The Truth Is

3F006831-75A4-4D11-AABD-DDA91B9AF938The truth is I never expected to have an illness with the ominous descriptor β€œend stage.” I never saw it coming, but after a very brief, sudden and inexplicable illness, I was diagnosed in 2014 with end stage kidney disease. I was put on dialysis immediately and spent the rest of that year struggling and suffering.

The truth is I lost myself that year. For a time, I lost the ability to walk, think, name my colors, write my name. I lost my ministry and my ability to engage in the work I so loved. I ended up on seven and a half hours of dialysis daily.

The truth is that those many days, most of them spent in the hospital, may well have been sent to me as a call to awaken from my predictable existence. It was as if an inner, divine grace was demanding my spiritual growth. The truth is I was plunged deeply into a state of being filled with questions and voices I did not really want to hear. If all of this was a message from God, it was the message that all of my illusions, realities and identities were about to spill over the sides of my life, forcing me to stand still in the chaos.

The truth is that apart from this level of life upheaval, I would have lived on as usual, comfortable in the life I had built for myself. But in the middle of those long nights in the hospital, I asked God if this was a new summons to me, an urgent summons that called for my transformation.

I have trouble describing that time of my life. I have struggled for the words to express what was going on in me. Then I found a brilliant description written by one of my favorite authors. This is how she described a similar season in her life.

For months I had been lost in a baffling crisis of spirit . . . I had awakened to a growing darkness and cacophony, as if something in my depths were crying out. A whole chorus of voices. Orphaned voices. They seemed to speak for all the unlived parts of me, and they came with a force and dazzle that I couldn’t contain. They seemed to explode the boundaries of my existence. I know now that they were the clamor of a new self struggling to be born.

– From When the Heart Waits: Spiritual Direction for Life’s Sacred Questions by Sue Monk Kidd

Bingo! Whatever my year of illness was about, I knew it was about β€œthe clamor of a new self struggling to be born.” The truth is that is exactly what occurred in me. The new self was about to show itself. It was on the verge of emerging and morphing so that β€œwho I am” became someone I hardly recognized. My family commented often that I had become very quiet, that I seldom spoke (very unlike the person they knew).

The truth is I really was quiet, even silent at times. But I see now that it was all about this season in my life, my time to listen to God, to listen to my deepest self, to hear those β€œorphaned voices” that had been silent for a lifetime. Would this be a transformative experience for me?

The truth is I did not want to be so sick. I did not want to feel that bone-deep fatigue. I did not want to be tethered to a dialysis machine for so many hours every single day. I did not want to lose my ministry. I did not want to lose the self I was so comfortable with. I did not want to lose my gregarious personality, becoming quiet, introspective and silent. I did not want to live this season of life.

The truth is I did not want to build a cocoon around my life and wait, wait, and wait, and wait some more for my new life to emerge. And I did not want to give thanks to a God who employed such a severe means of transformation for me.

But the real truth is that I found this tiny scripture passage to be completely and mercifully true.

In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

– 1 Thessalonians 5:18 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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Maps

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“I like to know where I am, not just where I’m going.”

That’s a statement made by my husband, who absolutely loves maps. In fact, he doesn’t like the GPS in the car to determine his route. Instead, he wants to see the map of the entire area so that he can determine his own route.

He gets this love of maps honestly from his father before him. And what’s more important is that he never, ever gets lost. He possesses a keen sense of direction that can take us through any city, on any highway, over any country road. He always finds the way back to familiar territory.

Knowing maps, reading maps is a gift, a gift I definitely do not have. But here is what I think is most important: to know where we are, not just where we are going. Knowing where we are is a part of knowing who we are, and that is a necessary part of a content life.

No doubt, many of us are not self-aware. We fail to spend time getting to know ourselves and getting comfortable in our own skin. There are no maps that can adequately chart our humanity. Maps do not show deep down emotions. Maps do not reveal the passion of our hearts. Maps cannot describe what lives inside a soul.

We must explore those things ourselves, in earnest and in prayer, discovering the person God wants us to be.

Toward Resurrection: Never Rest

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A Meditation for Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Forty days! That seems like a very long time to reflect and repent. It’s not about giving up some material thing or some personal vice. It’s much more about giving up yourself, being willing to die to self and hoping that there really is a resurrection on the other side.

