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As we enter Thanksgiving week and another holiday season, are you feeling some sadness? Perhaps, the sadness smacks you right in the face or maybe you find it lurking around the edges of your awareness. For me, having lost my mom to cancer sixteen years ago and my father to covid two years ago, just one week before Christmas, this time of year can feel quite lonely. Many of the memories that have shaped my life are now empty reminders. Certainly, I hold deep hope that I will see mom and dad again at the resurrection, and yet it is a hope that is laced with the lingering desire that I could pick up the phone and call on Thanksgiving Day or Christmas Eve, or really any day. Perhaps, the desire is more of a “muscle memory” that has no place to go. Nevertheless, the feelings of being a little lost in this world take shape in the absence.
Maybe you can relate on some level? When a time of the year called “the most wonderful time of the year” doesn’t feel so wonderful, what do you do? How does one navigate?
It can be easy to think: lots of people have lost their parents or experience grief so move on past these feelings. Or, they’re in heaven so find joy in that. However, I am trying to pay attention to what I feel and not push it aside with theological platitudes or even logic. I do have so much to be thankful for and it is not hard for me to go there but I am realizing that holding those unpleasant emotional responses actually leads to deeper joy rather than hindering it.
We are wise to consider that embracing gratitude at this time of year can actually be used as a defense mechanism, a way to stuff down or deny the pain. Thankfulness, or gratitude, is an important, transformative spiritual practice but perhaps not so transformative when it isn’t accompanied by the spiritual practice of lament. Lament is the prayer that cries out to God and says, everything is not alright. Things are not as they should. I feel abandoned, I feel loss. Will I ever feel different? For me, I don’t want to ignore the reality that my soul, the very core of who I am, feels loss. I feel it throughout the year, and the “holiday” season intensifies it.
So, I practice lament. I enter into prayers in which I express the longing of my heart for what has been lost. I find that God holds those prayers with me and laments with me. As I become more and more aware of His gentle presence, I also find gratitude emerge. This gratitude doesn’t appear quickly or predictably, but slowly and unexpectedly. Gratitude and thanksgiving are present, but they appear as we watch and wait in hope. The joy that walks alongside gratitude is deepened when it comes out of lament because this joy is stripped of shallow, circumstantial gratitude.
I find gratitude for the gift of what was lost but still is with me in so many ways. Gratitude for the gifts right in front of me. Gratitude for a God who meets me right where I am. He doesn’t seem interested in pushing me out of my lament but is content to sit with me in it for as long as that is where my soul needs to be … for as long as it takes for me to also be aware of the gifts. There is no hurry but there is hope.
So, sit prayerfully with grief and loss (also known as lament) and watch and wait for gratitude to emerge. It will. It’s there. We discover gratitude once again as we let God hold our grief with us.
Prepositions are important. They can significantly change the meaning of a sentence with just their presence. For many of us, the words god is mad tell a story that deepen a sense of unworthiness and wretchedness that some preachers and teachers seem to relish explaining. The world around us and some of our human relationships may have also reinforced a message that we are not lovable unless we perform in specific ways. It’s a transactional kind of “love” which might be described as no love at all. So, we hear those words and supply the word “at” because of the underlying idea that God is at mad at us.
However, the words “about” is a much more accurate preposition to use when we hear those three words. God is mad about you! This completely reverses the meaning and trajectory of those words. He is crazy about you. He has deep affection and even passion flowing from the depths of who He is. Are there layers, depth, and nuance to God’s stance toward us? Of course. And yet, the foundation is one of passionate, captivating love.
Often, theologians describe a “legal” standing that we have before God because of the cross of Christ which can feel quite cold and dispassionate. While there is certainly deep meaning in the cross, the default or “factory setting” in the relationship we have with God is one of intense love and affection. Also, many of us tend to see God primarily as an authority figure and perhaps even coldly stoic in His duties to care for and sustain His creation because of how our earthly parental relationships shaped us. On the contrary, cold and/or dispassionate is not how God describes Himself.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, we are given a picture of divine love in which God says, “You have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes.” (Song of Songs 4:9) Another way to say it: “I look into your eyes and I am in love.” God is in love with you. He is crazy about you. Sit with this for moment. Pause. Don’t move on too fast.
