Do we believe what we see or do we see what we believe? Jason Petty
This is such a packed question isn’t it? I heard this said a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to put it out of my mind since. What a powerful and necessary dynamic to explore - to question whether we explain things away with our certainties, or if we can stay open enough to see the truth as it opens before us.
While challenged by this question, I began to see the start of how we can end up in a place of certainty, and I think it often begins with our speech, and particularly, the way we name things.
When we’re children, we learn simple words by association. We see a circle, we’re told it’s called “circle,” we begin referring to all round bodies as circles. As we get older, we learn to name more abstract concepts and feelings and can reason deeper and more intelligently. Whether we’re children assigning the word “cat” to a quadruped with a long tail and whiskers or conceptualizing human emotions or philosophy, we are perceiving, processing, and assigning worth to create an interpretation of the external world. We assign meaning to everything we encounter, and when we name something - when we give language to an experience - we reduce the thing to a concrete definition, an expectation, a constant.
Words are supposed to frame our world with concepts, but what tends to happen when we name things, is that we define them instead. One cannot generically say “tree” and a mass of people create the same mental image. “Tree” is a concept that is universal to our cultural understanding, but not something concrete and exact to then stick in concrete and put on a shelf. The tree changes in size, shape, color, texture, and in various ways that we cannot totally predict. We’re meant to live our lives through experience, wonder and intuition, using language as a way to connect us to our surroundings but not to reduce our way of life to scraps.
I think of what Jiddu Krishnamurti meant when he said “the day you teach the child the name of a bird, the child will never see the bird again.” It’s much more interesting to watch a bird gather materials for it’s nest or to preen it’s feathers, than to just say “bird.” “Bird” means wings and feathers and can create a construct of the subject being spoken of, but it doesn’t even touch hearing it’s call or seeing it’s pattern of flight or the coloration of it’s feathers. So the trick is to be able to name things, yet also to hold that name loosely enough to let the magic breathe through them still.
I love how in Jewish culture the name of God isn’t written in its entirety. It is written YHWH or G-d and is not spoken at all. Sometimes God is called HaShem which means “the name.” Sometimes the name of God is replaced with pause and breathing. The essence of God is so revered and honored that they allow God to remain fluid and uncontainable. They don’t give him the concreteness of a name because they understand that they are actually incapable of knowing him and understanding him fully. So they let the name breathe and evolve.
The way God is conceptualized in this culture is horrifying. My own definitions have been from opinions formed from my finite mind: by speculation and poor translating. The collective conscience of the faith behind proselytization created and upheld a slave economy after all. God is rarely what we say or think he is because we are too busy trying to prove our interpretations right. Again, are we blindly affirming what we already believe, or are we open to the experience of God Himself? So while challenging my view of God, I had to start at the very basic question: who is God? Wanting to bypass my own interpretation, I went to the book of Exodus where God named himself to Moses.
Moses was having confidence issues about approaching the slaves and declaring that God was going to free them. He asked God, “Well...if they ask, who do I even say that you are?” And God replied, “I am that I am.” “I am that I am” is more accurately translated as “I will be what I will be” or “I will become whatever I may become.” It was not a very helpful definition in terms of specificity, but it was a big and bold promise that God was going to be everything they needed: water from a rock, clothing that never wore out, a parted sea, a softened heart, a pillar of fire, manna, freedom that looked like a desert. He is fluid, uncontainable, and ever-present. He’s everything and nothing specific. He didn’t define himself with an overload of adjectives, but told us who he was in relation to us: a very real promise of provision and presence. This is what we needed to know - a definition that created context and familiarity, while avoiding anything concrete that could box God into something less than. The rest, was to be left to the experience of knowing him and seeing his promise play through.
All through the desert, the Israelites grappled with this definition to the point of longing for Egypt - the very heart of what held them captive. Our certainty does that to us. It removes the mystery and the call to trust and replaces it with platitudes. Even when our platitudes are dull and lifeless, we still cling to them. Often times it’s easier to believe the pat answer than to remain in a state of vulnerability and just trust. The Israelites would rather have been predictably and routinely fed by their masters than to trust God to miraculously feed them in freedom. That’s what our certainty does to us, it tames us. It robs us of life and only lets us see the things that uphold what we already believe. They believed God had forgotten them because they didn’t have a kingdom of their own. All they had to do was believe what God had promised them, to let the miracles of their very emancipation and sustenance carry them through and they would have been able to see the miracle of their desert-life for what it was.
