Saturday, August 30, 2014

What Happens within the Heart of God when we Cry?

Richard Sibbes (1577–1635)

How we think of God, how we envision God’s disposition toward us is said to be the most important thing about us. A puritan by the name of Richard Sibbes was known for his vision of God as a life-giving, generative, warming sun. And in like kind, Sibbes was known to emanate the same disposition. He likened God’s love and goodness, his stance toward us, as “the breast that loves to ease itself of milk.” 

What an interesting and curious—unconventional—image. When I read this description, I was instantly transported to memories of being a nursing mother. I loved nursing my babies. It was a sweet and tender time. I remember that deep and profound satisfaction of being able to provide nourishment for them; the incredible sensation of my milk “letting down” at the sound of their cry or the moment they began to “root” for the breast. 

And it didn’t happen only with my babies. I could be in a grocery store minding my own business and hear an infant start to whimper. More than likely his or her mother was hurrying, trying to get the shopping done so that she could leave before she had to stop and nurse her little one. I would hear the sound of that baby, someone else’s baby, and it was not unusual to feel my milk begin to let down. Arms pressed tightly across my chest, I would move along, as quickly as possible, hoping not to leak milk. 

As I read Sibbes description of the compassion and goodness of God as a “breast that loves to ease itself of milk,” it occurred to me that that is what happens within the heart of God when I cry; when you cry. His heart is moved with compassion and desire; his milk “lets down”; his desire to respond to our needs is aroused.

So why is it that far too often when we cry out for God, for relief to have our needs met it doesn’t appear that God comes running? I’ve heard half-a-dozen stories in the last ten days of people who are there. Right there. Praying, asking God to show up, to help them know he’s there with them in the darkness of their lives? 

I’ve been there before, too—many times—times when I desperately needed and wanted God to alleviate the pain of my life or the ache in my heart. I wonder during those times how I can imagine the heart of God easing itself of the milk of love and desire for me while my circumstances or emotional experience or spiritual sense remains unaltered. 

What I notice as I reflect is the “gap time” between my crying out and God’s intervening; his milk letting down. Sometimes the gap feels like eternity. Often it takes longer than I’d like. I want instant gratification, like an infant who wants what he/she wants when he/she wants it! I notice that God allows time to intensify my desire, ache, hunger. And I also notice that I’ve never starved to death. 

In due time, like a mother moved by her baby’s cry, I have experienced the nurturing love of God fill my empty heart with love and warmth and care. So, for me, this image of a nursing mother is compelling and a hopeful way to think of God and what happens within God’s heart when I cry. 

If you, like the individuals I have been with and stories I’ve heard the last ten days, are feeling as though you are in the dark, groping about and crying out to a God who seems indifferent, try contemplating God in this way. Know that God meets you only within your lived experience--within the reality of your life situation and your need for him. Imagine God’s heart letting down with love and desire for you. That IS his disposition toward you—not a waning mood or fleeting impulse. God is compassionate and responsive to you. What you are experiencing is the “gap time” before his milk comes.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Father-Daughter Dance

Today’s date will always be significant to me. It will always take me back to one of the most vivid and unforgettable days of my life; the day I witnessed death for the first time; the day I sat next to my dad’s bed and watched him die. He’d been sick for a year and a half, surrendering, cell-by-cell, to a wicked disease called pancreatic cancer. When we first found out about it, I couldn’t believe it. It didn’t seem conceivable to me that I was old enough to see one of my parents die. For 16 months, a heavy, melancholy canopy hung over our lives; a canopy that came unhinged seventeen years ago today.  

Interestingly, someone I met with today for spiritual direction shared a tender story about her dad. I know that my role as a spiritual director is to listen and provide helpful questions so that my directees can explore how God is at work in their lives. It is not my place to bring up memories of my own life that come to me. But in this instance, and because I know this person fairly well, I took a risk and asked if I might tell her about something her story caused me to remember. I mentioned that today is the anniversary of my dad's death and that when she was sharing, it immediately brought to mind a long-forgotten memory of my very first Father-Daughter dance.

