Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How You Listen

"For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light. Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away." (Luke 8:17-18, NRSV)

Pay attention to how you listen.

I cannot move from this phrase. One that I'd never noticed there before.
I admit, it's got me stuck.

And I'm thinking just maybe I need to get mired down in its weight.
Stay with it.
Let it stick to me.
Don't wash it off or move on too quickly to the next insight.

Pay attention to how you listen, Jesus says.

Pay attention to how you listen, Leah.

How am I listening?
How have I been listening?
Does that need to change?
Why? How?

It's true, since embarking on this most recent phase of my journey--namely, spiritual direction training--I have been learning a new way to listen.

Though I hadn't voiced it in that way. That is, not until I stumbled upon this verse today.

I am learning a new way to listen, for what is said to be heard within me in a new way.

For the words I hear to move from my ears, from my brain, into my heart and soul.

What does that mean?

As a chaplain, my work was that of listening. To be a good chaplain you must be a good listener. I have heard countless people's stories, their confessions and their memories. I have heard their shame and guilt and despair and grief, as well as their joy and hopes and dreams. I have borne witness to joys and sorrows alike.

And, yes, I offered them a safe space and a trusting presence to share so deeply. I held their confidences, and I connected to and empathized with them.

But what I can recognize and admit now is that I did not pay attention to how I was listening.

I had been trained--clinically, professionally, academically--to pick up on patterns in people's stories. I naturally see "the big picture," even when it is at the cost of appreciating the details.

This usually results in me "figuring out" the other person, perhaps before she was finished telling me her story! And, 9 times out of 10, I am right.

Pay attention to how you listen.

I may have had my ears open, but little else. My mind was working feverishly.

If I were to pay attention to how I listened, what would I have found?

Was I listening with an open mind? Not really. An open mind is one that is free from diagnosing, connecting dots, interpreting patterns, labeling and limiting another person.

Was I listening fully? Was I truly freed up to hear another?
Can I stop the noise inside me--however innocent it may be--to be completely present and attentive to another's story?

Was I listening with a slow pace? Not racing to fill in the blanks or thinking about the next steps?

Was I listening for the presence and movements of the Spirit? Or did I cover the Spirit up?

Pay attention to how you listen, Jesus reminds me.

I am learning to listen more fully. To be wide open to what the Spirit may be up to.

The Spirit can catch us by surprise, but not if we are too busy with our presumptions and labels. Not if I have already decided what to hear and what to believe about the other person's story and experience, thus limiting my listening.

Pay attention to how you listen...

To the words of Jesus and the Kingdom truth he proclaimed.

Pay attention to how you listen...

To the story of another, not drawing conclusions and racing to reactions. 

Pay attention to how you listen...

For the words and the activity of the Spirit in your own life.

Release the need to analyze.
Let go of the thoughts that seek to control and drown out the Spirit's call. 


Let the Word wash over you, knock you off your feet, make you rethink all you've previously clung to.
Let the Word surprise and inspire you.
Let your heart and soul be touched by what is beyond words.

Pay attention to how you listen, Jesus urges us.

May I be wide open to receive the Spirit in story and in the present moment. Amen.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Right In the Gut

"But whoso hath this world's good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?" 1 John 3:17 (KJV)

"But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (NASB)

Love hits us in the gut.
Love is like a blow to the stomach, knocking the wind out of you.

So often, "spiritual" is thought of as lofty, cut off from the world and its reality, its problems.

We separate love of God from love of neighbor--or love of enemy, as I wrote in my last post.

But the author of 1 John sees it differently (and I happen to agree). I included the above translations because I think they get to the heart of the matter.

Love of God touches our core.
Being spiritually attuned to God does not occur outside of our bodies.
How could it, when God has made our bodies God's home?

God requires more from those who profess to be "spiritual" than a hermit lifestyle, played out in ivory towers and remote monasteries.

Love of God is love of neighbor.
Love of God is love of enemy.
Love of God does not occur in isolation or seclusion.

