Spiritual lessons from animals

But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind. – Job 12:7-10

God has blessed me with a fine parade of pets over my lifetime, and these precious companions have taught me valuable spiritual lessons. 

Throughout my childhood, I often related to pets better than I could to people. From this photo, it’s clear that Dad and our first dog taught me to respect animals from an early age.

Mewlinda, a friendly gray farm cat who lived to be about 25 years old, exhibited saintly patience with small children – which is fortunate, since I liked to dress cats in doll clothes. I wish I had a photo, but she looked a lot like this cute girl we met at a state park last fall.

My pets prompted me to learn healthy assertiveness. When I first lived on my own, any “no pets” rule was a deal-breaker, no matter how nice the apartment I wanted to rent. I offered to pay an extra deposit if necessary, but potential landlords had to understand that my furry roommates and I were a package deal.

The critters in my life continue to impart lessons. Here, Oley gently coaxes me to keep my priorities straight …

… while Champaign – basking in a small patch of morning light on our sun porch – teaches me the importance of mindfulness and living in the present moment.

They remind my husband and I that companionship makes just about any activity more fun – or at least more endurable. Here’s Oley, helping Pete grade papers …

Torbjorn helping me assemble a newsletter …

… and Champaign helping me wake up in the morning. (Who knows? If I didn’t have that little cat alternately purring and howling in my ear at 6 a.m., I might sleep all day!)

The creatures who share our space in the backyard have taught me we don’t always need to fear strangers, especially when we learn more about them. My first impulse when I discovered a fox living under our deck was to call animal control. But a bit of quick Google research assured Pete and I that foxes pose no threat to humans as long as we maintain respectful distance, and we grew to love Roxy and her kits.

Several animals demonstrate for us the art of seizing opportunity: Oley likes to sneak a drink of water straight from the bathroom faucet.

Vixen and DW, the horses who live next door to our North Carolina cousins, know they’ll probably get a treat if they greet visitors at the fence.

A goose in our neighborhood park eagerly anticipates a slice of bread.

And the squirrels in our backyard figure, “Why let the birds have all the good stuff?

My friends and relatives have some cuties I adore almost as much as my own. Piccolo shows us how to be way cool without even trying – by simply being himself.

Nala derives pleasure from simple things … like watching the popcorn popper perform its task.

Millie, an adorable beagle we like to think of as our semi-official church dog, shows us how to win friends and influence people as she visits sick congregation members (including me, when I was in the hospital). She’s such a good sport, she allows us to dress her up as a sheep for our annual Christmas pageant. 

Animals have thoroughly convinced me that some angels have four legs, fur and whiskers.

During a particularly challenging time in my life – when I was enduring both work and health problems – our sweet Angie Cat sat with me in my recliner every single morning as I poured my feelings of fear, anger, resentment and despair onto my journal pages. I can only aspire to practice such unconditional love. May you rest in peace, my beautiful little friend!

Bear, a magnificent Great Pyrenees, helped his human buddy though some of his darkest hours, staying faithfully by his side as he put his life back together. And then, one day this past winter, this beautiful boy was gone. Everyone in his Nashville, Tennessee neighborhood misses him greatly.

Members of our church had only begun to love Creed – our new pastor’s dog – when God called him home suddenly. Creed left behind a heartbroken congregation.

Finally, some animals teach us to risk loving again, even after a painful loss. 

When I’ve lost beloved pets over the years, I’ve often been tempted to say, “Next time I’m not going to get q-u-i-t-e so attached.” Friends have confessed similar thoughts. Invariably the new pet has other ideas – and before we know it, we’re absolutely smitten. Again. 

“Grief isn’t just something to endure,” says clinical psychologist Mary Pipher, author of Women Rowing North, Reviving Ophelia and several other books. “It also is a reflection of our capacity to love.” Our new fur babies don’t replace the ones we’ve lost, of course. Instead, they expand our hearts and show us that love is an endlessly abundant and renewable resource.

My friend who lost his beautiful Bear over the winter posted a photo last week and asked, “Should I take him, yay or nay?” Of course the pup went home with him. Who could possibly resist this furry little bundle of pure tail-wagging joy?

