck opened his door so an oncoming car could take it off and fling it at me. At that moment I had an epiphany: I felt terrified! I knew that if I ever got asked that question again playing Tell Me a Story, I’d have an answer.

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But, I do want to mention a glimpse of God I got that night.
The tow-truck driver dropped me and all my worldly goods, including my grand-baby’s car seat, at an all-night gas station in a small mountain town. It was a warm night and there was a man sitting on the bench where I was deposited. He was sipping a soda and smoking a cigarette. After noting my arrival he asked if there was a baby in the accident. I assured him there was not and we started chatting. It was very comforting to have someone to talk to. He told me of his life as a journalist in the bay area.
After about an hour I asked, “Why are you here?” I mean, it was about nine-thirty by then and he seemed content to sit and talk to me. He said he managed an apartment complex down the road and came here to get away from the noise. As the temp cooled he even got me a shirt from his car to cover my bare arms.
When my frazzled husband arrived around ten-thirty, my nameless angel got up to leave. “Thank you for staying with me,” I said, knowing that sentiment was inadequate for the situation.
“I just wanted someone to be with you until your husband arrived,” he said, shrugging as he walked away – just an every-day hero, just a glimpse of God. I wondered as we drove away, if he was real or a soda sipping, cigarette smoking angel? It didn’t matter, he was exactly what I needed in that moment and I was grateful.
There is a part two to this story, where the terror and the glimpses both crank up about a hundred notches. If you are a careful reader you will know where this is headed. But…since I’m still in the middle of this one I think I’ll wait a bit for that post.
Let me know of times you’ve seen glimpses of God.

 

Photo Credit, Believe Sign – Debbie Mitchell Pinjuv