“We should just SEE Him”

“God is everywhere and in all creation,” my friend Sara said in response to my last blog post when I shared it on Facebook. “We seek Him when we should just SEE Him.”

Nothing like a stroll in my backyard on a summer morning to confirm what she says. I like to start my day by feeding the birds (and squirrels), then feasting my eyes on some flowers. This time of year, all kinds of lovelies are blooming:

astilbe

bee balm

begonias

lillies

chives

coreopsis

02 petunia

whitetail

05 multicolor

pinks

03 black eyed susans

01 Rose of sharon

06 blanket flower

rose

04 African violets

And last but not least …

dandelion

 

I want that blinding light

For most of my life, I’ve leaned toward the idea that there probably is a God – some kind of Ultimate Reality or Intelligence. Yet, despite all the evidence I wrote about in my last couple of blog entries, those pesky doubts have creeped in from time to time.

When I acknowledged to my spiritual director that I’ve sometimes questioned God’s existence, she gave me a writing exercise: How would my life be different if I knew for sure there was a God? How would my life be different if I knew for sure there wasn’t?

During my morning meditation, I pulled out a fresh legal pad and wrote down the question, “What would I be doing if there were no God and this could be proven to me?”

The first thought that popped into my head was, I might try getting away with more mischief like fibbing to the IRS or making snarky remarks about people who irritate me. (I’m only half joking.) But in reality, I realized I would feel depressed because the lack of a God would mean for sure I would never again see loved ones who have died. And what about my own life? Without a God, would it be true that life is absurd, as Albert Camus argued?

As I continued with the exercise, I also realized it wasn’t the existence of a God, per se, that I questioned from time to time, so much as some ideas about God portrayed by Christianity. The question in my mind was not so much, “Does God exist?” It was, “Who, or what, is this Entity I choose to call God? What does it mean to order my life as if God exists? What, if anything, does this Being want from me?”

In other words, my decision to be a de facto theist and order my life as if God exists has only raised more questions for me.

Catholic theologian Henri J.M. Nouwen, author of Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith, believes this is normal. “The quest for meaning can be extremely frustrating and at times even excruciating, precisely because it does not lead to ready answers but to new questions,” he writes. He continues:

The main questions for spiritual direction – Who am I? Where have I come from? Where am I going? What is prayer? Who is God for me? Where do I belong? How can I be of service? – are not questions with simple answers, but questions that lead us deeper into the unspeakable mystery of existence. What needs affirmation is the validity of the questions. What needs to be said is: “Yes, yes indeed, these are the questions. Don’t hesitate to raise them.”

Doing this exercise brought back memories of our recent trip to the Holy Land. In 2012, my husband and I went to Israel and Palestine with a church group. The trip had been on my bucket list for decades. At the time I was in one of my “questioning the existence of God” phases and I secretly hoped something about the trip might clarify the issue for me.

We visited places with names that felt intimately familiar from my reading them in the Bible and hearing them in church – Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Jericho, Cana. We toured the Church of the Nativity built on the site thought to be the birthplace of Jesus, the Church of the Multiplication commemorating Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre believed to be the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, and even the house where St. Peter’s mother-in-law is thought to have lived.

While the overall trip was amazing, I must confess the “holy sites” themselves were somewhat of a letdown. While others in our tour group talked of being “on sacred ground,” many of the sites seemed to me more like tourist traps than shrines – vendors, vendors, vendors, everywhere. The image of Jesus chasing the money changers from the Temple often came to mind.

But then we participated in a communion service in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, in a replica of a boat Jesus and his disciples are thought to have used. During the service, I decided maybe I should just do what Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson did when he was first trying to achieve sobriety and simply demand that the Diety show Itself.

Since the service was in progress, I couldn’t shout – at least not without being terribly rude. Instead, I called out silently, “God, if you exist, show me a sign!”

Right before my eyes, a rainbow appeared. It was a beautiful clear day. No rain, A cloudless sky. Nothing that would normally cause a rainbow to form. To make sure I wasn’t hallucinating, I quietly nudged my husband and pointed to the rainbow.