God is described as being overwhelmed by you, captured in heart.
To develop this a bit more, it is helpful to see the poetry of the Hebrew which quite literally says: “you have hearted me.” In other words, you have my heart. You’ve taken my heart. In the back and forth relationship of pursuit and desire we observe in the Song of Songs, God says, “you checkmated me.” “You’ve got me.”
Hear this, know this, believe this, trust this: God says to us, “You have my heart.”
As you consider this, how do you receive this reality? Do you notice anything shifting in you? Are there views and perceptions you have had of God which might be more in line with the idea that God is mad at you? How has that affected the way you have related back to Him? How might your approach and relationship with God shift in knowing that He is mad about you?
In 1 John 3, we are invited to look at, or “behold,” the love of the Father. What is invited is not merely an intellectual exercise although it involves the mind. It is an experience of contemplation … of being shaped by this reality in mind and heart.
From centuries ago, church mothers and fathers wrestled with what it means to engage in this kind of contemplation. What emerged was a four-fold process involving: reading, meditating, contemplating, and praying. Take a few minutes (or, more) and walk through the exercise below as you contemplate the love and affection God has for you.
“You have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes.” (Song of Songs 4:9)
Meditate on this verse. Mull it over. Notice how this truth lands in your heart. Consider the ways it might reshape some things for you.
Simply sit in a stillness and quietness of heart … resting in the reality that you do not have a transactional relationship with God. You can be quiet and release your hold on all things because you have nothing to prove, nothing to achieve, nothing to earn.
Respond to God by praying what you notice rising up in your heart and soul as you consider the depths of His love for you.
Every leader should have a spiritual director!
I generally do not like black and white, all or nothing, kind of statements, but I feel very strongly about this one. Let me explain.
As my friend Steve Macchia likes to say, “The soul is the most neglected part of the leader’s life.” If we didn’t have so many examples (both seen and experienced personally), I might have to spend more time qualifying or explaining this statement. It is tragic irony that spiritual leaders, entrusted with the care of other’s souls, usually do not adequately take care of their own.
The care of one’s soul involves things like rest, reflection, prayer, and contemplation. However, most leaders do the minimum and then get to work, often working from a place of deficit and fatigue. Many leaders go on without examining motives or hurts or questions. This can work for a while but will inevitably lead to a crash, a burnout, or even quiet desperation. Many spiritual leaders will tell you, privately, that they feel stuck or afraid or hopeless, or perhaps all three. Those who are exceptionally skilled and gifted can keep up with the pace and demands of ministry, but it often comes at the cost of relationships with those in the church and family at home. The central purpose (relationships) becomes the casualty of ministry rather than the focus. Unexamined ambition or pride or insecurity can be the fuel that burns so hot it brings burnout and/or singes those closest to us.
Jesus lived a slow, relaxed, quiet and intentional life. This is not the picture for many of us involved in spiritual leadership.
And this is where spiritual direction comes in. A spiritual director is someone trained to provide space to slow down and attend to realities of one’s soul and life in the context of listening prayer. In Psalm 96, we are reminded that the people of Israel hardened their hearts to a listening posture. (“If today you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.”) John of the Cross, the 16th century spiritual writer and poet, observed that God’s first language is silence. 1 Kings 19 makes it clear that God’s voice is a gentle whisper at its loudest. Leaders need regular time that is spacious and quiet in order to attend to the voice of God.
Couldn’t a leader do this on their own? Yes and also no. The gift of meeting with a spiritual director is that the leader is placing themselves in another’s care and opening themselves to the mirror that another can provide. Trained spiritual directors know how to sit with someone and help them look and see and perceive. As in most things, another set of eyes helps. We are not designed in a way that “just doing it ourselves” is the best approach.
To have a space on a regular basis where a spiritual leader is not “on” or in charge but instead is being cared for is a gift and, I would strongly urge, a necessity.
Want to learn more about Spiritual Direction? click on the Spiritual Direction tab at the top of the page/menu. For a great directory of Spiritual Directors, check out https://sfsaz.org/spiritual-directors/
Christmas, In our minds, is supposed to be a time of joy and coming home to all that is right in the world. It is supposed to be a time when we can set aside all the confusion and hurt and pain and believe again. However, more often, it is a time when the brokenness of our lives and world actually become more apparent because of the contrast and our inability to manufacture joy in our own strength and power.