Lent is scary in a very real way because it is a journey we take alone, looking inside to see what is in our spirit, in our heart. We hope beyond hope that after the dry wilderness there will be living water. We hope beyond hope that after death, there will be resurrection.

Still, we stay on the journey, and if it means anything at all to us, we will have moments of fear, despair, shame, stubbornness, hopelessness, contrition, and finally exhilaration. We will not stop. We will not shrink back from the journey. We will not rest.

A.W. Tozer wrote, “We must never rest until everything inside us worships God.”

Artist of souls,
you sculpted a people for yourself
out of the rocks of wilderness and fasting.
Help us as we take up your invitation to prayer and simplicity,
that the discipline of these forty days
may sharpen our hunger for the feast of your holy friendship,
and whet our thirst for the living water you offer
through Jesus Christ. Amen.

– From the Revised Common Lectionary

Resurrection: The Holy Miracle

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Ash Wednesday 2017

Ashes on my forehead remind me of the need for renewal of my spirit. The ashes remind me of my longing to push past the deathly places within me and to re-experience a resurrection. One author has described Ash Wednesday as a time for smudges on the soul. Deeper than the sign of the cross imposed with ashes on my forehead is the smudge on my soul, a smudge that almost hurts in its reminder of my need for renewed and refreshed faith.

The Prophet Joel expresses it best:

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

– Joel 2:12-13, NRSV

“Rend your hearts and not your garments,” the prophet said. Open up your soul to the ashes of repentance. Experience Ash Wednesday deeply and personally. For the gift of this day is a season of confession and change, hope for a fresh start.

So today we begin the arduous Lenten journey from shadow to light, from hopelessness to hope, from unfaith to faith, from emptiness to wholeness, from death to resurrection. The Prophet Joel prophesied that the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon all people through the Savior of the world (Joel 2:28-32). At the end of this journey, may each of us experience the lavish, gracious outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the holy miracle of resurrection.

God of life,
On this journey we pass from the shadow of death
to the light of the resurrection.
Remain with us and give us hope
that, rejoicing in the gift of the Spirit
who gives life to our mortal flesh,
we may be clothed with the garment of immortality,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

– From the Revised Common Lectionary

Brutal Pruning

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The Chinese Tallow tree in my yard used to be covered with vibrant leaves and white berries. Fred pruned it this year . . . brutally. I’m concerned that it won’t survive the assault. And I will so miss the shade of my beautiful tree.

Time will tell. As the spring draws nearer, I will watch the tree with hope. The theory is that after severe pruning, the tree will come back fuller and stronger, with superior shape. I’m not convinced. But I will hang on to hope.

Pruning times are important for humans too. After we survive a spiritual pruning, we bear more fruit, better fruit. The Bible describes the process.

He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.

– John 15:2 NIV

I don’t like it much when I am enduring a pruning. It hurts. It feels like it is diminishing me. But I have learned, after enduring a few seasons of holy pruning, that I really do come back fuller and more vibrant.

I am hoping that this will also be true for my once-beautiful tree. I’ll keep you posted.

Faith Restored

 

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Sometimes life has so assailed us that We cannot take another step. At such times, our faith shrinks and we can only manage to crawl out of that place of pain. Yet, it may well be that the times when we can barely crawl become the times of the most meaningful spiritual growth.

We cannot move forward on our own strength. We cannot get ourselves out of darkness and back into God’s light. We cannot rest in the faith that has always sustained us. We cannot feel hope. We cannot believe for ourselves.

I have been in such a place a time or two, fearing that I would never again be restored to my faith. I have been in a place where I felt I could not believe anymore. But I have heard some words that reminded me of my faith. They are strengthening words that I once heard from one of my seminary professors, Dr. Frank Tupper.

“When you can’t believe for yourself anymore, crawl to the edge of the Garden of Gethsemane and let Jesus believe the rest of the way for you.”

Thank you, Dr. Tupper. And thank you to the ever-abiding God who waits with us in hard times, for as long as it takes, until our faith is restored.