“Cool!” he whispered.

In Genesis 9:12, a rainbow was seen as a message from God: “And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations.’”

Was this rainbow a response from God to my rather imperious demand that this Entity show Itself? Maybe even a sign God wanted some kind of covenant with me? Or was it a coincidence, as my skeptical mind was already suggesting?

A couple of days after my experience in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, our tour group visited the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem. The Western Wall is the holiest place where Jews are permitted to pray. Visitors of other religions are allowed to pray there as well if they wish to.

Visitors often participate in a long-time tradition of writing prayers on slips of paper and inserting them into the crevices of the Wall. According to Wikipedia, more than a million of these notes are placed in the Wall each year. It has even become customary for visiting dignitaries to participate in this ritual.

I wrote my own prayer on a slip of paper:

Dear God,

Please answer these questions:

Who are you?

What do you want from me?

I inserted the note into a crevice in the Wall and, a couple of days later, returned to my home in central Illinois. Shortly thereafter, I began journaling about my spiritual questions. So … was the rainbow a coincidence? Did God want some sort of covenant with me? If so, what?

Alas, my daily life with its million and one distractions intervened and my journaling about God ended up on hold. Some of the distractions were legitimate – my father’s final illness, followed closely by the death of my best friend Patti, then hospitalizations for my mother, my husband and myself. However, most of the distractions were of the mundane variety I’ve been blogging about for the past year – the endless clutter of all kinds, from the material to the spiritual.

It’s been almost a year now since I engaged a spiritual director to hold my feet to the fire and help me explore the questions on the note I placed in the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

I’m actually pretty convinced there is a God, I told her. What I really want is to figure out who or what this entity is, because believing in the existence of God still doesn’t answer questions like what, if anything, God wants from me, or what God considers to be right and wrong.

1 Corinthians 13:12 says, “For now we see through a glass darkly but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” The problem, I told my spiritual director, is that I want answers now, in this lifetime.

What I really want is that “blinding light” experience the Apostle Paul had on the road to Damascus, or the burning bush Moses encountered. I want to be like those people who see the blinding light or the burning bush, just know what they know about God, and have their mission in life spelled out for them.

My spiritual director, thankfully, has been patient and nonjudgmental as I continue to grapple with questions some would say I shouldn’t even be asking. And she gave me another assignment: Some morning, while I’m sitting in my recliner in front of the fireplace watching the birds and squirrels, be still and listen for God to speak.

Perhaps I’m finally ready.

 

Our amazing universe

They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. A viral video making the rounds on Facebook reinforces – for me – the idea that there has to be a God.

At the beginning of the video clip, the camera focuses on a young smiling woman. The camera pans out to include her immediate surroundings. Then the city she is in. Then the western part of the United States, Planet Earth, our solar system, our Milky Way galaxy, other galaxies and finally the universe.

The camera returns to the woman, focusing in on one of her eyes. From there it zooms in on the pupil. Then a blood vessel inside the eye, a blood cell, a DNA strand, an atom, the protons and neutrons that make up the atom’s nucleus, and finally, quarks.

From the macro (galaxies, endless galaxies) to the micro (human cells, atoms, quarks) we see a panorama of an amazing universe.

I invite you to watch the video (click here or click on the video below), then ask, “Could all this have really happened by chance?”

 

A de facto theist

Science has not been able to prove there is a God, but it hasn’t proven there isn’t one either.

Modern science says the universe started with a Big Bang. But if the universe indeed started that way, who or what caused the Big Bang to happen? Who or what created the original matter involved in the Big Bang?

Scientists promote the theory of evolution to explain how life on earth in all its amazing forms developed. But if evolution is indeed a valid concept, who or what created the initial life form that evolved into other life forms?

One geneticist even claims there’s specific gene, VMAT2, that predisposes some people to have spiritual or mystical experiences. But if we have a “God gene,” who or what put it there?

According to astronomers at Ohio State University, the Milky Way contains more than 200 million stars, and there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Science Daily reports that the earth contains more than 8.7 million species of plants, animals and other living organisms. Could all of that have really happened through a coincidental fluke?

