Father Richard Rohr says "We cannot attain the presence of God because we're already totally IN the presence of God. What's absent is awareness. Little do we realize that God is maintaining us in existence with every breath we take. As we take another it means that God is choosing us now and now and now."
How lovely to think that with each expansion of the lungs, God is choosing us again and again and again. Isn't His presence so tangible in that context? I feel like I am finally understanding that God is always near to me. What my heart has known, the conditioning of my religion has made me doubt in my mind. There was always a sense of fighting to be near the presence of God. Fighting to do what's right, fighting to be pure so that God could stand my presence. An impossibility of barriers. I was told to contend - which a person must - but was given the wrong definition. Contending isn't a futile fight for purity. It's not a list of prohibitions or bartering or the right sequence of prayers. And it's most definitely not the cleaning up of one's own sin. Contending is simply submitting the mind to Christ so that the truth can be unburied and we can come out from the tomb. We don't contend for God's presence, because he is always with us. We contend with the lies that hold us back from experiencing His nearness. Our world is lit up with burning bushes, we only have to ask for eyes to see them. The rest of the time, we are to believe he is with us simply because we are still breathing.
In 2014 my husband and I had an opportunity to relocate our family to Nashville, Tennessee, and we accepted with open arms. We were wide-eyed and fully in. We had peace about moving, about the opportunities and relationships that awaited us, at the adventures that would present in a big city. After 3 grueling months we found a house, packed all of our belongings into a Penske and drove just shy of 500 miles to our new life.
From the time our Penske touched the curb of our quaint little neighborhood, things fell apart. That feels like a grave understatement, "things falling apart." If we had any sense, I suppose we would have headed straight back to Ohio, never unloading, never touching the soil of out Tennessee life, never knowing what we were missing. Giving up before starting is not my husband and I's nature, so when our housing immediately fell through, along with a large portion of the 3 months rent and deposit we had paid to secure it, we held our breath and hoped for the best.
My brother and sister-in-law graciously and temporarily absorbed us into their home. We unloaded our belongings into their garage and set to work looking for a new rental home. Months of online searches, applications, walk throughs and credit checks, and we couldn't land a place. My husband was new to his job and was self-employed, which did not offer much security to people when they looked at us on paper, even when we offered to pay 6 months rent to relieve their unease.
Every opportunity that presented, somehow fell through. We even got so far as to find a rental where the landlord was gutting a newly purchased home to our preference and specification, only for it to fall through a week before we were to move in. We lost a lot of expensive items in storage due to water damage. All of our bicycles, our grill and our children's Power Wheel and wagon were stolen. I was rear-ended and the police officer lost the original report from the accident. This was not a year of isolated incidents, this was an entire year of events like these strung together.
The family members we were staying with eventually lost their home because of us. Because we overstayed our welcome with their landlords, and because they vied for us. While they went to stay with family until they found a place, we had nowhere to go. My husband's job crashed, he couldn't make enough money to sustain us living in such an expensive city at any other job than the one he came to do. But every time a horrible thing happened to us, God would make a way. It was so difficult not to have anything tangible to put our trust in. We had nothing to take account of. We had to wait for provisions to present themselves to us, and typically they did so, but always at the last possible moment. So although our needs were met and we had perfect strangers offer us a home and their friendship, it was never comfortable to be in a consistent position of waiting.
This terrible and beautiful year reminded me of the Israelites exodus from Egypt. They were handed their freedom, promised a land flowing with milk and honey, and yet found themselves wandering in the desert questioning everything. They always had what they needed, but not much else. They never knew where the next source of water would be or how much longer they'd be walking.
I used to scoff at the Israelites and how they could ever question God after their freedom was given to them in such a miraculous way. Then I found myself wandering in a Tennessean desert of my own, provided for in mysterious ways, but because they weren't comfortable, I found myself asking God where he was. What I wanted wasn't provision, we were gifted that, what I wanted was assurance. I was like the Israelites, wanting to save enough manna for the next meal instead of trusting it to fall again with the next set of hunger pains. I wanted a stocked pantry when God was inviting me to trust him moment by excruciating moment.
This year felt so much longer than 365 days. While my husband and I didn't handle the stress very graciously, we knew that this move was vital to our lives. Sure, nothing worked as planned, or even well, but it was an invitation to understand out faith. We hadn't like the stagnation and resentment that was settling in our faith back home. We wanted a new understanding of God, of ourselves, and we were absolutely getting it.
People back home often wondered if maybe we had heard wrong or maybe we misinterpreted the peace we had about the move to be about what we wanted instead of some divine permission. But I don't believe that God is a micro-manager. I believe that God is always saying yes unless he specifically says no. Because there's this belief system modern Christianity teaches that only wants to recognize the blessings of God as the things that come easy and pleasant. It says that if we're doing things right, it's from God and we deserve it. When we experience hardship, it must be from sin. This thinking really puts too many conditions on God's love, and it also robs the grace right out of our lives. It really feels more like American entitlement than a Christian truth. The practicalities of life were terrible for us, but we were so rich in the truth and love of God. Isn't the Bible proof that things do in fact unravel, including entire belief systems? And isn't that a blessing to be stripped of misconceptions? Deconstruction isn't just about demolition. The purpose is to rebuild and reconstruct something more solid. Something more lasting.