So what does my understanding evoke and how can I escape the finality of such a large and unruly definition? I think this quote opened more questions in me then it did offer answers, but isn’t that the point? God will do the unexpected, he’ll lead me through deserts while making bold promises for my barren life. All he asks is that I follow and trust. So I follow and I try to hold loosely to the ideas I have of God while trying to let the experience rope me in and shake my beliefs down to the breath. The very place where God is closest to me. The experience and act of living itself.
This time of year creates an intense lure to silence. Winter is a naturally romanticized time of year that can make a mere mug of tea a spiritual experience. It has a gravity that pulls at the deepest parts of myself to be still and to listen. The snow creates a silence that's difficult to overlook. My focus instinctively repositions inward, and there seems to be a graceful permission to change pace, to slow down, to be present and enjoy what is immediately before us.
Of course, with 5 children, silence is a rare and cherished gift. While I typically long for moments of quiet, I'm not just talking about the kind of silence that is a mere soundlessness, but a silence that is deep and cultivated. Silence as an experience that opens up feelings and helps me to identify the noise that I carry within.
This last year my anxiety was omnipresent. I couldn't seem to escape it. It surpassed being situational, therapy only helped so much, nothing made it better, and most things made it worse. It's there in part because I have been exceptionally good at stuffing skeletons in my closet. It's there because I am not good at feeling my feelings, but thinking about them. While I'm not blaming myself for my anxiety or trying to oversimplify the causation, I do know that the visceral set of "facts" that my body has stored and lived by, need some attention. Silence is a quiet attunement to hear what my body and emotions have been trying to speak to me, and that I am finally ready to hear. There are several spiritual disciplines that have proven worthy of my time and attention, there are also some very practical ways that I can help myself not to feel so overwhelmed and frantic.
This is my tentative focus for the year:
While I don’t expect these practices to cure my anxiety, I do expect that they will enliven, rejuvenate, and help anchor me to the Spirit of life that keeps one hoping and whole. I need to practically relearn what I was created for, and the best way to know that, is to go to the source of life itself. These disciplines will help me to slow down, to make space from the chaos of human-stimuli, to disengage from the non-essentials, and to focus my time and energy on hearing the One who can lead me to freedom if I could just hear his voice.
There’s something about this time of year - when Advent is upon us - and the silence the snow evokes can be felt deep in the bones. It’s the kind of silence that invites a richer life, a good look at the heart, the hope of what can be. It’s one of the few times of year that God-as-gift feels tangible, feels close. Like an expectant mother holding her rounding belly, I hold a heart that is swelling. My heart as the inn, emptying itself to make room for the coming king.
Trauma can radicalize the amount of time I spend in the past. Even when my thoughts are in the present, my subconscious mind is always searching for unsafety. The moments when my children's laughter grounds me, or I experience total embodiment from a beautiful sunset, those moments only last so long. Those brief and enlivening moments when I am fully present though, they are what it means to be human. So I want to keep my eyes on the tender moments of now, so that I can experience my children's laughter without looking for sharp edges. That I can see the beauty of a sunset without the fear of the darkness that accompanies.
Maybe instead of time being the one that gives (because it never does), maybe I need to bend a little more to the holy time that I am given. I can't smooth the wrinkles of life, but I can coalesce to the grace of the moment. The grace that's always there when I'm looking for it. I've found that I can't be what everyone needs me to be. I can rarely be what I need for myself. But I can slowly pour myself out: offering a hug, a roof, an ear, a meal, a heart of compassion. In giving, I'm also surrendering. Surrendering my expectations, acknowledging my limitations, understanding that it was never my role to be everything to everybody.
All I can do, all that is really asked of me, is that I pour myself out. My insubstantial and fragile abilities and efforts could be broken like the little boy's 5 loaves and 2 fish. That all I have to do to participate in the miracle, is to show up and be willing. To come with my holy and meager offerings by saying here I am, and to know that God's hands can take the little pieces of me and spread them before the multitudes with grace and fulfillment (and even leftovers). There's always multiplication in the breaking. When I give what I have, (which is never enough, but always the right amount), when I am broken from the inside out, I can expect the empty spaces of me to be filled with God himself, and that my life becomes more of a blessing because of it.
I find it so odd that there is any form of comfort found in broken systems of coping. I've never been served in a positive way through the means I have learned to hurt less. Because in the hurting less, I have been investing less, receiving less, keeping a stranger's distance from the beautiful unknown.
I am giving myself breathing room to unlearn some of these habits I've called home. Because I'm learning that life's a balance of the holding on and the letting go. Letting go of things that cause more brokenness, gathering up trust, and holding on to the One who holds all things together. Because you can't grab on to something new when your fists are clenched with the old.
