When Martha Stewart becomes a verb

During a recent church service, I heard the familiar story of Mary and Martha from Luke 10:38-42. The two sisters open their home to Jesus as he travels with his disciples. While Martha busies herself with preparations, Mary sits at the feet of Jesus and listens to his teaching. Martha complains to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!” Jesus answers, “Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Now, I don’t need to take any of those Are-You-Mary-Or-Martha quizzes on Facebook to figure out which sister I am. As someone who struggles constantly with perfectionism in areas ranging from my diet and my housekeeping to my writing and my spiritual life, I seriously relate to Martha. 

In fact, the Mary-versus-Martha story reminds me of a visualization exercise my spiritual director recommended shortly after we began working together. She instructed me to imagine myself in my ideal spiritual state. As I did this exercise, I realized I’d been imagining my “idealized state” (not to be confused with “ideal spiritual state”) for most of my life. I have daydreams that would rival Walter Mitty’s about an amazing woman I facetiously call Super Me. This marvelous creature is a slightly older version of myself, and she has her life TOTALLY UNDER CONTROL. 

Not only can Super Me leap tall buildings in a single bound, she has a meticulously ordered household, with a place for everything and everything in its place – even in the garage and the basement. She frequently invites family and friends to splendid gatherings, where she serves up a banquet better than anything Martha Stewart could produce. She has managed to achieve a svelte figure by adhering to an eating plan that is not only healthy, but painless, because she has re-educated her palate to prefer vegetables over chocolate-covered peanut butter cookie bars and she never misses her Stay Fit exercise class even during an ice storm. She volunteers for various organizations that work to make the world a better place, and she even serves on the board of directors for a couple of them, but she never gets burned out because she’s learned how to set appropriate boundaries without people getting mad at her. Her recently published book sits atop the New York Times bestseller list. And she never loses sleep at 3 a.m. wondering who God is and what God wants from her, because she has finally discerned ALL the answers to life’s “ultimate” questions.

The Super Me fantasy is particularly potent when I’m working on New Year’s resolutions, or engaging in my annual birthday tradition of evaluating my priorities and setting goals for the coming year. Coupled with the Super Me fantasy is what I’d call the Ultimate Rejection fantasy, in which people wrinkle their noses in utter disgust when they find out what my house really looks like if I’m not expecting company. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Luke had told us that Martha harbored both of these fantasies from time to time.

I’m relieved whenever I discover I’m not alone in having “Martha” tendencies. I laughed out loud when Alicia, author of the blog For His Purpose, used “Martha Stewart” as a verb. “I like to say I can just Martha Stewart everything,” Alicia confessed in one of her posts (link HERE), as she expressed her fear that the exchange student coming to live with her family would decide that her whole household was nuts and run screaming back to Russia in response to the chaos. In my own case, I feel compelled to warn houseguests not to venture into my basement or garage lest I find it necessary to file a missing persons report and organize a search party to rescue them.

“As an overachieving Martha myself, I am trying to understand Mary doing the better thing first,” said Elizabeth, author of Saved By Words (link HERE), in response to my birthday blog post, in which I outlined my priorities for the coming year (link HERE). “Not that Martha is doing anything wrong. Just that at the time sitting at Jesus’ feet was more important.” In the ensuing discussion, she and I agreed we both might possess some Martha-like traits.

The dilemma is real. 

I struggle with the advice Jesus gave Martha. I agree that we need to keep what’s really important at the forefront. This was brought home to me rather painfully over the summer. With my beloved mother in hospice, the past few months represented my last chance to “visit with her more often.”

On the other hand, doesn’t Galatians 5:22-23 remind us that one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control? In my mind, self-control equals the self-discipline to maintain healthy eating habits, family obligations, a clean house and active participation in church and community, among other things. 

And then, of course, we women have the Proverbs 31 Woman often held up by fellow believers as an example to emulate. If the Proverbs 31 Woman were transported to the 21st Century, I can imagine her having Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s career, Christie Brinkley’s looks and Martha Stewart’s homemaking and entertaining skills. For starters.

Besides, I’ve found that several of the priorities I identified in my birthday post are really no longer optional for me. For example, with my newly-diagnosed diabetes, healthy eating is no longer simply a worthy goal, but a medical necessity.