Indeed, it cannot be this way. If love is relegated to a select few, or if love only manifests itself as a fullness inside ourselves but never makes its way outside of us, the author lets us know it is a sham.

Love--true, pure love--comes to us from God, the Source of all life and love.
If we accept this love, we know it is not there for hoarding.
Love--God's love--necessitates in us a visceral reaction, a guttural response.

Take for instance, Jesus. Throughout the Gospels, the authors depict Jesus as being "moved with compassion." The same Greek word, splagchnizomai, is used as in 1 John 3:17, meaning "to have the bowels yearn; inward affection and tender mercy [originating] in the intestines."

Jesus, who was God enfleshed, responded to others on a guttural level. He felt this love for others like a blow to his stomach, right in his gut.

The gut, the bowels (when translated more literally) may strike us as an odd residence for God. But this is our center, our core, our solar plexus, if you will.

When the Gospels speaks of Jesus being moved with compassion, it is always followed up by an action--healing the sick, feeding the multitudes.

Seeing another in need, in pain, ought to touch us on a guttural level. If we are truly in touch with God, if we have made a home for God in our gut, this love will play out in our bodies. We will respond viscerally to our brothers and sisters who are suffering.

Love of God cannot be separated from love of one another.
Love of God cannot be isolated to some spiritual realm of our existence, cut off from our lives of interaction and relationship, from our bodies.

God lives in our gut.

But, if I am to be honest, I often don't let life affect me this way.
I don't always feel a blow to my stomach, so strong it causes me to double over, when I see my sisters and brothers in need.
Sure, I feel a tinge of guilt or pity or sympathy.
But do I allow myself to be moved as Jesus was, as the author of 1 John so explicitly depicts?

Does my gut wrench for justice?
Does my heart writhe, the pain alleviated only when I give to another of my own self, my own share?

Perhaps I have done a good job of separating my spirit from my body, convinced that it is the former only that concerns God.
Perhaps I have sought to protect myself from the tragedy and despair that rocks the whole of Creation.
Perhaps I have been too comfortable in my own security.

But my body was meant for more.

"Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?...therefore glorify God in your body." (1 Cor. 6:19, 20b)

God dwells within my body, right at the center of me.
Might this mean that it is God who knocks the wind right out of me?
Or, that it is the God-in-me who reacts so viscerally to another's suffering and need, compelling my body and spirit into action?

Indeed, the spiritual must be always connected, inextricable, from the bodily.
We cannot "shut up our bowels of compassion," or "close our heart" to one in need.

If we are to supply a home to God, in the deepest center of our being, we must leave it open.
Open wide, to allow the love and light of God to fill us.
Open wide, to allow the spirit of God to move us, at the deepest level, right in the gut.
And from our gut, our bowels, our heart of hearts, our center, that love moves us.
God's love moves us, always, from the inside out--out into the world in need of healing, both body and soul.

May I open myself up enough to this love. May I respond to God's push and be moved outward. Amen.

Friday, September 12, 2014

For the Love of God

While I know many believe the task of life is finding the right answers, I have found that asking the right questions has made all the difference.

In yesterday's post, I asked the questions, 'Where is God?' and 'Can I still myself enough to find God in all things?'

These are no small questions, especially for those who are living in all-consuming fear and ever-present violence.

After I completing yesterday's post, I left my desk and went about my business. As I often do, I listened to the Pray As You Go daily devotion, a very helpful resource for prayer and reflection.

The text was Luke 6:27-38, situated within the Sermon on the Plain (on the Mount in Matthew).

"But I say to you that listen, 'Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you." (vv. 27-8)

The Word of God presented me another question:  Do you love your enemies?

And I believe these two questions, 'Where is God?' and 'Do I love my enemies?' are inextricable from one another.

It is no small thing to trust that God is present and moving in our world and in our own selves. It may be too great of a leap for some.

But for those of us who trust just enough and devote ourselves to finding God in all things, can we include our enemies in this list? That within our enemies God is to be found, alive and present?