I have always been reaching: a drowning hand from the mire, a daughter who was reaching for a parent to see her and save her, reaching for the children she's wounded with her words, reaching for a way to inner peace, reaching for a way back. The long way back. It's hard to keep holding on when you haven't felt tenderly held. When you haven't let yourself be tenderly held.
My day is full of disruptions to higher ways, but I push through and shove past and elbow every single one out of the way in the name of convenience. Those disruptions are the way to new paths, the narrow path. And because I've had confusion in knowing when to let go and when to hang on, I've not acknowledged my hurts as a result of broken judgement, but I've internalized them as another reason to believe the lie.
The beliefs that I hold deep within my being are what hold on to me. So, what do I believe - truth and lies alike? This balance of holding on and letting go, just feels like I'm perpetually between trapezes. I have to let go of what I thought was holding me stable, and while in mid-aid, wait for the next bar to appear. Thankfully, I know now that it always will.
It is spelled in words of blood - "be still and know."
Quiet the mind, relax the body.
Let the Truth speak. Speak back only by quiet surrender.
It will come: that violent rush of revelation that changes not what one sees but how,
the worries and anxiety that hold fast in your rib cage,
the lies in your heart you don't even see as lies...yet.
Breathe and give. Give and breathe.
Because it is written, because the word was man, because the man bled, because the only way to life is to KNOW and the knowing comes from the stillness inside (the one that carries you even in the chaos).
I recently read a research article that detailed some of the effects of stress - namely from multitasking - on the body and brain. I learned that what I once called “an art,” is actually a debilitating practice. So serious in fact, that you can actually lose as many as 10 IQ points if you are a chronic multi-tasker. I have 5 children, I mean, I am always knee-deep in chaos and busyness, so this is absolutely frightening to me.
I’ve noticed this last year or so that I am struggling more than ever with the balance of my life. While I have always been a (mostly) organized person, I now find myself scattered, forgetful, unreasonable, and having difficulty focusing. I’ve actually felt myself dumbing down due to the lack of space I have to think critically. Sure, I need a good night’s sleep, but more than that, I need rest. I need the kind of rest that swallows me whole. The kind of silence that creates a lasting space within me, even when I have to jump back into the work.
I was reading one day and came across this scripture that said: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to life freely and lightly.” Matthew 11:28-30
I have never lived lightly. I carry and pack on and rebalance and grab more until the weight of all of the responsibilities and details of life are shoving me to the ground. It’s only there, in the dust, that I tend to recognize my very real need to let God redistribute the responsibilities I carry, to relieve the anxiety that pollutes the sacred spaces of my heart, and to just be still and to know.
According to this verse, a life of quiet does not mean that the belabored voices of my children will hush, but that amidst their tarrying, the quiet that is conjured deep within, will see me through. I am burned out because I can’t recognize my limitations and need for pause without an outside source burning it into my heart. God promises that the way he will lead me will not be heavy or ill-suited, and that these rhythms he will guide me through, are about relearning the balance of yes and no, of persevering and retreating, of doing the hard work of contemplation and mindfulness with every step along the way. It’s a sacred regard for the redeemed self. A way to create space for the love and the passion that truly breathe life into me and keep me from burning out.
The magic that happens in the quiet - in the transformative ability to unsee the formula, to break down the box, to forget about the mess - is the recognition that my only responsibility is the decision to stay close and follow suit. In those moments, His love will carry me to freedom.
Growing up in a non-denominational church, we didn't follow the conventions of the Lent season. We had a traditional celebration on Easter Sunday, one that amounted to a bit of holy reverence, and a lot of shared paganism. The idea of the resurrection of Christ was in the air, but all I felt was the burning damnation of my inescapable sin.
I attended an Episcopalian service once, and it happened to be Ash Wednesday. The small church was beautifully lighted by the flicker of candles, the priest was adorned in a simple white vestment, and the presence of the room was so profoundly holy. The beauty of the room was matched only by the congregants. The authenticity of their love, the sincerity of their hearts, was something I hadn't experienced from almost anyone, let alone complete strangers. It was the love of God himself being passed between us.
We partook of Eucharist by tearing a piece of bread from a single loaf, and dipping it into the wine held within a shared goblet. Arm-to-arm we stood, the heat of the body warming each other with the holy sacraments. The priest said a blessing over each who ate the bread and drank the wine. It was personal, intimate, something I had never before experienced, yet always knew to be the truth of what God's love should look like. I felt the love of Christ and his sacrifice for my life pour over me like warm honey.
I didn't think this moment could get any more intimate, and then the liturgy was delivered with such sweet vulnerability that it struck me in my deepest parts. This wasn't a manicured litany of facts, when Jesus died, and how he arose, no, this was a message spoken of our naturally duplicitous nature to both want good, and yet to do evil. There was no pretense, no avoidance of our own personal sin, no hiding, and most importantly, no shame. I had never been exposed so recklessly, and felt so shameless.