I spent so much time sitting outside and contemplating all of the questions about God that were surfacing inside of my heart. It was fascinating to see all of the curiosities I'd always had, but was told not to ask, only to resurface now that our life was in crisis. This wasn't time to recite a prayer from a book or to stand from some platform and throw scriptures. This was a time to purge and empty myself of all that I had become disenfranchised about. Before we moved, I was at an impasse with God. I didn't like the culture of Christianity and I surely didn't like that my beliefs didn't incite change, within me or anyone else. I wanted to live like Jesus. I wanted peace and love. I wanted something that my beliefs couldn't provide.
That year in Tennessee was a call from Christ Himself. I had been beckoned to ask all of the questions that were stored in my heart from the time I was a little girl. I had some surprising questions that I did not see coming, like "God, are you good?" At first, I felt like I was losing my faith. I felt like a spoiled brat who was questioning God because circumstances were falling apart, but that wasn't what was happening. I thought I had known that God was good, but I didn't really understand that. When life fell apart, I was able to see myself so clearly. I was able to see what I truly believed, and what I honestly didn't know. Those surprising truths knocked the wind out of me. I was taking the indoctrination of my youth as the evidence for Christ, and that was just gross. The chaos of our circumstances made me brave enough to ignore the lies that accused my questions to be faithlessness, and I asked them all.
God answered me. He answered through a series of ways: he led me through scripture that was timely for my heart, he showed His goodness through the kindness of strangers to take us into their hearts and homes, he answered me with love and rebuke, and so much mercy. I think so many times we don't ask questions because we feel like they're not an act of faith. That's what was pressed into me. If you couldn't believe, you emptily recanted scripture or asked for forgiveness and were urged to move on.
I don't believe that faith is blindly following something we don't understand. I think that's conformity. I think faith is trusting the heart of God even when you have no idea where he's taking you or what he's going to ask of you. You can't have faith without trust, and you can't trust something that you don't know. The very reason I can trust God now isn't because I have all of the answers, but because he revealed himself to me through my questions and wrestling that very tender year in Tennessee. I began to see that all of the questions and uncertainties I was suppressing was actually the door for me to know God more fully. My questions weren't a lack of faith, but the very way to find it.
The greatest commandment that Jesus gave was to love God with all of our being, and then to love and consider our neighbor as we do ourselves. It doesn't get any simpler than that. I don't understand then, how Christians can be so cautious with their love. Jesus' life was exemplary in the kind of love we were to behold. He demonstrated his love and power to people who had been exclusively marginalized and rejected: women, lepers, the possessed, tax collectors, prostitutes, gentiles, the unclean and sinners alike.
There have always been people who use the holy text to exclude and divide (Pharisees and Sadducees), but Jesus' very life challenged the philosophy of the Pharisaical Judaism of His culture. He healed on the Sabbath and encouraged the disciples to pick grain on this holy day of rest. Furthermore, Jesus included everyone that fit under the scrutiny of the purity laws that governed His society. He went to the untouchables and he touched them. He healed them, he included them into the kingdom that he came to establish. Jesus' love was all-encompassing and deliberate in setting a new system to operate within. A system that was only exclusionary if one chose so, never because they weren't welcome.
Can we agree that what we see playing out before us is dramatically different than what the life of Jesus modeled? Nadia Bolz-Weber said that "the more fear and shame we have about something, the more prone we are to manipulation - by the culture, by advertising, and especially the church." I think we have so much fear of people who are different, that we readily listen to those in influence when they give not only permission - but more dangerously - justifications to subvert unity and inclusivity. The church can paint a picture of saint and sinner, our government has its own stake to good and bad when they say American versus everyone else. Then there are those with political prestige who also claim (and warp) the gospel (just like the Sadducees and Pharisees) for the advancement of their nation-state, ahem Nationalism. We have to be able to examine our faith and ask if what we believe has helped bolster our allegiance to the U.S., or the actual kingdom of God. There is a very radical difference between the two.
Have you ever heard the saying "The gospel isn't offensive because of who it keeps out, but who it lets in?" It's really easy to love people who fit into our neat little definition of "lovable," but what about all of the people we're supposed to love, like our neighbors? All of them. Don't we need the grace and love of Christ to enable us to love unconditionally and without discrimination? We need Jesus to embrace the unclean (the woman with the bleeding issue, prostitute at the well) or a sexual anomaly (eunuchs). We need Jesus to help us get past our warped philosophies and to embrace the politicians who put the empire above the people (tax collectors), to love those who persecute us (Romans/Pontius Pilate/humanity itself). It goes against social norms to love people on "the outside" of the empire: the immigrant, the refugee, Muslims, Palestinians. We have plenty of problems inside the empire too, particularly with those whose backs this country was built upon: BIPOC.
Jesus was the living, breathing gospel in perfect human form. I'd say that instead of cherry-picking verses to justify our own personal beliefs, that we set theology and interpretation aside and look to the life of this man who is the word-made-flesh. We can misinterpret a lot of historical and contextual meaning, but we cannot misunderstand His life of inclusivity. So I challenge us all to look in our hearts and to find who we see as the outsiders, and to ask Jesus to challenge and examine the ways our faith has made an idol out of keeping them on the outside. Is it nationalism, fear and caution, self-preservation? Ask for forgiveness, get closer to those you are challenged to love, and see how different the gospel looks then.
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.