As soon as I allowed myself to ask this question yesterday, I was stopped dead in my tracks.
Of course, I've read these words of Jesus before. I could even recite them, along with most of the Sermon of the Mount, from memory.
But this--stopping my mind and body enough to ask honestly of my deepest self whether I have love for my enemies--was different.

"But I say to you that listen," Jesus begins his teaching.
Perhaps I wasn't really listening before, when I had read these words or spouted them off myself.

As I've shared before, I am learning what it means to be contemplative--to sit with something, someone for a long amount; to sit my mind and let go of thoughts and feelings while holding the gaze of another; to become absorbed, if you will, in whatever may be in front of me.

So, I contemplated this question of loving my enemy.

How dare Jesus suggest this!
No, not suggest.
Expect me to love.
Instruct me to love.
Command me to love.

How I wish this were simply a suggestion, or that this question found its hypothetical origin with me.

But no such luck. Jesus himself tells those of us who will listen to love and forgive and pray for and bless and show kindness to our enemies.

Jesus had many enemies--those who pitted themselves against him, those Jesus called out for their hypocrisy and greed, those who were fearful of Jesus' power and answered with brute force, those in Jesus' hometown who did not accept or trust him, cast him out, and ridiculed him for being merely a carpenter's son.

These were enemies of Jesus' own state. What about those outside enemies of his day? Rome and all its governors and soldiers?

We can all quickly name our national enemies, such as Isis and Al Qaeda. Love for these people may be too impossible for us to wrap our heads and hearts around right now. To imagine, to believe that God is within each of them tastes sour in our mouths, smacks of heresy.

So, perhaps we should return a bit closer to home, to our relationships, to where we live and work and play.

Who is my enemy?
Whose enemy am I?

There are those people who stand in opposition to me, my beliefs, my place and my rights in society. And perhaps I stand in opposition to another.
There are those with whom I set up competition--unwittingly to them, and sometimes even to me. I pit myself against other people when I buy into the idea that life is a contest, a game to win over and against another.

My critics are my enemies. And since I am most often my greatest critic, sometimes my enemy is me. I pit myself against myself with competing thoughts and tendencies, a divided spirit.

When I feel so divided, ungrounded, unproductive, troubled within my own being, do I show myself patience and gentleness? Do I love that enemy I find inside of me?

Do I hate, curse, and abuse my enemy--whether that enemy is myself or someone else--with negative thoughts or feelings or words?
Or do I, in the words of Jesus, offer my enemy love, goodness, blessing, and prayer?

"Even sinners" love those who love them and are kind to those who are kind to them, Jesus says.
But we "that listen," that let the Word of God sink deeply and touch our very core, will and must respond differently.  

Hatred and cursing and abuse eats at us, from the inside out.
A house divided cannot stand, Jesus tells those of us who will listen.

If we answered the question, 'Where is God?' with the answer, 'In all things,' we are included in that list. If God is in all things, God is in me.

And where God is, love is.
Where God is present, forgiveness must be present.

We must be ready to love and forgive and bless and show kindness to those who would do us wrong, who hurt us intentionally or not.

And just why should I do that? Jesus tells his listeners, "Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High" (v. 35). I don't think Jesus was only referring to some reward after death, to heaven as an eternal resting place.

I think Jesus recognized more than anyone else ever has that the love and forgiveness you show your enemies is itself the reward. Not to buy into the warfare and competition of society, that "us versus them" mentality that pervades every aspect of our lives, is itself the reward.

My refusal to hate my enemy, as I am told to do, means my freedom.
My willingness to love and forgive my enemy brings about a fuller sense of God's presence, within my own heart and spirit.

My love for my enemies is the result of having myself been loved. My finding God is the result of God having found me and having made home within me.

It is because of and for the love of God!

For the love of God, I listen to and am challenged by the Word of God.
For the love of God, I contemplate these questions that require of me my whole life.

For the love of God is the love of my neighbor.
For the love of God is the love of my enemy--foreign and domestic; within myself and without.

For the love of God is the reason for my existence.
For the love of God causes me to live in love and unity with my enemy.