While perhaps less crucial, crossing backlog tasks off my to-do list actually makes my life easier in the long run. Certain things really do need to get done, like it or not. Keeping the fridge and pantry in order reduces food waste – better for both our budget and the environment. When the clutter around the house gets out of control, my whole life feels out of control. It’s stressful to have deadlines hanging over my head all the time.

And I have one priority that hasn’t changed since I was 10: Write a book! The fact that I’m retired means I have never been in a better position to achieve this dream, and the time to do it is now, not some future date when everything will have settled down and fallen into place so I can start living my life in earnest.

All of this requires some level of the self-control spelled out in Galations 5:23 as a “fruit of the spirit.”

The good news is, my life does not feel nearly as out of control as it did prior to my retirement, when I was juggling the 24/7 demands of running a social service organization. And I do like to think my current priorities are a vast improvement over the ones I had in high school, when being popular was my number one goal, or even in my 40s and 50s, when my top priority (judging by my behavior) was chasing after brass rings and fancy job titles. 

Before I retired, it seemed as if my life had been reduced to crossing items off endless To-Do lists: my To-Do List for work, my To-Do List for household chores, my To-Do List of personal self-care routines, my To-Do List of urgent matters, even a Master List to keep track of all the To-Do Lists. This elaborate system of lists was suggested by the day-planner I carried around constantly and jokingly called “my conscience.” I constantly juggled so many balls in the air, 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. Despite all the To-Do lists designed to help me hold myself accountable for how I spent my time, I couldn’t seem to keep up with all the demands.

Even now, however, repeated efforts to get my life under better control often leave me feeling more frustrated than ever. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul, when he says in Romans 7: “I don’t understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. … I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” 

So yes, I do need to practice some reasonable self-discipline. But at the same time, I also want the next chapter of my life to amount to more than eating, sleeping, dodging other people’s dramas and crossing items off To-Do lists. In other words, I’d like for my life to include a few more “Mary” moments.

It’s nice to be able to find things when I need them without sorting through mounds of clutter. But I probably need to face the fact that our home will always look like real people (and pets) live here, no matter how much time I spend cleaning. There will never be a time when my house is in perfect order inside and out, including the closets, the garage and the basement. The perfectly clean house exists only in Better Homes and Gardens – and then only for the hour or so needed to photograph it. Unless you’re Martha Stewart, who probably not only has a full-time housekeeper, but a full-time housekeeping staff. (Speaking of Martha Stewart, is she the ultimate “Martha” in the Mary and Martha story?)

 “Baby steps,” my spiritual director often advises when I complain of my life feeling out of control. “That’s what matters.” The baby-steps advice does seem to work when I heed it. In the past month, I’ve finished cleaning the fridge (one shelf at a time), the freezer in the basement (one shelf at a time) and the pantry (one shelf at a time), as well as sorting through several weeks’ accumulation of junk mail. I’m finding ways to make the food preparation required for healthy eating easier – batch cooking, for example. 

Meanwhile, I try to muster the self-discipline to include morning meditation in my daily routine as often as possible. This reminds me to keep my relationship with God “in the #1 slot,” as the folks around the tables in 12-Step groups would say.

Of course, when it comes to Super Me, I’m in no danger of achieving that exalted state anytime soon. One thing coping with multiple medical issues over the past few months has done for me is, I’ve stopped trying to Martha-Stewart anything. At least for now, while I’m healing. And maybe, as Martha Stewart herself would say, “That’s a good thing.”

As I write this, it occurs to me that if I really did manage to achieve the level of perfection I fantasize about in my Super Me daydreams, people might not necessarily like me. After all, I personally find other people intimidating when their lives seem too perfect.

Fortunately, I’ve learned that God loves me the way I am – not because I’m perfect, but because God is perfect. Good news, indeed, even if I have to remind myself of this from time to time.

There’s a secret part of me, however, that still hopes Mary helped Martha wash the dishes after Jesus left. After all, food preparation and clean-up don’t happen by themselves.

Questions allowed!

“It’s God’s will. You mustn’t question God’s will.” 

If I’ve heard this admonition once, I’ve heard it a gazillion times – usually when I’ve challenged some aspect of religious dogma or someone’s interpretation of a Biblical passage. And I must admit, I tend to become innately suspicious when any person (or church denomination) does not want me to ask questions. 

The Bible itself brims with stories of prophets and apostles who questioned God’s will – or tried to change God’s mind, or expressed doubts out loud – and lived to tell about it. 

