Conscious contact

Now that I’ve discovered a reliable way to address my occasional doubts about God’s existence – immerse myself in nature – it’s time for the next step in my spiritual direction journey: Addressing my questions/doubts about a “personal God.”

Matthew 10:29-30 says “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it. And the very hairs on your head are all numbered.” How do I quell my periodic doubts about whether God really cares about me and other people, let alone sparrows? Does God truly have a plan for my life and does God honestly try to communicate directly with me?

With these questions in mind, I’ve dedicated this year’s Lenten season to improving my conscious contact with God. And the logical way to do this is through prayer. 

Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of In All Seasons for All Reasons: Praying Throughout the Year, suggests using Lent as “a time to explore new ways of prayer.”

Among the forms of prayer suggested by Father Martin and my spiritual director, I’d like to focus on the following. While I’ve used some of these prayer techniques off and on for years, I’d like to commit to doing them on a more regular, disciplined basis. Others, such as the “examen” and “lectio divina,” I’ve never tried before and find intriguing.

  • Morning meditation. A time set aside for prayer before I start my day. 
  • Prayers of petition and intercession. Prayer on behalf of myself or others.
  • Prayers of thanksgiving. Expressing gratitude for answered prayers and other blessings.
  • Nature prayer. Encountering God through creation.
  • Writing/journaling. Keeping a journal to record the fruits of prayer, or using writing itself as prayer.
  • Music. Both making and listening to music as a form of prayer and meditation. 
  • Lectio divina. Sacred reading as a prayer method and guide to living.
  • Examen. Prayerful reflection on the events of the day to detect God’s presence and discern God’s direction for my life. 
  • Mindfulness in church. Paying closer attention during church services, and trying not to get distracted by my own random thoughts. 

As I pray, my spiritual director suggested I spend some time listening as well. Say (or write) a prayer, then be silent. Quiet my mind for a few minutes and wait for God’s response. What is God saying to me?

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. 

Can I learn to like winter?

Ten inches of wet, heavy snow fell over the weekend, and the forecast predicts more on the way, along with strong winds and frigid temperatures. After being thoroughly spoiled by mild weather for a week or two, we’re back to January in central Illinois. Looks like we won’t sit on our deck grilling brats anytime soon.

I’m definitely a spring and fall person. Spring offers promise – those first green shoots poking up out of the ground, a backyard in bloom, and the vow that this year, I really will stay on top of the weeding. What’s not to love about fall – especially if I ignore the fact that winter follows. Few sights are more gorgeous than a sunset forming the backdrop for rioting brown-orange-yellow-crimson leaves. 

But winter? It gets dark in the afternoon. Utility bills go up. Add in cold and flu season. Last year, Pete and I were continuously sick from Thanksgiving to Easter except for a week of respite in late January when my family finally got together for Christmas. After Pete wound up in the hospital with pneumonia, we seriously considered becoming “snowbirds” and moving to Arizona this winter, but the mere thought of the hassle changed our minds.

Why is it that spring rushes by faster than a fire truck with its lights flashing, while the coldest days of January poke along like that driver ahead of us on a 2-lane highway who thinks the speed limit is 35 m.p.h.? Why can’t spring last as long as winter? I know. Technically, winter has 90 days this year, and spring has 92. But regardless of what the calendar says, winter came quite early – with record snowfall before November was half over. 

On the other hand, Psalm 118:24 reminds us, “Today is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I’m pretty darned sure this includes winter days. And since I turned 60, life has begun feeling much too short to wish whole months away.  Therefore, I’ve decided I either need to move to a place with a more temperate climate or find some way to stop hating winter.

I haven’t always disliked winter.  When I was a small child, my reaction to snow was, “Oh boy! Let’s go sledding! Make snow angels! Build snow forts! Make a snowman! Have a snowball fight!” Making snow angels lost its luster once I reached junior high school age and got vain about how my hair looked, but I still appreciated the “no school” announcement. 

Could I possibly learn to like winter again? 

Snow is pretty – especially when seen through the picture window in our living room. In early November, snow covering the still-colorful fall leaves created an interesting – and gorgeous – effect.

Bare trees project a certain majesty. Photo of the magnificent tree below was taken at the North Carolina home of cousins Anne and John.

Of course I can better appreciate the beauty of ice-coated branches when the ice stays off sidewalks and doesn’t trigger a power outage. 

Snow even adds beauty to dead weeds. 

Our Christmas cactus in the sun room only blooms once a year, and that’s in the winter.

Christmas is the one time of year when I can usually count on seeing most of my family. Pete and I have also started a tradition of inviting friends to our house for greens and hoppin’ john (a dish made of black-eyed peas and rice) to help us ring in the New Year. The hoppin’ john and greens are pictured below, right.

I’ve come to think of cold weather as God’s gift to people who need to be inside getting some work done. With 10 inches of snow on the ground and wind chill temperatures below zero, I can clean closets or work on a deadline project without feeling deprived by spending the whole day inside.