May it be so. Amen.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Hidden Presence

I began my spiritual direction training last week, in a program rooted in contemplative Ignatian Spirituality and housed (literally) within a Jesuit center.

Finding God in all things is at the core of Ignatius of Loyola's teachings--growing our awareness of God's presence and movement in everyone, every place, everything. Maybe even especially when God seems hidden or absent altogether.

How often do I accept God's absence in any given day or event?
No, not with my words. I don't think it's ever as explicitly admitted as that. "Oh, yes. Well, God is absent today."No, it's more of a disregard, a lack of attention given to the reality of Immanuel, of 'God with us.'
But how often do we miss God's subtle presence, subtle workings in and among us?

On the thirteenth anniversary of the attacks of September 11, and on the morning after President Obama's address to the U.S. people regarding military strikes against ISIS, we must ask: Where is God?

This is not a question for our heads to answer.
It's not even a question for our heads to ask.

The question of finding God in all things requires a deeper attention, a greater awareness than our minds can give us. It is, ultimately and essentially, a matter of the heart.
Growing our awareness of God's subtle presence and workings in all things is a spiritual undertaking.

As I wrote in an earlier post, and as I have come to trust, we do not have to find God.
We do not have to dig into the cold, hard earth, as if God is buried below. We do not have to work our fingers to the bone. We do not have to kick and scream (though we may) in order to grab God's attention.

We already have God's attention. But does God have ours?

"God's going to get our attention" is so often preached from pulpits in an almost threatening manner, that God is going to demand our gaze, jerk our heads around because of some disaster, tragedy or worldwide panic.

But I don't think this is how God moves. I know God to be much more subtle.
All that is required for God to get our attention is for us to remove own distractions, our own running around, even our efforts to search for God.
The only thing we must do to find God--or for God to find us--is simply allow ourselves to be open to God's presence and action in our lives and our world.

I admit, it's hard for me--to still myself; to quiet my mind from a constant stream of internal dialogue, from the barrage of information overload available to me 24/7; to move from my head to my heart; to center myself and let go of all of the thoughts that threaten to overwhelm me.

This does not mean that we dismiss the brutal violence and warfare happening all over the globe, or that we downplay the suffering we may be experiencing in our own lives.

In spite of all this, in the face of our suffering and pain and confusion and distress, God finds us.

All that is required of us is to be still, to sink down deep inside ourselves, and to trust that God is there.

God can be found where God has always been--inside each of us.

Can we allow the layers to be peeled back enough to catch a glimpse of God? Can we let go of those things that keep us moving, keep us running, keep us from being in the presence of God?

I agree with the apostle Paul on this one:  "I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:38-9)

Many times it seems we are separated from God. Wholly and completely cut off from the goodness and love of God. That God has removed God's Self and Spirit from us.

Buildings fall. So many thousands of lives are lost. Evil and fear run rampant. Hatred and violence are strong.

Does this mean that God is not with us? That God has abandoned us to our fate? That God has left us, reeling and hopeless in Divine absence?

As I stated before, God's presence is so often subtle. It would seem God is gone. It would seem impossible, insensitive even to suggest that God can be found in all things.

Where might we find God if we were to allow for that possibility?

In my seeking, I have found God. I have found God to be hidden sometimes, but not absent. I have found God in unexpected places, working in mysterious ways. I have found God to be gentle, not ruthless and hard to please. I have found God in joy and suffering.

I keep my eyes and ears and heart open for Immanuel's stirrings--within my own spirit and within God's own Creation, once pronounced to be "very good."

Stop. Listen. Feel. Wait. Be still. Be silent. God is here.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Rock Bottom

This past weekend marked the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I remember where I was (as I'm sure we all do) when the news broke of the storm's landfall. I was a senior in college, living in an on-campus apartment, when one of my roommates called for us to come see.

In October 2005, only about six weeks after the storm devastated the Gulf, a large group of us college students went down to help clean up and rebuild some of the communities who had been most hard hit.