Transformation: The Spiritual Journey

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The labyrinth is a walking meditation, a path of prayer where psyche meets Spirit. It has only one path that leads from the outer edge in a circuitous way to the center. There are no dead ends. Unlike a maze where you can lose your way, the labyrinth is a spiritual tool that can help you find your way.

The life quest of drawing closer to God is best described as a spiritual journey. But it is a journey of our own choosing. We are not forced to take it. God does not coerce us to travel such a path. Each of us must choose it, and in a spirit of prayer embark on an unknown journey.

We cannot predict its path. We can only give ourselves to its gentle turns with confidence that, along the way, we will discover and learn and grow in our faith. It can be transformational. Wendell Berry describes this journey with the words arduous, humbling and joyful, an apt description. Most importantly he describes “arriving at the ground at our own feet” and there learning to be at home. Here’s what he writes:

The world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles, no matter how long, but only by a spiritual journey, a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful, by which we arrive at the ground at our own feet, and learn to be at home.

– Wendell Berry

Taking the journey leads us home, a place of peace and comfort, a place where we are comfortable in our own skin, a place where our heart meets God’s heart. The journey can bring transformation within us.

The danger is that we can shrink in fear from transformation because we cannot control the process. Giving up control is always a challenge for humans, but refusing the spiritual journey means that we will wander aimlessly, always searching and never finding our deepest spiritual self.

Washing the Spirit Clean

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It is a worthy intention, to wash my spirit clean. How freeing it would be to move all the messy stuff from my soul and to feel cleansed. The Psalmist prayed, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”

How do I even begin? A good start would be prayer, contemplation, reading prayers in Scripture, walking in the forest, making some time for silence. For me, singing hymns cleanses my soul and nurtures my heart. The writing of John Muir also suggests a path to soul cleansing. John Muir, also known as “John of the Mountains”, was a Scottish-American naturalist, author, environmental philosopher and early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the United States. Millions of people have read his letters, essays, and books telling of his adventures in nature, especially in the Sierra Nevada of California. These are his words.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

Keep close to Nature’s heart . . . break clear away once in awhile..climb a mountain..spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

― John Muir, The Mountains of California

It’s a continuous effort, washing the spirit clean. It’s a necessary spiritual discipline. It opens us up to a life renewed and refreshed.

The Indwelling Christ

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I am thinking today about the second stanza of the great hymn, “All Praise to Thee.” The words remind us of the life and work of Jesus.

Thou camest to us in lowliness of thought;
By Thee the outcast and the poor were sought;
And by The death was God’s salvation wrought;
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Do we seek the outcast and the poor? Do we continue the work of Christ as we walk each day in a broken world? Do we show Christ’s compassion to every person? Do we do these things by the way we live our lives?

I have for many years considered thoughtfully these words written by Joseph Clower in his book, The Church in the Thought of Jesus. Though he speaks of the Church and her ministry, I also hear his words as a compelling personal call to live my life as a follower of Christ in the world.

If the indwelling Christ is not confined, then the Church’s eyes flow with His tears, her heart moved with His compassion, her hands are coarsened with His labor, her feet are wearied with his walking among all people.

May this be said of us.

Dust or Clouds

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It’s not always easy to nurture one’s spirituality. Things keep getting in the way, mundane things like cleaning and cooking, shopping and organizing drawers. But the question is, “what activities are spiritual?” Praying? Reading the Bible? Meditating?

Of course, those are the activities we consider to be spiritual, but those who are most acquainted with spirituality would tell us that we can find the spiritual in the ordinary. They would tell us that being mindful of every moment can be a spiritual act, no matter what we’re doing. I like the way Bishop Steven Charleston expresses it.

“Following a spiritual path is walking through the dust more than flying through the clouds.”

Here’s what else he says on the subject.

Sometimes we like to think of the spiritual as something very esoteric or mystical, and sometimes it is. But far more often, the spiritual is the common. It is the everyday. Following a spiritual path is walking through the dust more than flying through the clouds. It is less about what we discover alone on the mountaintop and more about what we share down in the valley. The spiritual is the now. The here. The next choice we make. It is how we behave, how we work, how we take responsibility. What is spiritual is what we practice with reverence and intention. It is what we do in order to become what we want to be.