Swampy, Murky Places

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October Hunter’s moon rising over Arkansas’ Mallard Lake. Photography by Debbie Marie Smith.

Life can be swampy and murky at times, with not enough light to see the way forward. Not to mention the danger of being mired in the mud unable to move! You have probably been there. I know I have, and when the journey has taken me through those murky waters, I have despaired. So many circumstances can take us through rough places, but the circumstance that immediately comes to mind for me is indecision.

Indecision is that uncomfortably in-between place where you have no idea how to find the way forward, yet you cannot stay in the place you are. Waiting is born of indecision and waiting can be excruciating. Right about now, I wish I could report that one must simply pray and God will instantly change indecision into forward motion, out of any murky swamp. 

I cannot say, however, that a single prayer can make that happen. At least for me, there have been no instant-miraculous-life-changing answers to my prayers. Not even once in my faith journey of many years! What I can tell you with deep assurance is that, although no single prayer has changed my life, continual prayer has changed my life. It is not the prayer of occasional consolation that changes the course of one’s life journey. It is the life of prayer that seeks God in prayer, abiding in God’s presence, for as long as it takes. Richard Rohr says this wise thing about prayer:

The only people who pray well are those who keep praying! In fact, continued re-connecting is what I mean by prayer, not occasional consolations that we may experience.

No doubt, life’s journey will take us through murky, swampy places without enough light to find our way through them. The murkiness of indecision is real, and with it we may experience confusion, fear, despair, desperation. We may even lose hope and question our faith. But we cannot stay there. People of faith are people of resilience and courage. We have within us all the resilience and courage we need. So we must believe in ourselves enough to take a step forward and out, through the mud and the sludge, trusting in faith that God’s light will light up the dark places and give us the strength to move through to the other side.

That’s what I have to believe about painful, oppressive places of indecision. That’s what I have to believe about getting through swampy, murky places. That’s what I have to believe about God.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

— John 1:1-5

I Need No Wings

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When accusers declared that the thoughts of Joan of Arc were figments of her imagination, she frequently answered them with this shrewd and sensible retort: “How else would God speak to me?”

This is one of the BIG questions most of us have asked ourselves again and again: How does God speak to me? 

And these big questions follow:

How will I know when it is God who is speaking?
Could this strong intuitive thought inside me be God speaking through my inner self?
Can God speak to me through other people?
How do I find God, hear God, feel God?

Richard Rohr, arguably one of the wisest thinkers of our time, wrote this in response to some of our big questions about God:

Intuitive truth, that inner whole-making instinct, just feels too much like our own thoughts and feelings, and most of us are not willing to call this “God,” even when that voice prompts us toward compassion instead of hatred, forgiveness instead of resentment, generosity instead of stinginess, bigness instead of pettiness.

Rohr goes on to explain that mystics like Augustine, Teresa of Ávila, Thomas Merton, Mechthild of Magdeburg, Thérèse of Lisieux, and so many others seem to equate the discovery of their own souls with the very discovery of God.

But to be honest, this post is more about me than it is about the people I admire as spiritual giants. This post is about me making hard life-altering decisions. I admit that making decisions frustrates me, especially at the most critical turning points in my life when I have felt most intensely the need for God’s guidance in the decision. It was easy, as a younger minister, to be confident that whatever I was thinking was “God’s will,” that God had complete control of my thoughts, decisions and actions, that every sermon I preached came “from God’s own lips.”

The passing years brought doubts, questions and the determination to hear God ever more clearly. In the past few years, my most daunting decision was whether or not to have a kidney transplant. My thoughts fluctuated between deciding to leave well enough alone and live my remaining years on dialysis or taking a risk on transplant surgery that has the potential of either making me worse or making my life infinitely better. This has felt like a life or death decision, and I prayed many times, “God, you have to tell me what to do this time. I don’t trust my ability to make this decision.”

Which brings us back to the BIG question: How will I know when it is God who is speaking?

How will I know when “God has spoken” about this decision? 

So let me go ahead and say this out loud in the vernacular of my Bible Belt inspired religious training . . . How will I know “God’s will?”

Now it’s out there where I can really see it. I can theologically skirt around it, but the bottom line is about that errant teaching ingrained in me that if I try hard enough, I will know God’s will about every important matter, and even about not-so-important matters, i.e., “We both wore blue today. It must have been God’s will.” And then there’s the other faith statement declaring that one has (spiritually) reached some decision, a much better statement actually: “I have a peace about it.”

Running as fast as I could from such theological beliefs, I ran way past a simple, quiet faith in a God who wants only my best. I ran past the faith that once told me not to let my heart be troubled or afraid and that the grace-gift I had received was a Comforter who would be with me forever. I ran past the simple truth that I really can have peace about a decision. I ran past the promise of Jesus:

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another comforter . . . to be with you forever. You know him, for he lives with you and will be in you . . . You will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.  (From John 14)

I’m still not certain I have mastered all the questions on the matter of hearing God. And I definitely do not have all the answers. But relying on the promise of scripture is a start. And listening in on the experiences of holy people — people who seem to have a more direct line to God than I ever hope to have — is of immense value to me. The beautiful Carmelite saint, Teresa of Avila, is one of my go-to holy people. This is one of her thoughts that speaks to me powerfully in times of indecision and confusion, times when I doubt my ability to discern God’s direction, times when I wonder if God even hears my prayers.

However quietly we speak, He is so near that He will hear us: we need no wings to go in search of Him but have only to find a place where we can be alone and look upon Him present within us.   — St. Teresa of Avila

I need no wings to go in search of God. 3B5858AA-997E-4D5C-8695-5D41049B2B90

When I can sense God present within me, I can believe in my own decision about a transplant, and any other decision for that matter. But I know that it takes a lifetime, and a lot of life experience, to be able to trust in a spiritual — perhaps mystical — union with the mind of God. It takes a lifetime of relationship for most of us to trust our intentions and our purity of heart enough to believe that our thoughts are God’s thoughts, that our decisions and actions are God’s. But when that day comes, I have an idea that it will feel like a “peace that passes understanding,” like a calm ability to quietly trust myself and trust God at the same time. 

May God’s Spirit make it so in me.

Amen