Friday, October 31, 2014

Getting Unstuck

What shall the believer do in times of darkness -- the darkness of perplexity and confusion, not of heart but of mind?  Times of darkness come to the faithful and believing disciple who is walking obediently in the will of God; seasons when he [or she] does not know what to do, nor which way to turn.  The sky is overcast with clouds.  The clear light of heaven does not shine upon his pathway.  One feels as if he were groping his way in darkness. 
   Beloved, is this you?  What shall the believer do in times of darkness?  Listen!  Let him trust in the name of the Lord, and rely upon his God.   --  Dr. Pardington*

There was a time when I was in a very dark place, spiritually.  My home life sucked.  My husband was stressed-out at work, and did not then know how to handle stress in a healthy way.  He brought his stress home and yelled a lot, and he drank a lot.  One "coping mechanism" fed off the other, becoming more and more of a problem.  This was something that had never happened before, and I didn't know how to respond.  I didn't know how to make things better except to pray to God to change my husband, or pray to God to change me.  But nothing changed.  If anything, life just kept getting harder.

The thing is, although I believed in God, I had stopped going to church.  I was angry with the church for excluding people who were different:  who thought differently, who looked differently, who had different lifestyles.  And so, because it made perfect sense at the time, I excluded myself from church.  Who needed church, anyway?   I thought. 

Well, it turns out ...  I did.  I needed that hour on Sunday morning to sit in peace and listen to God's word on a regular basis.

It's ironic.  I knew that I could find God's guidance in church.  That was, in fact, how I thought of God:  The-Peace-Which-Passes-Understanding found in church.  For I couldn't begin to count the number of times I had gone to church, a little (or a lot) stressed and found just what I needed to hear in the words of a sermon or song.  That coincidence was the surest proof I had of God's existence.  And yet, when I got angry with the church, I removed that one mode of sustenance from my life.

Well, I eventually did go back to church, but it took me reaching rock-bottom for that to happen.    After one Christmas vacation, in which all of us were home for two weeks, and in which each day was filled with one angry blow-up after another, I finally realized how miserable my life had become, and how utterly alone I felt.  It's a cliche, but I felt like a small deserted island.  As this thought came to me, it was immediately followed with another thought:  You may be an island, but you are an island made by God.  It was such a simple thought, but I felt like I was being embraced by the kindest and gentlest of friends.  My control finally started to crack.  I handed everything over to God, and knew I needed to go back to church.  I had always found The-Peace-Which-Passes-Understanding in a church, and I had to trust that I always would, whatever church I happened to go to.

So the following Sunday, I went to the nearest church, and listened to a sermon about remembering that we are children of God and honoring our diversity as children of God.  It was exactly what I needed to hear.  I immediately asked how to become a member of that church.  And life got better, as I learned to listen to God again.

There is a story in the Bible about Moses leading the people through the wilderness, that describes pretty well what happened to me.  The people traveled three days in the wilderness and came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it had become bitter.  Moses cried to the Lord, and the Lord showed him how to make the water of Marah sweet again.  God said, "... listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes...."  And then the Lord led them to Elim, "where there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees; and they camped there by the water."  (Exodus 15:22-27)

For me, Marah was the church, in general -- not any specific one.  God led me to see that church was actually a place where sweet water could be found.  And God also led me to other springs of delicious water, as well.

What are those other springs?  Where else can you find the sustenance, comfort or peace you need in times of trouble?

Here are some springs:

*  journaling or centering, contemplative prayer -- they are the same thing to me.
*  reading the Bible -- a daily selection from the Old and New Testament is most helpful.
*  reading a daily devotional
*  reading any book, mindfully -- especially a faith-related book -- that you feel especially drawn to read
*  belonging to a small group in which you talk about faith on a regular basis  -- Where two or three are gathered in my name I will be there.
*  listening to music, mindfully  --  sometimes the lyrics will tell you exactly what you need to hear.
*  paying close attention to the small blessings, all the good things, that come into your life on a daily basis -- gratitude brings grace.
*  listening to that very quiet inner voice within you that tells you what to do next.  Don't put it off.
*  doing some kind of physical or creative work:  gardening, exercise, handwork, etc. --  focusing on something else will actually free your mind enough to bring some clarity and insight.
*  sleep  -- sometimes it's the most spiritual thing you can do for yourself
*  being in the midst of your favorite kind of landscape, be that the beach, the mountains, the desert, etc.

Besides church, that makes eleven springs of water.  There may be more.  Moses mentions twelve at Elim.  I found another spring recently.  It came out of failure.

I've shared these ways of finding God's presence with many people in my life, hoping to help them through a period of spiritual darkness.  Sometimes my advice helps, and sometimes none of my advice works.  Sometimes the person I'm trying to help doesn't believe that God exists, or would actually be able to guide them through anything so mundane as their personal crisis.  But even with some people who believe in God, these ways of seeking God fail to move them.