When we arrived, the homeowners had only just been allowed back into their neighborhoods and houses a few days prior. Though I'm sure they had been working tirelessly since they had returned, they hadn't made a dent in the debris and destruction.

We ripped out drywall. We roofed a church. But mostly we spent our time and energy hauling what were once valued possessions to a stretch of dumpsters lining the streets.

Any time we found a photograph, we would alert the homeowners to see if it belonged to them. If it wasn't theirs, they would find the neighbor whose it may have been. Neighbors caring for neighbors, even as their lives and homes were ripped apart.

A few years later, when I had moved to Nashville and begun divinity school, I was sitting in church on some Sunday. My pastor at my Nashville church had been a pastor in New Orleans at the time of Katrina. He was sharing a similar story, of helping neighbors who were more affected than he or his home had been. A lady he spoke to had this to say, reflecting on all she had experienced in the storm and its aftermath:  "I've been all the way to the bottom--and it held."

I've been all the way to the bottom--and it held.

Much like I remember where I was and how I felt in watching the news coverage of Katrina, I remember distinctly hearing the power of these words from my pew that Sunday morning.

So much of my time and energy is spent making sure I don't hit the bottom.
What I am doing is merely treading water.

But sometimes storms--be they figurative or meteorological--come with such force, their crashing waves knock us off our feet, displace us from our homes, disorient us with their darkness.

There is no treading water, no bobbing up and down on the surface. There is only sinking fast.

And we hit bottom. Rock bottom.

Throughout scripture, especially throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is referenced as the Rock--a symbol of protection, refuge, salvation. Throughout its history, Israel has looked to God for such assurances.

A wise man, Jesus says, builds his house upon rock.
The foundation holds, even in the harshest of storms.

I've been all the way to the bottom--and it held.

We spend our time and energy rising to the top, treading water, and never coming in contact with our foundation.

We fear what's at the bottom.
We don't want to be down there for long.
The bottom is murky and mysterious. We believe we would fare better up at the top.
We learned to swim for such occasions.

We place our faith in our backstroke, not in our foundation of rock.

We think that God must be at the top--up and out there.

But what would it mean if God was, in fact, at the bottom.

If God is rock bottom.

God is the Rock that will not give way or shatter regardless of the storm that rages overhead.
The bottom--the foundation of rock--is not touched.

When we sink further and further, deeper and deeper, we are tempted to believe that we have failed.
We see our journey to the bottom as one of defeat.

I've been all the way to the bottom--and it held.

The bottom holds because it is Rock.
The bottom holds because it is God.

When we hit rock bottom, we are held.

It is at rock bottom that we can rest assured.
However counter-intuitive it reads and feels, I believe it to be true.

Life and all its games and traps lead us to believe that we must keep fighting, must keep swimming, must keep our heads above water in order to survive.

But those who have been to the bottom--whether willingly or completely out of their control--have found the opposite to be true.

Life is not to be survived on the surface of things.
Life is to be lived at the bottom--rock bottom.

It is from such a foundation that we find shelter, hope, refuge, and healing.

Perhaps this is why Jesus told the rich man that he must sell everything he had in order to follow him.
The man had to reach rock bottom (in his instance, material poverty) in order to find God.

Many days, I am unwilling to leave it all behind. I refuse to give up treading water, convinced that my efforts are not in vain.
But it is when I take the plunge, when I let go of my fears and of my sense of control that I sink into and am held by the Foundation of life itself.

It is when I allow myself to dive deeper into the Mystery that I am led "to the rock that is higher than I." (Psalm 61:2)

Can you allow yourself, even now, to sink down?
To descend to the depths, all the way to rock bottom, to your very Foundation?
Can you feel yourself land?
Can you feel yourself being held by God, by the Rock of your salvation?

Remind me, oh God, that you are always to be found at the bottom of things. Give me the strength and courage to meet you there. Amen.

I am leaving for spiritual direction training today. I am eager (in every sense) to begin this season of learning and growing and sinking deeply. I hope you will keep me in your prayers. I will return to the blogosphere next week. All shall be well.