Gospel, our congregation’s newest church dog, came home with our pastor a few days ago. How long before our pastor and the rest of the congregation start spoiling him absolutely rotten? Can anyone count to one?? Oh wait … I can see the spoiling has already begun.

Perhaps the most important lesson our animal companions teach us is this: LOVE WINS.

Every. Single. Time.

Praying for pets

Pete and I live with two furry bundles of love and mischief – Olaf DaVinci, a gorgeous Maine Coon, and Champaign Le Chat, a beautiful cream-colored domestic longhair. Needless to say, we absolutely adore them.

About four months ago, we noticed Oley had started to limp and could no longer jump up onto the bed or his other favorite perches without a struggle. He was insatiably thirsty and peed copiously. I took him to the vet. The verdict: Diabetes.

No sooner had we begun to absorb this distressing news, when the vet delivered another whammy: Champaign had early-stage kidney disease.

Is it permissible to pray for pets? I certainly hope so, because my intercessory prayers began the minute I got the news about our furbabies:

Dear God, please take care of our sweet kitties. Help them respond to treatment and don’t let them suffer. Please, please, please! I love these little guys. Amen.

Fortunately, I’ve never encountered anyplace in the Bible that suggests we shouldn’t pray for our beloved companions. “Ask, and it shall be given you,” says Matthew 7:7. The verse doesn’t tell us what to ask for – it simply says, “Ask.”

While I haven’t found specific references to pets in the Bible, several passages indicate God cares about animals and expects us to care about them too.

“You, Lord, preserve both people and animals,” says Psalm 36:6.

 “Not one sparrow … can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it,” says Matthew 10:29.  

“The righteous care for the needs of their animals,” says Proverbs 12:10.

The Bible points out that animals can impart spiritual lessons. “But ask the beasts, and they will teach you,” says Job 12:7. 

Animals even show up in the Ten Commandments. Not only should we take time off on the Sabbath, but our animals should as well, says Exodus 23:12: “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest.” 

And who can imagine heaven without critters? In God’s future kingdom, “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them,” says Isaiah 11:6. 

In other words, God loves His creation – all of it!

As if I needed further assurance that God listens to prayers on behalf of our furry (or feathered or finned) companions, I’ve learned that many Christian churches ranging from Lutheran and Methodist to Catholic and Episcopalian hold a special “Blessing of the Animals” ceremony on the Feast Day for St. Francis of Assisi, who was famous for his love of all living things. 

Kevin E. Mackin, OFM, a Franciscan friar of the Holy Name Province, offers a delightful description of one such service in an article on franciscanmedia.org [link HERE]: “Usually the Blessing of Pets is held outdoors. But I remember it rained one year, and all were invited inside St. Stephen’s Church in Manhattan. It was quite a sight to see pairs of creatures—one human, one animal—sitting in the pews. The pastor joined right in with his beagle. Noah’s Ark was never like this!”

“It’s okay to pray for anything that is on your heart,” says Linda Evans Shepherd, an evangelical Christian speaker, author and president of Right to the Heart Ministries (link HERE]. “After all, God not only created animals, but He’s interested in the things you’re interested in.”

At any rate, I’ve concluded it’s absolutely appropriate to keep Oley and Champaign in my prayers and I’ve been asking God for wisdom to make the right decisions regarding their medical care. 

The vet prescribed a diabetic diet for Oley and a kidney-support diet for Champaign. I would need to give Oley medication twice a day and bring him to the vet’s office every other week for testing. 

At first the logistics seemed impossible. With the kitties on separate special diets, how could I keep them out of each other’s food? Besides, Champaign was such a picky eater. What if he simply refused to touch the food prescribed for him?

I worried that medicating Oley might prove to be an insurmountable task. In the past, when I needed to give him meds, he resisted me to the point of running and hiding whenever he saw me. How on earth would I be able to do this twice a day for the rest of his life? 

And the doctor had to be kidding about bringing Oley to the vet’s office every two weeks, I thought. Both cats had let me know in no uncertain terms how much they hated vet visits – and that was when I only took them once or twice a year.

However, when we went on Facebook to solicit some crowd-sourced prayers, several friends shared their personal experiences of caring for pets who had either diabetes or kidney disease. After hearing their stories, Pete and I began to relax.