I was in fifth or sixth grade and enrolled in an etiquette class called “Mrs. Gate’s Ballroom Dancing”—a kind of popular thing to do in the mid-1960’s. The girls wore white, wrist-length gloves and white anklets with polished patent leather shoes. (Or maybe hose, if you were really grown up.) I don’t recall what the boys wore, but I’m pretty sure it included a neck tie.   

At the beginning of class, we’d line up against the hallway into the ballroom—girls on one side, boys on the other. Mrs. Gates stood at the head of the line. She would turn, politely, to the girl, shake her hand and ask her name. And then to the boy, shake his hand, and ask his name. And then she would introduce the girl to the boy, we’d shake hands and say to each other, “It’s very nice to meet you, _________.” And off we’d go, dance partners for the rest of the class. 

I remember that sometimes we’d look across the line of boys in the hallway and count back to see who we would be paired with. There was one particular boy that no one wanted to dance with and so we would squeeze in and out of line to avoid that fate—a cruelty that makes me sad to think about today.   

The culmination of all the weeks of practice learning the fox trot and cha-cha was a special, end-of-class dance. This was a big deal because everyone’s parents came and we dressed up and sat at round tables with white table clothes and showed off to our parents our good manners and fancy dances. But what I really, really looked forward to (besides dancing with Rusty Nichols, the boy I had a crush on at the time) was the Father-Daughter dance. 

I’m a little surprised by this, but what I remember most is the anticipation I had of the Father-Daughter dance, more than actually dancing with my dad. I remember looking SO forward to my dad coming and to him seeing me all dressed up. I remember thinking about what it would be like for him to make his way onto the dance floor; to look for me in the crowd of little girls; to find me and dance with me. I remember being so excited for this big moment and feeling proud that he was my dad. 

This memory and my savoring the anticipation of what it would be like to be pursued and found and chosen by my dad certainly speaks of that deep ache that still persists in me--and I think in most girls and grown women I know. It reveals how profound my desire to be desired and cherished--something my father offered me, though imperfectly. It echos the even more profound longing I have to be desired and loved and cherished by Someone with the capacity to love me perfectly--my Heavenly Father.

It was an extra sweet gift today, of all days, to be reminded of my first Father-Daughter dance.I love you Dad. I’m still proud of you. I remember you today with gratefulness. Thanks for dancing with me.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"You're Afriad of Empty"

We stood in the foyer of our home, saying good bye to some new friends who had stopped by to meet us and hear the story of Sustainable Faith Indy. We’d had one of those serendipitous visits where you feel as though you’ve met some new friends who, in truth, are old friends—kindred spirits. Just before they walked out the door, the husband turned and said to me, “What I’ve been hearing from the Lord these days is, '_______, You’re afraid of empty.’”

Something of his words, that simple statement, felt unusual and personally significant. I’ve continued to ponder them since and brought them into my own time of contemplation and prayer. I’ve wondered if they are words for me. If I’m afraid of empty.

Empty is a negative word. It means to be without. To have nothing. Empty stomachs growl. Empty pockets beg. Empty words are vacuous and insincere. Empty thoughts are meaningless. Yet how might empty be an invitation from God; something that God desires of me; of us? What happens when I’m empty? What happens when I’m not?

When I’m empty of words I listen better. I’m not so eager to say what’s on my mind and short change someone else from being able to share fully and without interruption. When I’m empty of activity, it creates space in my life to listen to God and my own heart. When I slow down and become still, I am far more able to hear his still small voice. When I’m empty of my ego, my false self, the true and real self in me has room to expand and fill with life and love.

Being afraid of empty is to live life re-actively, anxiously avoiding the cessation of motion; avoiding silence, stillness and solitariness. It may explain why our culture is the way it is. Look around and notice how fast we move, how full we fill our lives. Afraid of empty explains why we can’t be in our cars without the radio on; at home without a television or sound system blaring in the background; why we can't be alone with our own thoughts; why we can't be alone, period.

But what are we missing when we jam our minds, hearts and lives with clutter—all out of fear of being empty? I can tell you that I miss the richer, deeper thoughts that come from quiet contemplation. I miss hearing the whispers of the Spirit. I miss noticing the cries of another's soul, expressed ever-so-discreetly and cautiously, testing to see if I’m safe enough, empty enough, to notice. I miss the wonder of life all around me that can only be seen from a snail’s pace.  