When God commanded Jonah to go to Nineveh and prophesy against that city, Jonah tried to flee rather than carry out the command and got angry when the people of Nineveh actually repented of their sins. When Job fell on excruciatingly hard times, he didn’t lose his faith, but he did confront God, demanding to know why these things were happening to him.

Wikipedia defines a doubting Thomas as “a skeptic who refuses to believe without direct personal experience” – a reference to the Apostle Thomas, who refused to believe the resurrected Jesus had appeared to the other apostles until he could see and feel Jesus’s wounds for himself. Even Jesus, as he faced crucifixion, pleaded with God, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”

But when people “caution” me not to question God’s will, I’m not sure it’s God’s will they’re worried about. I suspect what some of them really mean is, “Don’t question my interpretation of God’s will.” I haven’t yet decided whether it’s worth the effort to question God’s will, but I can certainly challenge another human being’s interpretation of it.

My own questioning of “received wisdom” began early. At age 8, I listened in shock as a mainline Protestant minister “explained” to the congregation that “God does not intend for black people to be equal to white people.” As a teenager, I simply refused to believe someone who claimed my baby sister would not go to heaven because my parents were unable to have her baptized before she died. 

When I was in college, some evangelical classmates talked excitedly about The Late, Great Planet Earth, a book by Hal Lindsay which speculated the Catholic Church was the Great Whore of Babylon mentioned in the Book of Revelation and the Pope was the Antichrist who had the number 666 engraved on his ring. I may not have agreed with every single aspect of Catholic teaching, but I was repulsed by the blatant bigotry and said so.

More recently I’ve debated folks who think God favors capitalism over socialism or America over other countries, the so-called “prosperity gospel” promoting the idea that God wants us to be wealthy, the assertion that God cares whether we sing traditional hymns or contemporary music at our church services, and the whole concept of predestination. 

One reason we have so many Christian denominations is that we have so many different interpretations of “the truth.” The various sects and denominations offer contrasting teachings on everything from baptism (sprinkling or immersion? infant or older?) to communion (wine or grape juice? open or closed?) to how one gets “saved” (baptism or personal decision?). And then there’s the debate over whether a church should take positions on hot-button “political” issues such as immigration and gun control. When Christians can’t agree on the “right” answers, how do I sort these things out for myself if I can’t ask questions?

I’ve discovered it’s not only important to question other people’s ideas, but my own as well. I must admit I occasionally notice cognitive dissonance between my stated values and my actions. For example, I say I care about the environment (God’s creation!), yet keep contributing excessive waste to our ever-expanding landfills. I say we all ought to invest in solar power, but have yet to install the panels on our own house. Along with Pope Francis, I decry consumerism, yet can’t seem to stop accumulating STUFF. I share the Bible’s concern about the poor, yet avoid looking too closely at the impact of my spending and investment habits on economically disadvantaged people. I could go on.

Whether we’re talking about church dogma or political/ideological positions, one thing I’ve been asking myself lately is, do I really believe everything I claim to believe? Or do I pay lip service to certain ideas to please my peer group? Do I secretly think someone else should be responsible for upholding certain values while I’m exempt? Could a fearless moral inventory of the type promoted by 12-Step programs be in order? (For those unfamiliar with 12-Step groups, the fearless moral inventory involves seriously examining one’s own attitudes and behavior.)

I’m aware that the mere act of asking questions carries risks. Will I stop believing in God altogether if I express too many doubts? Will I decide the church I’m attending is no longer appropriate for me? Will I stop agreeing with friends on certain issues, and will they no longer consider me an ally or want to be friends with me?

Yes, it is possible I could end up wanting to go to a different church. (Again.) Or I could stop believing in God altogether. Or I could lose friends. But it’s equally possible that answering questions to my own satisfaction could strengthen my faith, encourage me to appreciate my current church even more, and allow me to discern who my real friends are.

Matthew 22:37 says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Your mind, it says. Your mind.

I’ve been encouraged by reader responses to recent blog posts in which I’ve acknowledged struggling with various aspects of my faith. 

Chrissie, author of the blog Word Quilt (link HERE), had this response to one of my posts: “To doubt and still believe [is] a real definition of faith, but not blind faith.” Exactly, I thought.

Elizabeth, author of the blog Saved by Words (link HERE), responded to another of my posts: “If you didn’t question the very basis of your faith, you would be merely borrowing someone else’s faith.” I like that. And I completely agree.