The good news: Treatment has gone better than we dared to hope. 

We keep the cats out of each other’s bowls by feeding them in separate rooms. I’ve minimized trips to the vet by learning how to do some of Oley’s testing at home. And whoever invented Pill Pockets deserves the Nobel Peace Prize. Oley thinks his pills are treats!

When an office visit can’t be avoided, I try to reduce Oley’s anxiety as much as possible by giving him a mild sedative. One of the vet techs has invited me to call her when I’m in the parking lot so we can take him straight to a room where he doesn’t have to meet any dogs. 

Lately, I’ve been offering prayers of thanksgiving:

Dear God, getting a urine sample from Oley was WAY easier than I thought it would be. Thank-you for inspiring the person who invented Nosorb kitty litter!

Dear God, I was worried that Champaign might not eat enough. But I’ve been sneaking more and more of his prescription food into his Gravy Lover’s salmon. So far, this is working. Thank-you! 

Our experience of the past several weeks has even taught me to be grateful when our little darlings get ornery – especially Oley, since mischievous behavior signals that he’s feeling better. Here he is, eyeing Pete’s cereal. 

“Some people criticize the amount and cost of care given to pets,” says Franciscan friar Kevin E. Mackin. “People are more important, they say. … However, I believe every creature is important. The love we give to a pet, and receive from a pet, can draw us more deeply into the larger circle of life, into the wonder of our common relationship to our Creator.”

“So when you pray, pray for the provisions you need, your family members, your church, nation, hurting friends and world peace,” says author Linda Evans Shepherd. “Only don’t forget to pray for your pet. God’s grace is big enough to cover your prayers for even the little paws in your life.”

For me, the fear that we might love and care for our pets more than we love and care for other people represents a false dichotomy. I love people and pray for them. I love my pets and pray for them too. This is not an either/or proposition. Love and prayer are not limited commodities or finite resources. There is enough of both to go around!

Meeting the Risen Christ in a hospital room … and at church

When I visit various churches, I usually encounter one of two symbols – a crucifix or an empty cross. During my recent hospital stay, however, I came across a symbol I hadn’t seen before. 

While propped up in bed doing my morning meditation, I noticed what looked like a crucifix – only different somehow – hanging on the wall a few feet away. I had begun to recover after a stint in intensive care, so I got out of bed and walked over to take a closer look. 

Jesus stood in front of the cross – alive – his arms outstretched as if beckoning me to follow him. 

When I looked it up online later, I saw the cross advertised on a Catholic web site as “The Risen Christ.” I’m pretty sure it’s been around for a while and I had simply never noticed it. At any rate, I liked this particular cross.

The traditional crucifix reminds us of Christ’s suffering and sacrifice on Good Friday, while the empty cross prompts us to meditate on Easter and the resurrection. But as I stood looking at the cross in front of me on that Sunday morning just before the beginning of Lent, I found myself meditating on a different subject: “What does it mean to actually follow Jesus?”

I must say that question took on a bit more urgency in the face of a medical trauma that forced me to look my own mortality straight in the eye without blinking. Not only that, but my mother had just been in the hospital twice in as many months, and I’ve had to face the fact that I may not have her in my life much longer. For good measure, my brother-in-law was hospitalized the same time I was and both my cats had just been diagnosed with chronic medical conditions. Yikes!

The cross on the hospital room wall seemed like an appropriate symbol for the occasion. It not only signified the death and resurrection of Jesus, but the cross we all are asked to bear when we become followers. There will be hardship, sacrifice and struggle, the Bible tells us. But this cross also reminded me that we can overcome hard times with God’s help.

This morning I encountered the same “Risen Christ” symbol again, this time at church. 

The altar was all decked out for the Easter Sunday service. A white cloth and a crown of white and yellow flowers draped the empty cross. Easter lilies and other spring flowers filled the entire front of the church. The sanctuary was gorgeous! As was the music – complete with a trumpet, maracas and drums. (The photos below don’t begin to do the scene justice.)

In the middle of all this, I saw the now-familiar figure of “The Risen Christ” on the processional cross carried down the aisle and placed in a stand behind the altar. Jesus was alive, arms outstretched, beckoning us all to follow.

