Spiritual Practice: End of the Year Reflection

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I love December for many reasons: the winter weather, Christmas lights, festive parties; but I also love it as it brings the end to one year and the promise of something new in January. This year is especially fun as it brings a close to a whole decade and opens up a new beginning in 2020.

At the end of each year, I enjoy reflecting back, to see what I might need to savor, grieve, let go of, and learn from. This can open up a time of dreaming and goal planning for the new year (which we can do in a later blog).

Today we will look at the categories: Body, Mind, and Spirit, and next time we’ll tackle Emotions, Work, Relationships, and Fun/Creativity.

Body: Thinking back on 2019, how did you feel about your body? I don’t mean, were you thin or fit enough, I mean, were you at peace with it? Do you try to be an integrated person who honors, loves, and accepts your body? If so, how did you do it? Where did you fall short?

This year I grew in loving my body. As a post-menopausal woman, this has been a challenge. My stomach, which has always been a small part of my body, has become distended and refuses to regain its shape. I work with a personal trainer twice a week and have been enjoying getting stronger. But I believe that yoga has done the most to help me love and accept my body the way it is. The practice of yoga, breathing and stretching together, works to reestablish balance in our parasympathetic nervous systems. These systems get out of balance with stress, and yoga helps us realign. When I’m practicing yoga, I often find myself grateful for my body and sending it love.

How about you? How is your relationship with your body?

Mind: For me, reading is always the best way to improve my mind. I also listen to podcasts, attend lectures and enjoy interesting conversations. Looking back on the year, I’d like to share two books that have been stretching my thinking.

the body keeps the score

First, the book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk M.D. has helped me understand how Trauma affects the body. I’ve been working with trauma personally, and in my counseling practice for decades, and this book synthesis all the things I’ve learned into one helpful package. I’ve signed up to become an EMDR practitioner just so I can learn to help the traumatized even more. I highly recommend this book if you or someone you know has experienced trauma. Caution: It can be triggering, so it’s best to read and discuss with a trusted friend or counselor.

the great spiritual migration

The second book that is giving words to my experience is called, “The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a Better Way to Be Christian.” By Brian D. McLaren.

I’ve felt that old ways of thinking of my faith aren’t working for me anymore but not sure what that means for the future. Don’t get me wrong, I still love God and Jesus and my faith is stronger than ever, but it’s different. The old forms don’t fit. McLaren gets that and he has vision, hope, and direction for renewing or reinventing our faith “for the common good,” as it was originally meant to be.

How have you grown your mind this year? What helps you stretch your thinking?

How about your spirit? This year my spirit has been happiest in helping others grow spiritually. I’ve been leading a spiritual formation class where we try different spiritual formation contemplative practices together, such as Lectio Divina or praying a labyrinth. That has been a blast! But personally, I feel a bit restless or maybe lethargic in my spiritual self. I feel weary. I’m still taking my monthly retreats of silence and meeting with my spiritual director, but I have a hard time just being quiet, settling in. That is something for me to reflect on for the new year/decade. What do I need to unplug from so I can settle? Maybe I need less time on my phone and more time in the trees.

How about your spirit? How are you nurturing that part of you that needs time in nature, time in silence, time in fellowship?

Thanks for joining me in part one of reflecting on the year. Tune in next time for part two where we will reflect on Emotions, Work, Relationships, and Fun/Creativity. Then get ready to create some dreams and hope for the new year. Let me know how you best sort through a year and plan for the next.

 

Photo Credit: Snow cave: Photo by Maël BALLAND on Pexels.com

 

 

Spiritual Practice: Visioning

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I have often been skeptical of visionaries. I once worked with a youth group at a church where several young women came to me privately, confiding that God had told them they were to marry a certain young man. Unfortunately, they all named the same young man! I’m pretty sure hormones were speaking and not God.

Yet, I have experienced God speaking to me and others through dreams, visions, and intuitions as well. And, there are people who are particularly in touch with what God is doing in the world; they are careful observers, who can see what the rest of us might miss. We call these people prophets or visionaries. They are people who see beyond the status-quo.

Yet I believe we can all be in line with what God wants to do in the world if we just give ourselves time to listen. As in most spiritual practices, the ability to vision starts with quiet listening.

Here are some exercises you might try to begin a visioning journey:

Caution: If we get stretched too thin, we will not be able to stop and listen to God without falling asleep. Regular contemplative spiritual practices prepare our heart, mind, and soul to receive what God is trying to tell us. But, if you try to listen and get drowsy, honor your body by taking a nap. I believe we live in a chronically sleep deprived world. Sometimes the most spiritual thing we can do is sleep.