Ultimately, what I want is my own personal faith – one that will stand up to reason and scrutiny. What that means is, I will probably be questioning God, myself and others until I draw my last breath. And for now, I’ve decided that’s okay.

Moving forward

What’s next, as I embark on the next leg of my spiritual direction journey? How do I maintain and build on my progress?  

My first goal will be to spend some time each day outdoors – away from the computer screen, away from the political bickering by culture warriors on TV and Facebook, away from endless news reports about people’s inhumanity to other people. Because nature constantly reminds me of God’s existence, going outside is something I can easily do whenever I encounter those pesky doubts. I need to immerse myself in God’s creation. Watch sunsets. Listen to cicadas. Smell some flowers. Feel the breeze against my face. Take a walk. Dig around in the dirt and plant flowers or veggies. Experience evidence of God with all my senses. If severe weather keeps me inside, I can nurture the plants in the sunroom or watch the birds and squirrels from the picture window in the living room. Meanwhile, I’d like to start each day with Psalm 118:24, which reminds me, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” 

While I’m nowhere near my original goal of “a place for everything and everything in its place,” I’ve made some real headway sorting through physical clutter. I still advise houseguests against venturing into the basement or garage (I’d rather not have to file a missing person report), but the house mostly stays presentable enough so I’m not totally embarrassed when someone drops by without notice. I plan to continue with my spiritual director’s recommendation: Devote one hour per day to tackling clutter. And stop collecting more and more STUFF to fill a home already bursting at the seams with too much material abundance.

My spiritual director and I have also explored various kinds of “spiritual clutter” that crowd attention to God out of my life – and I eliminated a major distractor by walking away from an incredibly abusive volunteer work situation. As much as leaving the organization saddened me, I must say I love the newfound free time. Deadlines have practically disappeared. I feel so much “lighter” – like I’ve put down the 100-pound bag of stress I carried around for five years. Now, as I ponder the question of vocation, I must resist the urge to plunge into something new right away. I need to be selective as I discern where God wants me to go next.

My continuing spiritual journey also involves asking more questions. Lots of them:

  • The nature of God. I’ve decided there must be some kind of Creator. But who, or what, is this Entity I choose to call God? Is God distant and uninvolved, as some deists claim? Or is God a “close-up” entity who not only cares about each of us personally, but intervenes regularly in human affairs?
  • Authority. What is my authority for what I believe? The Bible? Church tradition? Clergy? Why, or why not? What about the priesthood of all believers? Where does science fit in? Since not even all Christians agree on the issue of authority, how do I decide who is right? Also, who or what outside of church has influenced my beliefs? How reliable are these sources of authority? Should I rethink some of them?
  • Church. Why go to church, when by my own admission, I feel the presence of God most while immersed in nature? Is there anything I can get from church that I can’t just as easily get by going outside? If we go to church, how often do we go? What characteristics should I look for when evaluating a church? What characteristics serve as deal-breakers? 
  • Prayer. What is prayer and how should we pray? Can writing, singing and gardening be forms of prayer? Is it okay to ask God for things? What about “crowd-sourced” prayer on Facebook?
  • Salvation. Some Christians say we’re “saved” through baptism, while others insist we must make a personal decision for Christ. Which is it? What about predestination? Is there a literal heaven or hell? If so, who goes where? What does salvation mean, actually?
  • The 10 Commandments. How do I relate these Commandments to 21st Century issues? For example, I promise I’ve never even been tempted to worship a golden calf made from melted-down jewelry. But what about the bronze bull on Wall Street? What does it mean to keep the Sabbath Day holy in a 24/7 culture that worships productivity? What constitutes stealing? Your wallet may be safe with me, but what about the way I invest my money?
  • Sin. In a world where many “sins” have been reframed as “diseases,” is sin still a legitimate concept? Is sin a specific act or is it the condition of separation from God? How would liberal Christians define sin versus how conservative Christians would define it? Who is correct?
  • Creeds. Considering that no creed exists anywhere in the Bible and a number of Christian churches don’t have one, do we need a creed? If so, what should be in it? 
  • Politics and the Culture Wars. Part of my motivation for seeking spiritual direction was the extreme level of vitriol permeating our society in recent years. I’ve begun to suspect I’m part of an Exhausted Majority who feels pressured to take sides in the Culture Wars, but at the same time doesn’t fit neatly into either the liberal or conservative camps. As the partisan positions have gotten more and more extreme, common sense seems to have flown out the window. This has prompted me to ask: What are my own beliefs and what is my role as a Christian in our society’s political battles? Even if we think someone’s values are totally wrong, how do we change hearts and minds if we demonize certain people and won’t have anything to do with them? 
  • Ecumenism. Is there a common core of beliefs shared by most Christians, regardless of sect or denomination? Do all of these denominations offer equally legitimate paths to God? Is there a way to heal the divisions between believers and relate respectfully to people whose viewpoints differ from ours?