Congregation members and our minister exchanged this greeting:

“Christ is risen!”

“Christ is risen indeed!”

In her sermon, our minister spoke of emerging from our personal “tombs” – sickness, loss of loved ones, broken relationships – and I reflected on the hospital rooms I’d been in over the past couple of months.

As I came forward for communion, I thanked God for having shepherded me – and my mother and my husband and my brother-in-law and my cats – through this unusually challenging Lenten season.

And the real Risen Christ, alive and present among us, seemed to say, “You won’t be able to avoid pain and suffering, but you will transcend it.” 

Happy Easter, everyone!

Prayers of petition and intercession: Can we ask God for things?

A week before Ash Wednesday, I landed in the intensive care unit at St. John’s Hospital after losing more than a third of my blood from a lesion in my stomach aggravated by blood-thinning medication. At first I thought I might be coming down with the flu – I had awakened with nausea and general achiness – but the symptoms grew progressively worse and by evening, I had muscle cramps and dizziness so severe I found it nearly impossible to walk. 

Fortunately, I decided to call an ambulance rather than try to tough it out and sleep off my “flu” symptoms. Emergency room staff told me I had dangerously low blood pressure, tachycardia and dehydration, and had already lost about 30 percent of my hemoglobin – which carries oxygen to my brain and other vital organs. Over the next 24 hours I received four units of blood. (Thanks to all you blood donors out there!)

To say I was scared would be an understatement. At one point, when I became increasingly worried about the mental confusion I was experiencing, staff sent for the hospital chaplain. Undeterred by my difficulty finding and forming words, the chaplain simply asked me to repeat after her: “Dear God, please help me.” We said this in unison several times, and I found the repetition amazingly calming.

Meanwhile, my husband alerted our pastor and church congregation, then got online and activated the Facebook prayer warriors. (I like to think of this as “crowd-sourced prayer.”) He even contacted our local Dominican Sisters community, which accepts prayer requests on their Web site – one doesn’t need to be Catholic to avail oneself of the service. 

My hospital adventure capped a rough couple of months which saw my mother hospitalized twice, my husband and I both sick with viruses and even our two kitties both newly diagnosed with chronic illnesses. One might say I had plenty of opportunities to practice prayers of petition and intercession – that is, prayers on behalf of oneself or others – along with some good old-fashioned foxhole spirituality.

Now I understand some people get squeamish about asking God for things. There is legitimate concern about regarding God as a combination Santa Claus/magic genie to whom we bring our shopping lists. In fact, I must acknowledge my own impatience with people who say “it’s a God thing” when a parking space opens up for them. However, the Bible is chock full of prayers of petition and intercession – not to mention a heavy dose of foxhole spirituality. 

Just a brief glance at the Psalms offers plenty of examples: 

  • Psalm 77:2 – In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.
  • Psalm 27:12 – Give me not up to the will of my adversaries; for false witnesses have risen against me, and they breathe out violence.
  • Psalm 69:1-2 – Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold.

Several Biblical passages actually invite us to pray for ourselves and others this way:

  • Psalm 50:15 – Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.
  • John 15:7 – If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 
  • Philippians 4:6 – Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 

One could say the entire Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) qualifies as a prayer of petition:

Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread;
12 And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
13 And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

I have to admit at least half the prayers I write in my journal during my morning meditation sessions are prayers of petition/intercession – and that’s when I’m not facing a life-threatening emergency. 

A 2017 Barna Group study of American adults indicates I have a lot of company. In a recent article for the magazine Living Lutheran (link HERE), Kurt Lamont and John Potter make this observation about the study: “Aside from ‘gratitude and thanksgiving’ at the top and ‘reciting scripture passages, meditation or liturgies’ and ‘other’ at the bottom, all other prayer topics are asking for help in some way.”

So … is it okay to ask God for things? Based on my reading of the Bible, extensive church practice and my own experience, I think I can confidently say, “Absolutely!” 

Prayers of petition may encourage us to rely more on God and even rethink some of our priorities. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 1501), “Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. [But] it can also make a person more mature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him.” 