I miss God filling me. For you see only God can fill an empty vessel. A vessel that’s been cleansed of ego and nonsense. A life that’s being healed of addiction to noise and stuff, where space has been freed. A body and being that has been offered to God in openness, stillness, silence and aloneness.

A prayer has been circling within me over the last several weeks; a prayer of emptying. It has formed quite naturally and repeats itself again and again when my heart and mind pause and drift toward prayer.

Oh, God—
Cleanse me.
Forgive me.
Heal me.
Free me.
Fill me.

Cleanse me of all that clutters my life.
Forgive me of sin that stains my life and steals from you.
Heal me of my compulsions to fill the emptiness with empty things.
Free space in me for you and for your good work.
Fill me with your Spirit, with your love.

Amen to being empty. 

Monday, August 4, 2014

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep: Helpful Habits for Putting Ourselves to Bed

Last night, about a half-hour before I went to bed, I popped onto my lap top, responded to a few emails, and checked Face Book to see who liked a picture on my wall of my adorable grandson. Prior to that, I’d been reading a non-fiction book; a book that was engaging and clicked my brain into gear. And then I went to bed, laid my head on my pillow, and stared up at the ceiling. What I noticed was how alert I felt; how not sleepy, untired and unready for bed I was.

I’ve never struggled a lot with not being able to sleep, though there have been periods of time when I was anxious about something, excited or upset, and found it hard to go to sleep. But as a rule, I’m a good sleeper. Eight hours a night. And I know better than to get involved in things right before bedtime that could wait, need to wait, until a new day when I’m fresh.

As a spiritual director, I hear stories of many who struggle with putting themselves to bed. They don’t sleep well. Have cases of mild to major insomnia. And I imagine they can attribute some of the restlessness to their own bad habits of stirring up their minds and energizing their emotions, just like I did last night. In fact, research suggests that 60 million Americans struggle with insomnia!

I know better. However, when I fail to follow my “know better,” I experience sleeplessness like the other 60 million people in the US. It’s a bad deal. I slog through my day in a fog; my engagement with life sluggish; my response to others impatient; my creativity and mental acuity dulled. And agonizingly, not sleeping can beget not sleeping, which multiplies my anxiety and lack of productivity. It’s a bummer to not sleep.

I’ve read about and tried some things that seem to help me put myself to bed and enter a more conducive state of restfulness that leads to sleep. When I do these things, I not only fall asleep more easily, I sleep more restfully.

Here are few thing I do that seem to help:

·         Clean sheets: I sure don’t change my bed every night, but soft, clean sheets really make going to bed a comforting and cozy experience. Also, taking a warm shower before I climb into my bed with clean sheets makes me feel like I’ve rinsed the day off and am ready to put it behind.

·         A bedtime routine: I go through the same process every night in preparation for bed. Wash my face; brush my teeth; put on my pj’s; put clothes away. When I’m going through the motions, I feel myself looking forward to bed. My body and mind start to anticipate it.

·         15 to 30 minutes of winding down: When I take a short time to unwind before I actually turn the lights off, I’m more likely to fade into a state of sleepiness and I fall asleep more quickly. Sometimes that idle time takes the form of reading a book that is calming. It also includes not doing some things, like watching television, being on my computer or IPad, or reading something that agitates my brain rather than helps it calm down.

·         Evening prayer of examine: This prayer, developed by St. Ignatius, is a time of noting when you felt close to God, were aware of God during your day and when you felt far away. It’s often the case that when I lay in the dark and begin this examine of my day that I will drift off to sleep. My last thoughts are often ones of when I felt God’s presence.

These are a few good habits that help me fall asleep and sleep well so that I can live life with the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual vitality that I desire and that aids my fruitfulness. So, what works for you? What helps you ease into a state of restfulness and deep, peaceful, nourishing sleep? Are you aware of anything that contributes to you not resting well and becoming sleep-starved?  Sleep is such a precious gift and commodity; we’d be wise to do whatever it takes to protect and nurture it.