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Take a walk in nature:

Getting out into nature is also an important way to listen to the heartbeat of God. God’s creation speaks or creates an atmosphere for us to hear things better. Visionary Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was what they call a “landscape mystic.” Christine Valters Paintner talks about Hildegard in her book, Illuminating the Way, “that the geography of her world was a means of ongoing revelation into the nature of God.” I’ve found this to be true for myself. Getting out into nature, whether it’s a walk in the desert with my dog, or a trip with my honey to the ocean or forest always restores my soul, clears my head and helps me hear God better.

Make a visioning board:

Gather some magazines, glue and, scissors. Think about what things are most important to your true self and are in line with your values. This is not a wish list for material possessions or fame, but a chance to clarify what unique dreams, personality, and purposes God has given you. It could be goals, dreams, or desires. It could be things you don’t see in your life right now that you would hope to see in the future. Or it could be things you already see but want to continue experiencing. Begin to look for pictures in the magazines that represent those values. When you find them, cut them out glue them in any way you want on a paper or canvass. Keep your vision board near you to remind yourself what is important.

When I did this exercise, the things I noticed that were important to me were: time with my family and friends, traveling adventures with my husband, writing meaningful books, helping people grow spiritually, and empowering women. Three years later, this board still reflects my basic values and has been a way to say “no” to things that would take me away from things that are not life-giving.

Your board will reflect what is important to you. Let me know if you try any of these practices and connect with your inner visionary.

When you feel you have heard from God it’s always good to run what you’ve heard through spiritual friends you trust and the holy books you treasure. God is good and loving and wants you to be involved in your own healing, the healing of others, and the healing of the earth. The things you hear will line up with the loving nature of God.

Spiritual Practice: Waiting

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Nobody likes to sit in a waiting room. We might not mind for a few minutes while we catch up on favorite magazines, but after that, we get antsy and impatient and start to think uncharitable thoughts about whomever we’re waiting for.

Have you ever been in a spiritual waiting room, the time between one thing and the next when you have no recourse but to wait on God? It can be disconcerting—but it can also grow your faith and character in a way few things can.

Staying Power

The experience of being “between two things” has been referred to as “liminal space” by spiritual formation writers. In an article titled “Grieving as Sacred Space,” Richard Rohr defines liminal space as “a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them.” He adds:

It is when you have left the “tried and true” but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are in between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer… If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait—you will run… Anything to flee from this terrible “cloud of unknowing.”

Liminal space can be caused by many things: a long-term illness, the death of someone you love, the inability to get a job, the need to decide on a major, a bad relationship that you feel stuck in, or a sense that there is no place for you to bear fruit in the world.

As Rohr suggests, our tendency is to run when we’re in liminal spaces, but I’m encouraging you to stay. Someone once told me that often the best prayer we can manage is to stay in an uncomfortable situation. That’s the best waiting we can do too.

What Waiting Requires

So, whatever the reason you’re waiting, don’t try to rush out of it. Instead, ask God to show you what you can learn while you’re there.

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You might also consider employing these six tips to help you through this time.

  1. Find someone to wait with you. As Pooh says to Piglet, “It’s so much friendlier with two.” Of course, no one can fully share the agony of your waiting, but having a trusted friend, mentor, therapist, or spiritual director along with you on your journey can help tremendously.
  2. Keep a journal. You don’t want to miss the lessons of this time, and journaling can help you sort out your thoughts.
  3. Be kind to yourself. Eat right, sleep well, exercise. It’s easy to feel sorry for ourselves when these times come, but falling into bad health habits will not help you weather this storm. Think of the waiting as a spiritual marathon, and keep up your training.
  4. Don’t be a turtle. Sometimes, when things are hard, pulling away from others and into a protective shell can be a natural instinct. But what you really need when you’re waiting is a community. Reach out to your friends. The journey will be lighter with friends to help support and encourage you.
  5. Find some heroes who have endured difficult times. Interview your parents and relatives about what they’ve learned during trials. Study the life of Martin Luther King Jr. or read poems by Maya Angelou.

Remember, God does some of God’s best work in deserts, cocoons, waiting rooms, and tombs. Don’t fear this liminal space. Embrace the space!

What has helped you get through times of waiting?

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Photo: Waiting Room: From my dentist office waiting room!