The call was made to come to the priest and to be adorned with soot. I arose and went forward. While my intentions were to be an observer only, I couldn't get there fast enough. My religious mind argued that I should sit this one out since I didn't really have an expansive understanding of the tradition. But through the beauty of this message, I got it. I wanted to be marked for a new life in repentance and the mourning of my sin. I wanted to be marked with my mortality. I wanted to accept that time is short and to decide where my dedications lie. In order to sort through my loyalties, I had to begin with the inward journey of self-reflection, and only with the Lord's skilled guidance. We need His guidance because it is too easy, upon investigation, to run from what we find. Shame often detracts us to live with the mythical self, rather than to embrace the reality of who we are. This sacred moment ripped the seams of my false self and helped me to embrace the hypocrisy and darkness of my life in a way that was freeing, not damning.
I felt God's presence on my life, His love blossoming around me by candlelight. I felt my heart expanding, my trust growing, my shame disappearing. This service showed me what my life as a disciple should really look like when stripped of the habits of religion. It's simultaneously self-aware AND overflowing with the grace of God and the extreme gratitude for making it safe to come to him in our darkness. Our sin is not hidden from God, yet when we acknowledge it and let it breathe out in the open, we find our forgiveness waiting in the quiet and steady love of God.
I have found myself again longing to re-establish God's stillness inside of me. I have felt a pull to be still in His presence. I have let the shame of defeat overwhelm me to the point of self-destruction. I have been drowning myself in the baptismal instead of finding new life there. I have let the habits of religion find their way back into my heart, and the cloud of sin hover all around me. I will take these 40 days and search myself once again. He if faithful to show up in His perfect love, and to strip away the lies. When all we can see is our sin, chances are we aren’t looking at ourselves through the tender eyes of God and receiving his forgiveness.
I find it interesting that Lent means "long," because it is a season to allow God to lengthen us in His love; into something eternal and beautiful, not in spite of our humanity, but because of it.
In our culture of overstimulation, it has become popular to think about the notion of self-care. I do agree that an empty cup cannot quench thirst, but the problem I have is this idea that we can fill our own cup.
I think the idea behind self-care is to put something bigger than yourself in front of you long enough to distract yourself from whatever it is that is provoking stress/negativity. Although it is healthy to take a moment from your triggers, simply doing something else will not make the problem go away. It might help you with perspective, calm you down, create more space to balance your emotions, but it will absolutely never create resolve.
The care our souls really thirst after, can only be found and unlocked by the transformation and redemption of something greater than we are. Self-care is a hypersensitivity to ourselves, and we are warned about looking at ourselves too closely because it leads to egotism and to self-centeredness. Self-centeredness will never please God because it overlooks the needs of others.
The goal of self-care is to self-gratify, and that will always usurp our ability to love our neighbors well, to avoid making judgements, to bear another's burdens, and to be forgiving. It is trading the authority of God for our own shallow and unsatisfying ego.
It's funny to me that when God told us how to love our neighbors, he directly correlated it to our ability to love ourselves. We're pretty understanding and gracious and conscious of our needs, right?! It's natural to be, so he says, "hey, love your neighbor LIKE THAT!"
I propose that we practice a different kind of mindfulness - the kind that focuses on our great God and His precious love for us. This kind of thinking will not only reframe our momentary thoughts - alleviating stress - but will help take it a step deeper by experiencing reconciliation, closure, forgiveness, and lasting peace. We will be shifted from self-centric, to other-centric.
Mindfully meditating on God will put something (someONE) bigger than ourselves in front of us, reminding us that He is so very big and encompassing, and that HE will fill our cracked cups to overflowing, and that same bounty can be caught by others. So, instead of merely quenching our own thirst, we have become a wellspring for others.
I have been in a long season of seeking. Some incredibly challenging years have led me to question the goodness of God as my shepherd. I have wandered outside of His pasture, and yet he is still there - gathering me to himself - proving His goodness in the very act.
He's not afraid of honest questions, in fact he promises to fulfill us and feed us. Through my fist-shaking, wall-building heart, he has been gentle, kind, and loving. God doesn't gives curses and vipers. He's SO gracious that he's even willing to use the scraps of injustice to grow and mature us into deeper and deeper sanctification.
He promises to lead and nourish us, guide and guard us in the asylum of His arms. He gathers and shades us. Where the world strips us to bone, he leaves us satisfied.
If you ever wonder of God's goodness, just talk to him about it. Give him a chance to show you that he IS a good shepherd, and that you will always be tended to.