That’s just for starters. 

When my spiritual director asked me point-blank if I ever doubted the existence of God, her question gave me permission to “go there.” For the next leg of my spiritual journey, I want to keep being honest about the questions I have.

One thing I do know for sure: I’m grateful to be making the journey with this spiritual director. When I shared this list of questions with her, as usual, there were no lectures. She just smiled and asked, “Where do you want to start?”

Spiritual progress

A little over a year ago I found myself at a spiritual crossroads. 

My husband and I attended church almost weekly, and I had read the Bible from cover to cover, along with shelves full of books on religion and spirituality. Yet I still found myself asking the “big” or “ultimate” questions. What do I actually believe about God and why? What is God’s purpose for my life? What are my values, or what should they be? How do I live my life in a way that is consistent with my beliefs and values?

Several factors led to this renewed questioning. The transition in focus and priorities prompted by my retirement. The “time is limited” epiphany that comes with being 60-something, losing loved ones and developing chronic health problems myself. Questions about faith and a church’s true purpose raised by reading the Bible and serving on my church’s evangelism committee. The internal tug-of-war over my own values brought on by the increasing divisiveness and polarization in our society.

I made a commitment: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my values should be, and live accordingly. Toward this end, I engaged a spiritual director to help me explore these “ultimate” questions and reorder my beliefs and values as necessary. Seeing a spiritual director does not replace going to church, of course – it’s a supplement, rather than a substitute. Spiritual direction is a one-on-one partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God. 

I must admit the idea of working with a spiritual director made me a bit nervous at first. While I hoped this person would ask the hard questions, I didn’t want someone who would merely push me to adopt their own belief system. I needed this person to be nonjudgmental and open to the idea that I was questioning all kinds of dogma, from the spiritual and religious to the political and ideological. 

My spiritual director, thankfully, has been patient as I grapple with questions some would say I shouldn’t even be asking. For the past year, we have met monthly for one-hour sessions. She offers a variety of suggestions for homework assignments, allowing me to choose which ones I might find most helpful. She recommends various reading materials as well.

I had already developed a morning meditation ritual – sitting in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cat in my lap and a cup of coffee by my side while I journal about my priorities for the coming day. I began using this time to write out my thoughts and insights generated by the homework assignments. I’m a rather “visual” person, so I’ve also used imagery to describe what I’m experiencing at any given moment. 

One of my first assignments: Come up with an image that best symbolizes my present spiritual condition.

I created a Photoshop image of myself buried under a mountain of clutter and added a rope to represent the tug-of-war over everything from my time to my personal values caused by competing demands and continual conflict. Underneath the papers and boxes and to-do lists, I placed several boulders with labels on them – fear, anger, pain – to represent the steady stream of anxieties and resentments that kept me awake at night and pre-occupied during the day. A pair of arms juggled several balls in the air – family, friends, volunteer work, the house. More balls had been dropped and were nestled on the ground at the bottom of the heap – my writing, self-care, God.

Using the graphic as a starting point, I listed those areas of my life that felt not-so-well-ordered. My relationships. A messy house. Our finances. My frantic, overloaded schedule. Health issues ranging from aches and pains everywhere to heart problems, along with my inability to sustain a healthy eating plan for more than a few days at a time. My writing, which seemed to languish. My emotional life, which often left me feeling like a walking bundle of anxieties and resentments. The suspicion I entertained from time to time that my life had been reduced to crossing items off endless to-do lists. My spiritual life, with all those questions and doubts.

I shared my “laundry list” with my spiritual director and showed her the graphic. I described the chaos that seemed to permeate my life, stemming from my own challenges with organizing skills, my talent for procrastination, my difficulty saying “no” to demands on my time, and my penchant for getting sucked into other people’s dramas. Repeated efforts to get my life under better control often left me feeling more frustrated than ever, I confessed. 