I often feel the presence of a God in the changing seasons.

I’ll never forget riding along a thoroughfare through Atlanta one Easter Sunday with my husband and his parents. A profusion of trees and vines bloomed simultaneously: dogwoods, redbuds, wisteria, peach trees. Each side street treated us to a riot of color: white, pink, purple, yellow, red. Nature’s fireworks, I thought. Each time we encountered another side street, we’d say in unison, “Ooo! Ahh!”

In the summer, I can sit in our backyard swing and gaze upon a lush green carpet of grass, interspersed with the vibrant hues of my flower beds. Hummingbirds hang suspended in mid-air, their tiny wings moving so fast they appear to not be moving at all while they sip nectar from bright red bee balm blossoms. Cicadas sing in harmony in the twilight. Fireflies flick their tiny lights on and off. Butterflies flit from bloom to bloom. Life asserts itself even in the face of lingering drought.

 I recall taking a twilight walk one beautiful fall day when I suddenly stopped short. Before me stretched a scene that prompted me to gasp. The leaves had turned yellow-brown-orange-crimson, and light from the setting sun bounced off the tops of the trees in even more vivid colors. The sky competed with the leaves for sheer outrageousness, with the sun painting the clouds red, orange, yellow and pink. A still-warm breeze blew across my face. I had to extend my walk by several blocks so I could drink it all in.

Even the winter can be pretty. As I sit in front of the fireplace in my “swaddling clothes” (flannel nightgown, sweatpants and blanket), feeling warm and protected, a delicate coat of snow covers the tree branches. Perched in the middle of the pear tree in our backyard, a pair of cardinals add tiny splashes of color to a black and white landscape. One of my cats settles in my lap, purring loudly as I stroke his fur.

In my mind, Someone or Something had to create all this extravagant seasonal beauty.

I think about the miracle of birth. We start with one cell, then two, then four, then eight. At some point these cells know to differentiate into brain cells, heart cells, blood cells, muscle cells. How do these cells know to do this? If our cells are programmed this way, then who or what programmed them?

I think about the magnificent way our bodies are made. According to the Scientific American Book of the Brain, an adult brain, which weighs about 3 pounds, has more than 100 billion cells. The Franklin Institute says that in an average person’s lifetime, the heart beats more than two and a half billion times, pushing blood through more than 60,000 miles of blood vessels. There are 206 bones in the adult body, according to Wikipedia, including 54 bones in the hands, 52 bones in the feet and 6 tiny bones in our middle ears. According to the Human Genome Project Information Page, a human genome, which carries all of an individual’s DNA, contains anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 genes.

As Shakespeare declared in Hamlet, “What a piece of work is man!”

“I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” says Psalm 139:14.

I see all this as evidence of God.

From the macro (galaxies, endless galaxies) to the micro (human cells, atoms, quarks) – the universe seems too intricate and too perfect for there not to be a Creator of some kind behind it. Logic tells me the original matter involved in the Big Bang and the original life form that evolved into all the life forms we have today had to come from somewhere. Logic tells me Somebody or Something had to create the sheer splendor, beauty and intricate orderliness.

To me, the idea that everything started with a random Big Bang and that life and matter all evolved by chance is more of an intellectual stretch than the idea that there is a Creator behind it all. Who, after all, created all those laws of nature?

Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

 Blaise Pascal said,“If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. [So] you must wager. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then without hesitation that he is.”

That’s Pascal’s Wager, and I’m inclined to go with it.

Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, proclaims himself a “de facto atheist” and writes, “I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” (I want to ask how something that doesn’t exist can have a gender. But I digress.)

I’d call myself a “de facto theist.” I’m inclined to believe that God exists, and I’ve decided to live my life as if there is a God and life is not absurd, but rich in meaning.

 

A note to my atheist friends

I’m not interested in demonizing atheists. It would be too easy to say they want to deny God so they can be free to do whatever they want, regardless of the impact of their behavior on the people around them.