Winter weather reminds me of several other things I should be grateful for as well. Not being homeless. Not having a job such as postal carrier that requires me to work outside in sub-zero temperatures. Having a house with a garage, so I don’t need to dig our cars out of a foot of snow. Sixty-degree days in January. Snowdrops and crocuses that start poking their heads up in late February, just as I’m beginning to crawl out of my skin with cabin fever. Bird (and squirrel) watching.

I’m especially grateful for cardinals this time of year. In the middle of all the black-and-white dreariness appear those tiny splashes of brilliant red.

I’ve found it helps to think of winter as hibernation season. Bears do it, so why not me? Time to bundle up under a half-dozen quilts and read an 800-page book. Work on a deadline project and not feel guilty about staying indoors all day. Experiment with soup recipes.

I’ve also started leaving my Christmas decor up long past the time when the holidays are over. The twinkling lights make the room feel warmer and brighter in the mornings, and the winter weather outside doesn’t seem so harsh. They add such cheer to the darkness. This year, I’m keeping the Christmas tree and lights up till Lent. 

This morning I had a cat curled up in my lap and a cup of coffee at my side while I did my morning meditation. (I can see why having a warm cuddly pet is good for reducing blood pressure.) Christmas lights blinked cheerfully while I sat in the recliner in front of the fireplace bundled up in a flannel nightgown, yoga pants, hoodie, two pairs of socks and bedroom slippers. (This get-up will not get me featured in a Victoria’s Secret catalog, but it sure is comfy.) 

The forecast for this coming weekend predicts a real MESS — a mixture of snow and ice, strong winds and plunging temperatures. But we’ve stocked up on groceries. I’m preparing a casserole dish and some soup to get us through the pair of storms headed our way. And the lights that frame my windows are battery-operated, which means I’ll have a well-lit living room even if the power goes off. 

Here’s to staying warm!

God’s fireworks

The frost sadly zapped my annual flowers early this year. But as the saying goes, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” And the fall leaves, which seem to need a good freeze to get really colorful, are making up for the lost flowers.

Here is the view from my kitchen window in the late afternoon.

Kitchen

The street outside my house.

Street Scene2a

And the nearby park, which I like to drive through on my way to everywhere, especially this time of year.

Pond

Gawking at trees is one of my favorite pastimes.

Red tree

Yellow tree

Orange tree

Park scene

Street scene1

The seeds and berries are pretty this time of year as well.

As are the leaves that have dropped to the ground.

Some flowers stay colorful and interesting even after the frost has zapped them.

A few perennial flowers have managed to survive the freeze. Love the ones that hang in there!

And here’s the cute kitty who followed me while I was snapping some of my photos. So of course, I need to include her here.

New Salem kitty

 

Carpe diem!

  “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” – Psalm 118:24

Our church’s adult Faith Formation class this fall assigned us to choose our favorite Bible verse/passage and explain why we find it meaningful.

I like Psalm 118:24 so much I have it stenciled above the door in our sunroom so I can see it when I go out to my backyard in the morning to feed the birds and squirrels. It reminds me that each day is a gift from God, full of promise and new opportunities.

Notice the verse says “this is THE day the Lord has made,” not “this is day.” Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. Today is all we have. Yet, how many times have I said, “I’ll be glad when this day is over!” How many times have I fantasized that a future time exists when everything will fall into place and I will be able to start living my life in earnest?

Psalm 118:24 encourages me to practice mindfulness – to pay attention to each moment rather than operating on autopilot. When my days feel reduced to crossing items off the To-Do list I jokingly call “my conscience,” this verse inspires me to take a break from my often distracted, multitasking, overly-stressed schedule so I can be awake and alive instead of sleepwalking through life.

The verse also prompts me to set boundaries with my computer. Stop the mindless Internet surfing, resist “click bait” and avoid getting sucked into Facebook flame wars. How many articles do I need to read about our elected officials calling each other names? What do I gain by arguing about politics with total strangers on Facebook except for a bushel basket full of new resentments? Perhaps, the verse tells me, I should take a walk instead.

And while I’m out walking, the verse reminds me to let go of those joy-stealing resentments. I remember taking a twilight walk one beautiful October day surrounded by the most gorgeous sunset I’d seen in a while. Then I realized that, while God was putting on this amazing display, I had been staring at the sidewalk, my mind flitting from one surly thought to another. I even managed to reserve rent-free space in my head for the mean girls who made my life miserable in high school, the latter rumination triggered by an invitation to my 40th class reunion.

Finally, Psalm 118:24 teaches me to practice gratitude. I’m too often guilty of taking for granted common events in my life that should be cause for rejoicing: my marriage, my family, my kitties, my health, my home, good friends past and present, my church and other supportive people, the gifts and talents that helped me earn a living and will allow me to contribute something worthwhile during my retirement years.

So instead of groaning when the alarm clock goes off, I’d like to get in the habit of saying, “Carpe diem!” Time to wake up and seize the day …

 

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.”

Feasting on God’s eye candy

When I’m tempted to doubt God’s existence, all I have to do is go outdoors to set my thinking straight. Our pastor’s monthly newsletter column served as a reminder this past week that I’ve been spending WAY too many hours glued to my computer screen. Time to pay a visit to our church’s rose garden, she said. 