It is easy to romanticize Christmas as a respite or reprieve from all that hurts but if we reflect upon that first Christmas, we see that it wasn’t a respite or a getting away from pain but a movement through it all that actually leads us home rather than some sort of a manufactured, illusory, temporary reprieve. Consider these words from Brother Keith Nelson, SSJE:
“Mary and Joseph’s consent to the divine initiative was offered in the thick of public disapproval, private confusion, painful risk, and gathering scandal. Being human, they struggled. If they had not come undone – if they had not broken open, even just a little – the words of the angel would not have had room to land and to grow in their hearts. They offered their lives to this mystery, trusting in its power to do more for them than they could ask or imagine.”
In many ways, Mary and Joseph had to experience a deconstruction of previous categories to enter into the strange experience of being part of the incarnation. Make no mistake – it was strange and foreign to anything they’d ever know. Our willingness to be “undone” and embrace it in these strange and foreign times that are modern life is the path home. It is the path toward wholeness and healing and the birthing of something new in us. What might God be birthing in you? As you let go of previous categories and conceptions of what makes up “the good life,” may you begin to see life in the context of His life in you … shaping you and bringing a life that is more than you could have imagined … free from anything but the God who is the lover of your soul.
Lord, in Your mercy, may I be undone and broken open so that my heart can receive. Give me the strength to trust and hope in what You are doing, not what I can see in front of me. Amen.
A Sunday Morning Reflection
Colossians 1:17, 19: He is before all things, and in him all things hold together … in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.
If I’m honest, I don’t know much with certainty … I can’t control things … I often feel lonely and lost. There are strong forces within me that want to fight … fight for certainty and control and acceptance. And again, if I’m honest, they all seem out of sight … beyond reach. As I allow myself to truly feel this reality and I give up the fight for even a moment, I begin to see. I see in every square inch of the universe that there is One who holds all that I long to hold. He holds all things, including me. I begin to see that I am a creature, not the creator. If I allow myself to get lost here … absorbed in this reality … I move past seeing into being. I begin to experience rest and freedom because all that I’ve longed for has been available all the time … in the hands of the One who holds all things. I may not know much but He does. I may not be able to control anything but He holds it all together. I may not feel like I fit but I fit in Him. To detach from my self-determination is the battle … a battle of release rather than grasping. O, maker of all things, may I rest here today … even for one moment. Tomorrow, maybe two. May your Holy Spirit prompt me to release when I’m tempted to grasp for things on my own rather than rest in You.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). John 20:11-16
He blesses every love that weeps and grieves
And now he blesses her who stood and wept
And would not be consoled, or leave her love’s
Last touching place, but watched as low light crept
Up from the east. A sound behind her stirs
A scatter of bright birdsong through the air.
She turns, but cannot focus through her tears,
Or recognize the Gardener standing there,
She hardly hears his gentle question, ‘Why,
Why are you weeping?’, or sees the play of light
That brightens as she chokes out her reply,
‘They took my love away, my day is night.’
An then she hears her name, she hear Love say
The Word that turns her night, and ours, to Day.
Easter dawn. a sonnet by Malcolm Guite
“But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.’”
Prayerfully reflect for a few minutes on the One who calls you by name. Imagine that you were there on that first Easter morning looking for Jesus. He calls you by name. How do you respond?
As we come to the end of this Lenten journey in the wilderness, we also come to a beginning. What will you leave behind? What will you take with you as you continue to journey with Jesus into this next season of your life with Him?
Finally, remember that you have been brought from death to life in Christ. “You died, and your life has been hidden with Christ in God. Whenever Christ, your life, should become manifest, then you also will become manifested with him in glory.” (Colossians 3:3-4) This pattern continues to be the pattern. Notice and participate with God in what He is doing in taking you from death to life over and over again. In Christ, you have the “working of His great might that He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 1:19-20)
“… for behold, the winter is past; the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.”
Song of Solomon 2:11–12
Lord, thank You for loving me and calling me by name in the middle of the wilderness. Thank You for the resurrection power at work in me. Give me eyes to see it and join in what You are doing. I trust You. I love You. I praise Your holy name. Amen.