My spiritual director listened to this litany without negative judgment – at least none that I could detect. Looking the graphic over for a moment, she asked, “What stands out for you?”

I pointed out the “God ball” at the foot of the clutter pile. God was there, of course, but after creating this image, I could see vividly how clutter of all kinds – from endless STUFF to excessive commitments – blocked my spiritual path.

I half expected her to supply some relevant Bible verses about the Godliness of cleanliness and self-discipline. But instead of helping me incorporate my “God ball” back into the rotation of balls I was juggling, my spiritual director suggested I leave it where it was for the time being. “Just sit with it,” she said.

Back at the drawing board (Photoshop, that is), I pulled up my Clutter Mountain graphic and painted my “God ball” gold. I then imagined myself crawling out from under the junk pile and sitting next to the golden God ball with my eyes closed and my back to everything else – a cup of warm coffee in my hands and my two cats at my side.

Of course, this meant the other balls I was juggling would drop, I told my spiritual director when I showed her the edited graphic. “That’s okay,” she said. “Those other balls will still be there when it’s time for you to get back to them. They’re not going anywhere.” She suggested I spend an hour each day tackling the clutter – just one hour – and leave the rest for the next day.

Then she asked me, “Have you ever questioned the existence of God?” She didn’t flinch when I said, “Oh yeah. More than once.” One of the things I’ve liked is that she’s continued to be nonjudgmental. I’ve been able to talk about things like my history of church-hopping (and religion-or-spiritual-tradition hopping) and I’ve even been able to acknowledge occasional doubts about God’s existence without getting a lecture.

I went to work on the clutter, using my spiritual director’s recommended one-hour-per-day approach. While I still have a long way to go before achieving my goal of “a place for everything and everything in its place,” slowly but surely, I’ve gotten my house to a point where it is at least presentable enough to invite people over from time to time.

I set a boundary with myself regarding my schedule. Before adding a new ongoing commitment to my calendar, something else must come off.  Some of the commitments really mattered to me: time with my husband, a meal with family or friends, singing in the church choir. But several other commitments had crept into my schedule because I should have said “no” and didn’t.

As I continued taming my schedule and tackling the endless clutter – one hour and one day at a time – a flash of insight occurred to me. A little epiphany, one might say. Could the question of God’s existence be what I was distracting myself from with all the to-do lists, the frantic scheduling, the endless cleaning and the mindless Internet surfing that cluttered my life and unquieted my mind? My spiritual director agreed that I might be on to something. 

For most of my life, I had leaned toward the idea that there probably was a God. Yet, those pesky doubts did creep in from time to time. I didn’t voice them to anyone, though. If the folks at church ever doubted God’s existence, they certainly weren’t letting on.

I confessed to my spiritual director that what I really wanted was that “blinding light” experience the Apostle Paul had on the road to Damascus, or the burning bush Moses encountered. I wanted to be like those people who saw the blinding light or the burning bush, just knew what they knew about God, and had their mission in life spelled out for them.

She recommended I use part of my morning meditation time to be completely quiet. “Listen for God’s voice,” she said. 

Well, the blinding light hasn’t happened for me – at least not yet. But what has happened is nearly as amazing. 

One thing that became glaringly apparent when I tried to quiet my mind and listen for God’s voice was the level of resentment and anxiety that continually filled my thoughts – much of this prompted by a not-for-profit organization I was heavily involved in. For several years I had dedicated an average of 5-10 volunteer hours per week to this organization and contributed thousands of dollars.

The organization was not church-related, but its program served a cause dear to my heart, and I had previously thought nurturing its development might be a significant part of God’s plan for my retirement years. However, warring factions within the organization seemed more focused on vanquishing each other than they were on the mission. The leader personally targeted me and others whose competence and dedication threatened his sense of power. 

After five years of relentless conflict and escalating abuse, I had to admit this organization’s dynamics were never going to change. And no matter how worthy the cause, I was doing untold damage to both myself and my other relationships by continuing to participate. With much sorrow, and after consulting with my spiritual director, my pastor and a valued mentor, I walked away. 

My husband was so happy with this decision, he celebrated by taking me out for supper at my favorite seafood restaurant. I could literally feel the tension flow out of my body as I tied up loose ends and turned tasks over to others. I’ve dropped 15 pounds since I resigned from the organization because I no longer feel the need to counter stress by opening the refrigerator door and mindlessly stuffing my emotions with junk food. My schedule opened up considerably.