For one thing, I can see where many of them are coming from:

  • Some want proof of a God and they haven’t found any proof that satisfies them. Meanwhile, they do not wish to dedicate their lives to a belief system developed by ancient people before the advent of science.
  • Some are appalled by the evil done in the name of religion and they want no part of that.
  • Some are put off by believers who insist that they stop asking so many questions and forget they have a brain.

I know I’ve asked the same questions myself that my atheist friends ask: How does one prove God’s existence? And, if some folks are so sure of their beliefs, why are the rest of us discouraged from asking questions?

At the same time, I’m not ready to join atheists who paint believers as child-like purveyors of silly superstition. I want there to be a God, for several reasons:

  • If there is a God – and eternal life – it means I will once again someday get to see my beloved father, my grandparents, my sister Jennifer, my friend Patti and other people I know I will probably lose before I check out myself.
  • The existence of a God would mean there’s an ultimate answer to where the universe and everything in it comes from – an answer that makes sense to me.
  • I want Someone I can call on in times of trouble. I love the idea of a “close-up” God who not only cares about each of us, but each sparrow or dog or cat as well.
  • Yes, I understand some people distort spiritual teachings and do evil things in God’s name. However, I don’t like to think about the consequences if there were NO moral standards at all to appeal to.
  • A Peggy Lee song from my childhood asks, “Is that all there is?” The gist of the song is, we’re born. Our lives are filled with a series of relatively meaningless activities. Then we die and people may remember us for a period of time. Or not. I just don’t like to think that’s all there is.

While I’m not interested in demonizing my atheist friends, I must say their habit of calling my God a “Sky Fairy” and my beliefs “silly superstition” wears thin very quickly.

I’m not one of those Christians who promises hellfire and damnation to everyone who disagrees with my interpretation of reality. I don’t call atheists names or ridicule their beliefs. Nor do I blame them for everything going wrong in this country.

I would like the same respect in return.

 

What am I distracting myself from?

Most of the time, I’m positive there has to be a God. In fact, I go to church and Sunday school nearly every week. But sometimes during a bout of insomnia in the middle of the night, I’ll suddenly get the urge to sit bolt upright in bed and blurt out this question:

“How do I know for sure that God exists?”

During his Sunday morning sermons, our pastor often says, “I know that Jesus died for my sins and rose again. I know that my parents are in heaven and I will see them someday.”

My mother’s pastor says with equal conviction, “I have no problem with the Big Bang theory. God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and bang! We’ve got all these stars and galaxies.”

Around the table at our adult Sunday School class are people who seem just as confident about what they believe.

As I listen to these people, I suspect some would be scandalized by my 3 a.m. question. After all, if any of them have ever doubted God’s existence, they certainly aren’t letting on.

Usually I stifle the question myself, and try to get some sleep. By morning, I’m pondering what’s on my to-do-list for the day, or preparing for the next event in my crazy schedule, or surfing the Internet and reading too many articles about the Royal Newlyweds.

Lately, though, I’ve been encountering other people to whom my questioning would not seem the least bit scandalous.

One Friday evening, my husband and I gathered with a group of friends in the coffee shop of our favorite bookstore. In front of one woman sat a foot-high pile of books and magazines – the latest issue of Free Inquiry, and books with titles like God Is Not Great and The God Delusion.

A Facebook friend I can only call “a born-again atheist complete with the proselytizing” shares a steady stream of articles and memes offering “proof” that there is no God. One such meme proclaims, “If you need the threat of eternal torture to be a good person, you’re not a good person.”

Still another friend who self-identifies as atheist complains: “Christian hypocrites. Their support of Trump is directly contradictory to what they CLAIM are the instructions of their invisible Sky Fairy.”

And I have a question for my atheist friends that my pastor, my Sunday School classmates and my mother would most likely approve: “How can you be so sure there isn’t a God?”

Could it be that these questions are what I’m distracting myself from with all the to-do lists, the frantic scheduling, the endless cleaning and the mindless Internet surfing that clutter my life and unquiet my mind?

My spiritual director thinks I may be onto something. And yes, she assures me, it’s okay to question my beliefs. Starting with, do I really believe there is a God? Why or why not?