 

 

The rose garden is one of my favorite places. Tucked in among the roses is a plaque quoting Martin Luther, who seemed to share my perception about God being immanent in all of creation.

 

15 Sign 2a

 

The roses are expertly and lovingly tended by two men in our congregation, who created the garden in memory of wives gone much too soon. A wonderful tribute!

 

 

With gorgeous fall weather approaching, I’ve also decided it’s time to start going on walks again. An amazing bike trail within a couple blocks of our house means there’s no excuse to stay inside on 70-degree days. Trees line both sides of the trail, and a creek runs alongside, making it almost possible to forget I’m in town.

 

 

I also have access to a park just a few more blocks from my house. One of the most attractive features is a carillon (below right), which provides background music while visitors walk or ride their bikes.

 

 

This park has an amazing number of paths where I can stroll, meditate and feast my eyes on a huge variety of flowers, shrubs, decorative grasses and native plants of all kinds.

 

 

 I like to think of the numerous flower beds and native plant displays as God’s eye candy.

 

07 Eye Candy 2a

 

Of course, no park is complete without the critters. Park visitors constantly feed bread crumbs to the ducks and geese, which means some are tame enough to let me snap close-up photos and one even walked right up to my camera while I was photographing him.

 

12 Goose 1a

 

What I know for sure is that I must tear myself away from my computer and TV screens and spend more time outside this fall!

 

Images of God

During my participation in 12-Step groups over the years, I’ve often been encouraged to evaluate different images of God. As they like to say around the tables at these meetings, we may need to fire the God of our childhood understanding and get in touch with the real one. 

Here are just some of the competing images I’ve encountered – whether in church, in 12-Step groups or in my reading:

The angry God.  “The God I was taught to fear was an angry, capricious bastard with a killer surveillance system who is constantly disappointed in me for being human,” said ELCA Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber in a recent interview. (Link HERE.) I could relate. The God of my own childhood was a short-tempered bully who really kind of hated people, especially kids who asked “Why?” when told by an adult to do something.

God as loving parent.  While the stern, authoritarian God who always seems angry at us about something appears often in the Old Testament, the Bible – especially in the New Testament – also offers the image of God as benevolent parent. This God loves us, takes care of us and wants us to love and care for each other. This is the image I like the most, but I must admit I struggle constantly with the question of why a God like this would allow so much evil in the world.

The distant and uninvolved God.  According to this concept, God created everything that exists but has a big, wide universe to oversee and isn’t particularly interested in the day-to-day affairs of humans. God created people and other living creatures, gave us all the ability to reproduce and perpetuate our species, and then went on to other things. I’m most tempted to believe this theory when it seems that God is not answering my prayers.

The God immanent in all creation.  God is not a totally separate entity “out there” somewhere, but dwells in each of us as well as in animals, trees, all other living things and all of nature. At this point in my life, the immanent God is the image that resonates with me the most, at least when I’m taking walks outside.

I HAVE TO ADMIT I find it easier to articulate what I don’t believe than to decide what I do believe. Despite the confusion I’ve felt over who or what God is, here are a few concepts and images of God I have pretty confidently rejected.

The God who plays favorites.  I have an innate suspicion of any belief system that claims God favors one group of people over another, and – by some stroke of luck or fate or coincidence – the group God favors just happens to be the group we belong to or identify with. I get especially suspicious when God “intends” for us to have something that belongs to someone else (land, for example). If Romans 10:12, Galatians 3:28 and Colossians 3:11 are correct, God does not favor any one group of people over any others. “In God, there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free.”

The God who mustn’t be questioned.  I also tend to be innately suspicious when any person (or religious denomination) does not want me to ask questions. Especially when the main reason we have so many Christian denominations is that we have so many different interpretations of Biblical truth. When people say we mustn’t question God’s will, I suspect what some of them are really saying 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 sure question another human being’s interpretation of it.

 The God who hates “those” people.  A former pastor at my church observed that some people take as much comfort in the idea that certain other people will face eternal damnation as they do in the idea of their own salvation. Personally, when I see lists of “People God Hates,” I just laugh.

The God who founded the One True Religion.  No matter which denomination I’ve been part of, and no matter how many other religions I’ve read about, the argument often boils down to the same thing. “We’re right. They’re wrong. Stick with Us. Stay away from Them.” When I was a teenager, I was sure the Bible verse warning us “do not be conformed to the world” meant I should beware of peer pressure. (This was probably not a bad interpretation for a teenager to make.) But then I learned that, to the Amish, it meant don’t drive cars or use electricity. So how do I know that one sect or denomination has all the right answers to all the theological questions and that no one else does? The answer for me is, I don’t.

The in-our-own-image God.  We human beings do seem to have a gift for creating God in our own image. In so many of the religions or denominations I’ve experienced personally or read about, we anthropomorphize God – that is, give God human characteristics. But given the combination of our human limitations and our human egos, is there a way for us NOT to do that, at least to some extent? And how do I know when I’m doing this?

I like an observation shared around the tables at 12-Step meetings: One clue that we might be creating God in our own image is when God agrees with us on every single controversial issue and disapproves of all the same people we do. Of course, I’m never guilty of this sort of thing. Right??