I have a very dear friend who sometimes gets stuck in a dark place.  Because I love her, I have tried many ways to help her find God's guidance:  I have given her a journal; I have given her my favorite daily devotional -- "Streams in the Desert," from which the above quote is taken; I have told her how important church is to me, and how much I learn from the books I read and the women's faith book study I belong to; and, since she is Catholic, I have even made her a beautiful rosary.  But even though she believes in God, she doesn't want to go to church, or use her rosary, or do any of the other things I have encouraged her to do.  These are all too religious for her.  I understand that attitude.  Believe me, I've been there.

Recently my friend came to visit, and she shared how utterly stuck she felt about a particular concern of hers.  As she shared her pain, I listened, as I always do.  And, afterward, I wondered how I could help her, as I always do.  Only this time, since I knew that all of my previous advice to her had failed to move her, I kept thinking, What can I say to her, dear God, that will make a difference?  All of my attempts to point her to you have failed.  What would you have me say?    And I found the words that I believe God wanted me to tell her.  They did not mention God, or church, or faith, or religion, but they were the words she needed to hear to help her get unstuck.  As she left to return home, she commented on how peaceful our weekend together had been. 

And so, I would say, the twelfth spring is:

*  talking to a person you trust who is listening to God. 

Sometimes we get stuck, spiritually.  And yet, all of the traditional trappings of spiritual sustenance -- church, praying, the Bible, etc. -- are no longer sweet-tasting to us, if they ever were.  So telling someone about them is less than helpful.  I believe God understands this.  And I believe God brings people into our lives who will speak to us the words he would have us hear -- even though no mention is ever made of God.  It's a mystery how it happens, and yet I know that it does happen.

Last week I was struggling with the book I am writing.  I had many questions, which were mounting, as I had asked an acquaintance to critique it for me.  As the deadline for handing it to her approached, I considered putting her off.  But then my friend, the one mentioned above, and I popped into the bookstore for a minute, on our way to picking up my son, and I found William Zinsser's "On Writing Well:  The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction."  Reading it over the past few days, I have found answers to all of my questions, even to my concern about the finished product.  Zinsser devotes a whole chapter to "The Tyranny of the Final Product."  His solution to this common problem was to "teach a writing course in which no writing is required." (pg. 255)   I repeat:  a writing workshop in which writing is optional.  The class was simply devoted to collectively solving the problems of writing.  Kind of like a discussion of spiritual problems in which no one mentions God, isn't it?

Last time, I wrote about the need to empty ourselves of what gets in the way of communication.  At the time, in church, the Sunday lectionary was from The Letter to the Philippians, where Paul writes that "Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.…"   Now again, I see God doing something similar:  emptying himself even of himself, when it is our perception of him that gets in the way of communication.

All I can say to that is...

May the Peace
Which Passes Understanding
Be With You


*  quoted in "Streams in the Desert," by Mrs. Charles B.Cowman,  Oct 7

Monday, October 6, 2014


"When you meet only at the point of poverty between you, it is as if you give birth to a ghost who would devour every shred of your affection."  --  John O'Donohue *

I like this insight.  It expresses something I have noticed between my husband and me, between my friends and me, really, between anyone I have regular contact with.  As much as I value unity in diversity, and as much as I have learned about valuing the other, I recognize that I still have a tendency to judge some people's understanding as just plain wrong.  Maybe it is, maybe it isn't, but one thing I do know is that if I focus on this point of contention between us, I lose all sight of the goodness that is in that other person.  And that's a problem.  For, then, although there could be a more meaningful and enriching relationship, there is no relationship at all.

I've been reading M. Scott Peck's "The Different Drum:  Community Making and Peace."  I wish I had read this book years ago.  It might have saved some real heartache for more than just myself.  For through countless years of community building workshops, among very diverse groups of people who came together for very diverse purposes, Peck learned that communities, in order to become real, healthy, functioning communities, must go through specific stages.  I'll describe them in a moment, but just knowing there are phases that must be reached and passed-through in order to achieve a better relationship is so hope-filled, that I couldn't help but share it.

The first stage of community is called Pseudocommunity.  It's where you look at the other through rose-colored glasses, seeing and projecting only the positives, the commonalities.  It's a phase of good manners and politeness, where conversation is kept at a very superficial level.  Even though there may be serious differences between you, you ignore them, preferring to be friendly and not make waves.   This is how we generally behave when we first meet someone, or first join a workplace, or a church.  Unfortunately, it is not real.  "The basic pretense of pseudocommunity is the denial of individual differences.  The members pretend -- act as if -- they all have the same belief...even the same life history."  (pg. 89)  Have you ever kept your diverse opinions to yourself in order to not make waves?  I think we all have.  And if you want to keep your relationship with that person or community on a superficial level, then that's what you do.

If, however, you want to be a little more honest with yourself and with the other person, then you have to give voice to your differences.  Doing so means entering the next phase of community making, called Chaos.