Be still! (And know I am God)

“How challenging would it be to totally quiet your mind?” my spiritual director asked. 

“Extremely challenging,” I admitted.

That would be an understatement. A meme circulating on Facebook sums up my problem nicely: “My mind is like my Internet browser. At least 19 open tabs, 3 of them frozen, and I have no clue where the music is coming from.”

Before I retired, I didn’t even bother to try this “quiet the mind” business. I was too busy juggling to-do lists: my to-do list for work, my to-do list for household chores, my to-do list for family/friend commitments, my to-do list for urgent matters, even a master list to keep track of all the to-do lists. This elaborate system of lists was suggested by the creator of the day-planner I carried around constantly and called “my conscience.” I was convinced I had to keep these multiple to-do lists or I wouldn’t remember to do simple things like brush my teeth.

I can still remember sitting in the church choir loft one infamous Sunday morning. Instead of focusing on the service, I grew increasingly impatient. The Children’s Message usually took about five minutes. That day, it stretched to ten. The pastor, whose sermons I usually enjoyed, talked way longer than usual. Then he shared his sermon time with a college student who enthusiastically described her recent mission trip in great detail while I nervously checked my watch every couple of seconds. Finally, the sermon was over and the choir sang.

As soon as we finished our last note, I grabbed my belongings, dashed to my car, and hightailed it to work. As I sped across town, yelling at traffic lights that seemed bent on slowing me down, I muttered, “Enough of needing to be in two places at once! Whatever happened to keeping the Sabbath Day holy?”

Alas, things didn’t change as much as I hoped once I retired. During a church service these days, my attention span tends to resemble a hummingbird flitting from one blossom to the next – even while reciting the Lord’s Prayer or the Apostle’s Creed. (Don’t ask about sermons.)

My attempt to focus on the Lord’s Prayer during a recent service provides a good illustration of how my mind often works:

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy …  Did I remember to take my pills this morning?… on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day …  And the coffee pot. Did I turn off the coffee pot?… as we forgive those who trespass against us. … How long would it take the coffee pot to burn dry and catch the house on fire?… but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom … I wish those people would grow up! They are working my nerves big time.… forever and ever. Amen. Sorry God, I was sort of spacing out there. I’ll try to pay better attention next time …”

Now mind you, I actually recited all the words of that prayer. My mouth was forming the words, but my mind was racing like Usain Bolt in a 100-meter relay. When this happens, I feel lucky I haven’t – yet – been struck by a bolt of lightning right there in the middle of the sanctuary.

So am I one of those stress puppies who subconsciously needs drama to feel alive? Or am I afflicted with “monkey mind,” as my husband suggests? (“Monkey mind,” he explained, is a Buddhist term referring to the constant chatter of an unsettled, restless or confused mind.)

Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God.”

“So how do I quiet my mind?” I asked my spiritual director. She offered some suggestions, like taking walks, listening to music or reading excerpts from a daily devotional book.

So far, my morning meditation ritual works best for me. When I don’t need to go somewhere early, I start my day by feeding my cats, the birds and (yep!) the squirrels. If the weather is nice when I go outside, I may stroll around my backyard and admire whatever flowers are blooming.

Back inside, I sit in my recliner in front of the fireplace, a cup of coffee at my side and a cat in my lap, and journal. Listening to Oley Cat’s purr and the crackle of the fire, or watching the squirrels’ antics as they invade the bird feeders helps quiet my mind. A little. For a few seconds, anyway. I just need to commit myself to this ritual more often, I promise myself frequently.

But it was an observation my spiritual director made about my constant struggle with clutter that really got my attention. Clutter is a distraction, she said, whether it’s the physical “stuff” that litters my house or the mental chatter that keeps me from being able to recite the Lord’s Prayer without my “monkey mind” getting sidetracked.

Which leads to the question: What am I trying to distract myself from?

A question worth pursuing, I’ve decided.

Patience pays off

Spring took its sweet time coming this year!