Then I walked outside. Dismissing the existence of a God is tempting when so many people who claim to speak in God’s name spew hatred for their fellow and sister human beings while committing assorted hypocrisies and evil deeds. Denying God’s existence gets even easier when watching one terrible event after another unfold on the news. But I’ve found it’s almost impossible to deny the existence of a Creator when I’m outdoors with evidence of God all around me.

So, to ward off those nagging doubts that surface from time to time, I try to get outside as much as possible. Regardless of the weather, I like to start my day by feeding the birds (and squirrels) while my morning coffee brews. During the growing season I tend a garden and several flower beds. I take walks along an amazing tree-lined bike trail that runs beside a creek near our house. Strolling through our backyard, the bike path or a neighborhood park admiring the flowers and snapping wildlife photos sure beats watching the news and arguing with complete strangers on Facebook. Immersing myself in nature’s majesty continually reminds me there is an ultimate Creator.

My spiritual progress may seem agonizingly slow to anyone reading this. But for me, finding a way to effectively address my occasional doubts about God’s existence is HUGE. Summoning the self-respect and courage to walk away from an abusive situation has also been an enormous step in the right direction. As they say around the tables at 12-Step meetings, we aim for spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.

Time to fasten my seatbelt and embark on the next leg of my spiritual journey. 

Confessions of a spiritual mutt

My journey through the spiritual/religious kaleidoscope began early. The church my family attended on a given weekend sometimes depended on where we had Sunday dinner – one week we might attend the church we and several members of Dad’s family belonged to, while the next Sunday might find us at the church Mom’s side of the family attended.

Being of different denominations, the two churches presented contrasting teachings on everything from baptism (sprinkling or immersion?) to communion (wine or grape juice?) to how one gets “saved” (baptism or personal decision?). But Dad quickly assured us, “In the end, we all worship the same God.” And the extended-family feasts that followed church and Sunday School are among my favorite childhood memories.

In college, I joined Campus Crusade for Christ, a nondenominational student organization whose main attraction for me was that these classmates didn’t pressure me to partake of the drug scene or the sexual revolution. (This was the early 1970s, and both proliferated on campus.) Some of the classmates invited me to attend services with them at the local evangelical free church, where members encouraged us to join them for Sunday dinner – a great evangelism tool for homesick students, I must say.

After college, I followed the trajectory of a growing number of today’s young adults and became a “None.” I didn’t stop believing in God altogether, but I was preoccupied with chasing professional brass rings and worshipping at the altar of career success. I referred to the endless round of political fund-raisers, Chamber of Commerce cocktail parties and after-hours gatherings with colleagues as “networking” and considered these alcohol-soaked events essential to my job … until I wound up in detox.

While embarking on my recovery journey in the early 1990s, I investigated possible spiritual paths that might work for me. Folks in the 12-Step programs advised me, “Take what you need and leave the rest.” My husband and I joined a Unitarian-Universalist congregation, where other women and I explored the Goddess movement and experimented with pagan/Wiccan traditions. I also delved into books on comparative religion and learned about Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Indigenous traditions and other belief systems outside Christianity, all with the blessing of my fellow U.U.s and 12-Steppers.

Following my 12-Step/U.U. phase, I took another hiatus from church. I decided that no human being – including me – could definitively answer the question of God’s existence. At that time, one could classify me as a “cheerful agnostic.”

In 2004, after a huge medical scare – during which I prayed fervently and made promises to a God I hoped existed – I started going to a mainline Protestant church with my husband and mother-in-law and periodically sneaking into a couple of evangelical/Pentecostal churches my parents, other family members and friends now attended.

From 2005-2009, I worked for a faith-based prison re-entry program that encouraged church congregations to “adopt” an incarcerated mother reintegrating into the community. Part of my job description involved recruiting teams of volunteers from these congregations, which in turn required me to attend services at a dazzling array of churches: from Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist and Presbyterian to Pentecostal, Mennonite and African Methodist Episcopalian. Every month or two would find me in a new congregation’s church service.

In addition to sampling the denominational smorgasbord, I read the entire Bible from front to back for the first time in my life and discovered passages that prompted me to observe, “So that’s where the Pentecostals get their belief about speaking in tongues … where the Catholics get their belief about purgatory … where the Evangelicals get their belief about the Rapture.” And I found myself agreeing with Dad’s long-ago observation: “In the end, we all worship the same God.”