The second is artwork called “melancholy: by Albert Gyorgy and can be found in Geneva, Switzerland.

*I originally wrote this article for IVCF and have changed it a bit to fit the language I’m more comfortable with.

Doubly Marginalized

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If you follow this space, you’ll note that most of my brilliant revelations come after I meet with my spiritual director. A spiritual director is someone who companions with you in your life with God.

I meet with my spiritual director for an hour once each month. I usually spew my tangled emotions and somehow she manages to find a theme or important question in the midst of my ramblings. That helps me make sense of my life.

Lately, for the last several years, my confusion has been around not feeling like I fit in my “evangelical” Christian culture, yet not fitting anywhere else either. This leaves me feeling rather untethered and lost. God is still real and near, but where do I fit in community with others?

Last month when we met, she used the analogy of a cog of the “wheel and cog” variety and I realized, I just don’t cog very well anymore. I don’t fit the prescribed evangelical Christian culture; I love gay people, and I can’t understand how ANYONE could vote for Donald Trump. With some of my dear friends, this makes me a rather uncomfortable person to be around.

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Some friends have unfriended me, some have unfollowed me. Some hold me tenderly, at a distance. Others are watching to see what crazy thing I’ll do next. I am confident that they all still love me. We just don’t speak the same language anymore.

This month, that wizard who is my spiritual director used a term she had heard from Brother Don Bisson, a Jungian-Christian spiritual director. The term is, “doubly- marginalized.”

It comes from the idea that when a person works with those on the margins, they fit neither with the people they are working with nor with their former community. I find this to be exactly true for me. I love my rainbow family, yet, as a cis female, I am not one of them. And working with my beloved rainbow family has changed me. I am a different person now, which makes me not “cog” well with many in my former Christian community. God is bigger to me now and has blown out all of the tidy boxes I used to keep him in.

So, where does that leave me? I’m still a Christ follower, that is true. And there are others who don’t cog well that I’ve found to cluster with. And there is my rainbow family, who love me unconditionally. So, I’ve decided it’s time to put the blinders back on and keep my eyes on Jesus – to go where he leads me, to love those he has called me to love and to try and ignore those loud, very loud, voices telling me I’m wrong, crazy or apostate.

This is me, a not cogging well, doubly marginalized, Christ follower. Care to join me? Do you ever feel that you don’t cog well? I’d love to hear your story.

Cog picture credit

 

Enjoying Seasons of Consolation

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If you follow this blog you’ll know that my life has had its share of difficulty, discouragement, and suffering. A spiritual word for that is desolation. Desolation can be circumstantial, coming with the death of a loved one for instance. It can also be spiritual, like the “dark night of the soul” described by St. John of the cross. That kind of desolation is where God feels distant and your spirit feels dry. For six years I met monthly with a spiritual director who walked me through some difficult times. But now and then I would go to see her and feel, surprisingly, like things were going well. My children were doing fine, my job was good, my husband was happy, I was at peace. She called those times, consolation.

The problem was, it was hard for me to relax during those times of consolation because I was bracing myself for the inevitable desolation to come. I’d spiral into “what ifs:” What if this happens?  What if the bottom drops out? It’s really hard to relax when you are bracing yourself for the next set of problems. The Bible calls that “borrowing tomorrows troubles” and warns against it, but boy – is it hard to get out of that habit.

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There are so many bad things that could happen, it’s easy to miss the good things when they come. So I wanted to stop and talk a minute to talk about consolation. The Desert Mothers and Fathers talked a lot about consolation and desolation. Both were an expected part of life and both are important. Of course, we generally learn the most from our desert places, the dark times, the desolation. There are things we just cannot learn without facing grief, loss, and pain. But there are also things to be learned from consolation, the good times where you can let down your guard a bit, and rest.

Here are six spiritual disciplines to practice when things are going well:

  1. First, notice that things are going well. Don’t miss it. Savor it, enjoy it, celebrate it!
  2. Force yourself to stay fully present in consolation and don’t allow yourself to start up with the “what ifs.” It is tempting to live in the future. This is the time to stay present.
  3. Talk to people about the good times. Let them know you are happy, that life isn’t all dips and valleys. There is plenty of bad news these days and it’s easy to become a Debby Downer, but in times of consolation, spread the joy. You might help someone who is suffering to know a better day will come.
  4. Be thankful! Sometimes, when things are going well, I feel guilty. Why is so-and-so suffering while my life it going well. It reminds me of the time our favorite antagonist, Judas, got mad at Mary for pouring oil on Jesus’ feet. He said the costly oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus’ famous reply was basically, “the poor will always be with you, but I won’t.” Hard times will always be happening in our world and it is perfectly fine, in fact necessary, to dump out some oil out and celebrate when we can.
  5. It is important to use the times of consolation to process the times of desolation. When you’re in the middle of desolation, it can be hard to see the lessons. But when things have settled down, you can sift through the difficult experiences by journaling and pondering to discover what things you want to keep and what to let go. For instance, you may need to let go of some bitterness or unforgiveness. You may want to keep the surprising strength of character you found during that difficult time or the new skill you had to acquire.
  6. Enjoy Life! It’s not more spiritual to suffer. Joy is spiritual too. Joy, laughter, thanksgiving, gratefulness flow from us during consolation. Let them flow. The world needs that, we need that, it is a gift, open it.

How do you celebrate times of consolation? Has being present during good times been a struggle or does it come naturally to you?

“Bird!”  Or — What I Learned about Spiritual Healing of the Trauma Brain.

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I just got back from an incredible weekend at Mercy Center, a Catholic retreat center in California. The retreat was called: Trauma, Healing & Spirituality. I went because I love Mercy Center and because I could get some Continuing Education Credits toward the upkeep of my counseling license. I got much more than I bargained for and I have decided to share some of my thoughts over the next several weeks.

I’m going to start at the end of the retreat and work backward. Our last assignment was to walk around the grounds and see what symbol of the weekend “found us.” I was found by this bluebird. Please watch this short video.

The bird brings my first trauma story full circle. When I was about sixteen I was laying in the sun by my family’s swimming pool. A bird, exactly like this one only smaller, hopped up to me and chirped in a very desperate voice, “I’m hungry! I’m hungry!” He had prematurely left the nest.

I took the bird in and promptly named him “Bird” ‘cause I’m creative like that. Bird was terrified and needy and always hungry. I took him out twice a day and found bugs on the sidewalk. I’d tap next to the bug and Bird would happily eat it. This went on for a few days before Bird flew up into a tree in your yard and was on his own.

About a year later I had just finished closing up shop with my boss when he raped me. There are certain predictable things that have to come together for a person to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.

First, something startles you. In this case, it was when my boss’s intentions became clear. A person or situation that felt safe suddenly became unsafe, and one is startled by that.

Second, you feel trapped. In my case, I tried to run away but the exit was blocked and he was stronger than I was.

Third, at some point, you feel you might die. Most rape victims have this feeling at some point.

There, now you have the perfect recipe for PTSD. You can see why all of our combat vets have PTSD. They constantly live in that soup.

The point of this blog is not for anyone to feel sorry for me. God has redeemed this experience for me through many years of processing, counseling and helping others who have also been abused.

Healing

When trauma happens, there can be a separation between our spirit and our body. Some people with on-going trauma learn to completely dissociate from their bodies. Also during trauma, cortisol, a stress hormone, is released. This is good as it kicks in the flight/fight or flee response. We need that response in order to survive. But if stress continues for too long, the amygdala in our brains can become enlarged and we can get stuck in the fight/flight or flee place.

This conference, of course, reminded me of my first trauma event and of the subsequent traumas in my life that re-trigger my trauma brain. The last six years have had many triggers to re-inflict those damaged areas of my brain: Losing our home, losing my son (for four months when he went missing off his army base), totaling my car, losing a job, losing my mom…It’s been a rough patch.

The good news is that there are ways to heal the trauma brain. That’s what I learned at this conference. This weekend I learned some basic breathing exercises and spiritual disciplines that can lower cortisol levels and allow the amygdala to shrink back to its normal size. I’ll be trying to practice some of them daily and giving you a report.

Now, about the bird. As I was walking the grounds, looking for a symbol, I saw this bird that looked very much like my Bird. But this bird was happy, peaceful and not afraid. He (or she) let me get close and film him while he busily went about finding food for himself or his family. It was a metaphor for my life. I am not that frightened bird I once was. I am at peace, I have purpose, and I have people to feed. I’m excited to share the things I’ve learned in this space.

There is hope for the traumatized brain. There is hope for you. You’re welcome to share your stories with me, but you don’t have to. These are sacred stories and should be told in safe spaces. I know many of you have had trauma and are living with the hypervigilance, fear, and disembodiment that come with it. I will pray for you and share the hope I’m finding.