Where I live, we had our last snowfall on April 16. My poor jonquils in the front yard were freezing. (See photo below, center, taken a mere three weeks ago.)

Br-r-r-r-r-r-r!!!!!

But now my flowers are making up for lost time. As I said in an earlier blog entry, I guess God was teaching me patience.

The trees in our backyard are in bloom.

As are the tulips and irises.

The creeping phlox, rhododendrons and other early-spring bloomers are going to town.

Usually my spring flowers bloom in small batches: first the snowdrops and crocuses, then the jonquils, then the redbuds and pear trees, then the tulips and so on. This year, they are pretty much all blooming at once. The whole yard, front and back, is ablaze in color.

Even my favorite volunteers have come out to play.

So happy Spring, everyone! Finally …

Clutter is a spiritual issue

Ecclesiastes 3:6 reminds us there is “a time to keep and a time to cast away.” With that in mind, I resolved to make clearing out clutter a priority during this year’s recently-completed Lenten season.

Using the “one baby step at a time” approach, I actually managed to make an initial dent in the mounds of clutter littering our house. I thoroughly cleaned the refrigerator/freezer and about half the pantry, got caught up with a month’s worth of ironing, repotted several plants in the sunroom and took down the Christmas tree (yep, the first week in March). I even sorted through a drawer full of paper and shocked our accountant by giving her everything she needed to file our tax return on time this year rather than file for an extension the way I usually do.

As I cleaned and sorted, however, I realized the clutter in my life consists of more than just endless piles of paper and other physical “stuff.” My spiritual director has challenged me to identify the “spiritual” clutter clogging up my life as well. For example:

  • Computer clutter. As I said in a previous article, I could spend hours at my computer playing solitaire, mindlessly surfing the Internet or actually getting sucked into “news” articles about Miley and Taylor and Selena and the Kardashians. I am particularly likely to do this when I’m anxious or avoiding a task on my to-do list.
  • Calendar clutter. Some of the commitments overwhelming my schedule are things I really want to do – a visit with family or friends, singing in the church choir, community volunteer work. But too many other commitments have landed on my calendar because I can’t say no to people.
  • Nutritional clutter. Big-box stores, supermarkets and even health food stores seek to sell me cereal with sugar as the first ingredient, highly processed trans-fat-laden “dinners” I can pop into the microwave and whole aisles of cookies and candy. Restaurant buffets, family gatherings and church potlucks feature entire tables of desserts.
  • Mental clutter. And finally there is the steady stream of anxieties and resentments that keep me pre-occupied during the day and awake at night.

Why is all this clutter a spiritual issue?

When I put junk food into my body – the temple of the Holy Spirit – it clogs my arteries as well as adding extra pounds to my hips. The mindless Internet-surfing and solitaire games suck hours and hours out of my day that could be better spent taking a walk, connecting with other people, or just about anything else. Endless ruminating about resentments interferes with my ability to love my neighbor as myself. Turning down excessive demands on my time would help me focus more energy on those commitments that are really important. When the physical clutter in my house is out of control, my whole life feels out of control.

Alas, I still have quite a way to go just to address the physical clutter. Piles of paper cover nearly every surface in my office. My closets bulge with clothes and shoes I haven’t worn in years. Boxes and boxes and boxes marked “miscellaneous” remain stashed in the basement, many unopened from our last move nearly 10 years ago. And I don’t even like to think about the mess in the garage.

But I did make a good start during Lent, enough to motivate me to keep going. As they say around the tables at 12-Step group meetings, “One day at a time!”

 

 

Consider the jonquils

I had really hoped by now I would be spending time in my garden and flower beds, but as you can see, I would get a bit chilly when taking a break in my backyard.

01 bench

Since God seems intent on teaching me patience this spring, I decided to venture outside with a camera this morning instead.

03 tree

After all, the snow was pretty. In fact, the camera didn’t even begin to capture the beauty. 

02 house

And (to paraphrase Matthew 6:28) consider the jonquils in front of my house, God seemed to be saying. Most years, they would have bloomed in March and would be long gone by now. 

04 jonquils

But this year they are experts in the art of patience!