Chaos is as unpleasant as it sounds, but it's a stage that must be reached in order to achieve true community.  In this stage, individual differences are out in the open for all to see.  But differences sometimes threaten our own understanding, and we tend to respond to threats in not so healthy ways:  we may separate ourselves from the one who is different or form cliques and gangs; we may try to convert the other to our way of thinking; we may actually verbally or physically abuse them; and, we may also resort to trying to resolve the differences in organizational constructions -- handing the issue off to a leader for ultimate decision, or to a committee subject to Robert's Rules of Order, or even calling for a democratic vote.  None of these methods resolve conflict, however.  And we all know that to be true.  When did a ruling or even a majority vote ever change our own opinion? 

No, Peck says, there is only one way through Chaos, and that is through Emptiness, through letting go of anything that gets in the way of communication.  Some of the things we need to let go of are our preconceptions, our expectations, our prejudices, our ideology, our need to heal and fix things, our need to control, even, to some extent, our theology.  "Such giving up is a sacrificial process....  And sacrifice hurts." So some communities revert back to pseudocommunity, get stuck in chaos, or disintegrate.

When asked if we needed to give up everything, Peck replied, "No... just everything that stands in your way."  (pg. 100)  This means that, without necessarily giving up your own understanding, you learn to become open to the understanding of the other.  You acknowledge that your understanding fits your experiences, but you allow for the possibility that other experiences have led to other understandings. You acknowledge that you don't have all the answers and actually need the other person's point of view to some extent.  If you can learn to let go of the things that stand in the way and accept the other as a unique individual with gifts as valuable to the whole group as your own, then you are on your way to being a real community, where decisions are reached by consensus, and everyone's opinion counts.

Many examples come to mind as I read these words of Peck, but I can't help thinking of my church.  It was a pseudocommunity when I first became a member.  It didn't take long for me to see that there were many differences between us, especially as regards to theology, religious practices, and political issues, but I could also see that these differences were rarely, if ever, given voice.  Then our church-wide assembly adopted a Social Statement on Human Sexuality, which acknowledged our differences on the issue of same-sex marriage, and allowed both sides to be honored.  Then all hell broke loose in our church.  With the result that all our diversity spilled out, and our congregation split painfully along ideological lines.  Some people who had been friends could be so no longer for they could not see past "the point of poverty" between them. 

Maybe the split was necessary.  After all, the debates that followed made us aware of so many of our differences:  how we read the Bible, how we viewed sin, whether we thought homosexuality was a sin, what we wanted to teach our children, etc.  However, I can't help but wonder what would have happened if we had been able to look past our points of contention and remember what we had in common:  a love for Jesus, and a desire to honor God to the best of our ability.  I wonder what would have happened if we had just been able to acknowledge our differences, accept them, and not let them stand in the way of loving one another, as the Social Statement on Human Sexuality encouraged us to do.  Perhaps a more honest community would have resulted. 
In my last posting, I described the television show Utopia.  So far, it, too, perfectly illustrates the phases of community making.  For, from the beginning, amidst this group of fifteen diverse people, there were people that just wanted to be pleasant to one another, and there were people that didn't care a fig about being pleasant; they just wanted things to go their own way.  That opened the door for some of the pleasant people to also express their contrary opinions, just as ferociously, and the first couple of weeks in Utopia were truly chaotic.  Slowly, they are learning to function as a group.  For they are learning to let go of the things that stand in the way of communication.  At least the ones who want to stay in community are letting go.  The others are being encouraged to go, or choosing to leave the community on their own.  I do, however, have great hopes for the ones who remain.  I almost envy them their opportunity to form a really close community. 

However, Peck cautions his readers to understand that making a real community is not a one-time deal.  It is a continual process of moving from pseudocommunity, through chaos, and through emptiness to honoring individual differences, and back again.   This rings true to me when I think of my marriage, my friendships, and my church.  I keep thinking that at some point my relationships will function without any upheavals.  But, so far, that hasn't happened.  There's always some conflict to resolve.

Fortunately, Peck says that the sign of a healthy community, whether consisting of two people or more, is not that you never experience conflict, it's that you move through the stages, especially the stage of chaos, more quickly.  You learn to recognize the communication blocks and let them go more quickly.

I can see glimmers of that kind of maturity in myself.  I have done my share of fighting against, as well as trying to fix the other, for sure.  But I have also done my share of honoring the other, and I am learning to do this more and more.  So there's hope for me.

And hope for all of us, really.  Don't you think?  Maybe if more of us saw this big picture of what a real community looks like, and what it takes to make one, we would actually be better able to attain it in all of our relationships.  Wouldn't then God's will be done on Earth as in Heaven?  I think so.

May the peace
which passes understanding
be with you always.


* from "Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom," by John O'Donohue (Cliff Street Books ed, pg.12)