I’m now part of an ELCA Lutheran congregation – a successor to the Lutheran Church of America denomination my father’s side of the family belonged to when I was a child. One could say I’ve come back full circle.

I like this church’s concept of “the priesthood of all believers” – the idea that we don’t need an intercessor such as a minister or priest telling us how to understand God and interpret the Bible. I’ve never heard anyone preach that God “hates” whole groups of people (feminists, LGBTQ+ people, Muslims, etc.). I’ve also been able to ask questions in our adult Sunday School class that probably would have gotten me burned at the stake in a previous era, and I haven’t been excommunicated or struck by lightning. At least not yet.

About a year ago, I started seeing a spiritual director as well. It’s important to point out that I see my work with her as a supplement to – rather than a substitute for – church. In his book Spiritual Direction, Henri Nouwen says, “Frequently, we are restlessly looking for answers, going from door to door, from book to book, or from church to church, without having really listened carefully to the questions within.” That’s where my spiritual director has come in for the past year – helping me explore “the questions within.”

This summer – over lunch with my husband, our pastor and a Catholic friend of ours – I joked, “I guess you could call me a spiritual mutt.”

Our Catholic friend said, “I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing.”

I’m inclined to agree that experiencing a variety of traditions has had its advantages. I certainly don’t believe I have a corner on the truth about religious/spiritual matters, and I refuse to demonize people whose beliefs differ from mine. I’m less likely to get drawn into squabbles over the right way to do baptism, communion or other things Christians find to bicker about. I prefer, instead. to learn from others and to look for areas of agreement.

What I really care about these days is how well a church encourages its members to fulfill these commandments:

  • Love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind.
  • Love your neighbor as yourself.

As far as I can see, the people at my current church do their best. So even though I’m still questioning a lot of things, this is where I’ve settled. But I still sneak into other churches from time to time when I’m visiting with family and friends. As far as I can see, these people also do their best. The good news is, my occasional church-hopping doesn’t bother the people in my own congregation.

Pointing to John 15:5 – “Jesus said, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’” – ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton recently had this to say about respecting different Christian denominations (link HERE): “We are not only connected to the same vine, but we have no life apart from that vine.” She adds, “We are scripturally, confessionally and even constitutionally wired to be an ecumenical church. … It is possible to be Lutheran and an ecumenist.” 

And I still trust my father’s advice: “Don’t worry. In the end, we all worship the same God.”

My priorities for 2018

In what has become an annual birthday tradition, I like to start my “personal New Year” by reviewing my priorities. Are they the same as they were last year? Or does something need to change?

For several years now, this little exercise has helped me stay focused so various kinds of extraneous clutter – material, mental or spiritual – don’t crowd out what really matters in my life.

As always, I begin by identifying what is most important to me right now:

  • Developing a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my values should be and live accordingly.
  • Staying healthy for as long as possible and helping my husband do the same.
  • Keeping in contact with family and friends and nurturing good relationships with them.
  • Maintaining our home as a sanctuary for ourselves, our family and friends.
  • Writing – articles, essays, blog entries and, yes, at least one book.
  • Using a portion of my time, money and talent in a way that helps others and creates positive change in the world.
  • Eliminating the backlog tasks and clutter that drain my energy and keep my life more chaotic than it needs to be.
  • Achieving serenity by practicing mindfulness and finding at least one thing each day to be grateful for.

For the most part, my priorities for the coming year will remain the same as they were last year – my relationship with God; attention to self-care, family and friends, our home and my writing; service to others; elimination of needless stress and clutter; and serenity.

My efforts to stick to my priorities over the past year met with varying degrees of success. On the one hand, I allowed stress to derail my healthy eating plan too many times, with the result that I’m about 5 pounds heavier than I was at this time last year. On the other hand, this past year has seen three major achievements:

  • Committing to a journey with my spiritual director, something I’d thought about doing for several years.
  • Finally making a decision, just a few days ago, to walk away from an abusive volunteer work situation that has been poisoning my soul for way too long.
  • Persuading my husband to embark on a healthy eating plan with me, beginning the day after my birthday. Let me tell you, this last one is a major, MAJOR accomplishment.

This means I will be starting my 64th year with a bit more time on my hands, which I can spend experimenting with recipes delicious enough to convince both my sweetie pie and myself that healthy eating can be fun rather than torture! Wish me luck …

 

“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.

 

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.