Prayers of intercession may remind us to consider the needs of others. During Sunday services, our church offers up prayers of intercession for everything from world peace to comfort for a congregation member who has lost a loved one. Our church secretary keeps a prayer list of people facing illnesses or other crises, as well as a list of people serving in the military, and the entire congregation is asked to keep these people in our personal prayers. Those who participate in our weekly men’s and women’s prayer breakfasts also use these lists as the basis for their group prayers. 

“Our praying does not change God. Instead, it is a way for God to change us,” Lamont and Potter  point out in their Living Lutheran article Pray without ceasing: A Lutheran approach to prayer. “In prayer, we admit that we are in need and we ask God to help us with those needs.”

The good news: I’m healing. My mother now has someone staying with her at night. Even our kitties are doing better. And my husband deserves a gold medal for his unwavering support for all of us over the past couple of months. 

But why is it that I often think to pray only when I’m in some kind of trouble? Foxhole spirituality has its place, but I would agree it should not be our sole motivation for prayer. That is why I’ve dedicated this Lenten season to experimenting with other kinds of prayer as well. 

And when God does answer my prayers, I must remember to say, “Thank you!” 

Morning meditation

Ever since I embarked on my 12-Step recovery journey 26 years ago, I’ve started my day with morning meditation whenever possible.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines meditate as “to engage in contemplation or reflection.” In 12-Step groups, members like to say prayer is talking to God and meditation is God talking to us. For me, meditation is a time set aside for both prayer and reflection. While my personal morning meditation ritual has evolved over the years and may change content from one day to the next, I’ve found that my meditation time easily accommodates several forms of prayer. 

Most days I begin with “nature prayer.” I feed my cats, the birds and (yep!) the squirrels. If nice weather beckons, I may stroll around my backyard and admire the flowers. Right now, early spring has arrived in central Illinois and my snowdrops and crocuses are blooming. Soon they will be joined by jonquils, violets, tulips, pear and crabapple blossoms and the ever-ubiquitous dandelions. These flowers make me so happy! 

Back inside, I settle in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cup of coffee by my side and Oley Cat in my lap and engage in “writing as prayer.” I may journal about my priorities for the coming day – or what I think they should be, at least. I’ve also used this time to write out my thoughts and insights generated by homework assignments my spiritual director gives me. 

Some mornings the journaling portion of my meditation largely consists of prayers of petition and intercession. Other times I may make a gratitude list or offer prayers of thanksgiving. Sometimes I even get to enjoy music when my husband joins Oley Cat and I to serenade us with sacred songs on his dulcimer.

Lately I have adopted a suggestion from my spiritual director as well: As I pray, spend some time listening. 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?

Some Christians express concern that meditation is too “New Age,” or that it’s somehow inappropriate because religions other than Christianity practice it. However, from what I’ve read, meditation is firmly rooted in the Bible. Here are just a few passages that speak about the practice: 

  • Joshua 1:8 – This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful.
  • Psalm 19:14 – Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
  • Psalm 119:15 – I will meditate on your precepts, and fix my eyes on your ways.
  • Psalm 145:5 – On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
  • Philippians 4:8 – Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue and if there be any praise, think on these things. (Note: Since “think on” is one synonym for “meditate,” this verse would certainly speak to the practice and it’s also one of my favorites.)

Meditation also has a long history in Christian practice, engaged in by everyone from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early church era to Ignatius of Loyola, Augustine and Martin Luther in the Middle Ages to folks participating in the liturgies of many modern church services. 

Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, shared a personal experience of being so preoccupied that she once arrived at work with no memory of how she got there. Eaton’s own spiritual director offered the following advice about meditation as one remedy for this type of distracted thinking: “Wait for the Lord. Disengage the autopilot. Notice. Just this. Just now.” (Link to her article HERE.)

In my own case, God seems to tell me I need my morning meditation ritual. While I may skip it occasionally – if I have to leave the house for a doctor’s appointment at 7:30 a.m. sharp, for instance – I’ve found that I start to feel a little less “centered” if I miss too many days in a row.

For me, meditation is a way of staying focused on important priorities. Listening to Oley Cat’s soft 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 moments anyway – and allows me to open up to God’s presence.

So I continue to commit myself to this wonderful and compelling morning ritual.

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!