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Finding Center

She was a princess and duchess. She lived in the palace with the Queen of England. She had her prince. She had a fairytale life.

Sarah Margaret Ferguson seemed to have it all. But she lost it and for the past 15 years she’s known more for scandal than being royal – topless photos, a divorce from her prince, ballooning and shrinking weight, amassing large amounts of debt, and trying to sell access to her former husband, Prince Andrew.

How could that happen? How could someone squander away their royalty, be so gullible, lost and seemingly crazy? It doesn’t make sense.

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Officially Shutting Up

This last week I have been trying to be more diligent about “getting quiet” before the Lord. That sounds lofty and spiritual but basically it means I have been just trying to shut up and listen.

I realized that when “praying” I am the annoying child that just won’t shut up. I keep talking and talking and talking. Amazing how I never run out of things to say, or maybe just whine and complain about. I am not the most gracious or grateful of children sometimes.

I sit and my mind whirls. How do you hear God? Now that’s a big question. A few years ago I read Dallas Willard’s take on the idea, in his book aptly named, Hearing God.  While contending that there are no formulas Willard believes that we can have a conversational relationship with God.

Willard reminds us that we have to start with very basic belief – that God still speaks today and he speaks to us individually. Once we reaffirm that belief we can begin the journey of “hearing” as we live a life in God’s will to notice the still small voice.  In I Kings 19:11-13 Elijah was in desperate need to hear from God. He was in a cave hiding from Jezebel, who wanted him dead.

” The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

There is lots to be learned in that passage but what stands out first is that God wasn’t found in the storm, earthquake or fire, but instead in the gentle whisper. You can’t hear until you get still.

I suck at being still. I want God to be loud, obnoxious and obvious. I’d like God to come in an email, text, a tweet or write me something on my facebook wall. But nope, he’s old-fashioned he wants our presence, the face-to-face conversation. Why is that so hard?

Ruth Haley Barton in her book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, says that you have to order your life for God’s voice. We have to make room, allow for the still, small voice to break into our clutter and busyness. Her spiritual director told her she was like a jar of river water all stirred up and she needed to stop and let the sediment settle.

I love that imagery. I got some sediment and it is a swirlin’

What’s your sediment? Mine is figuring out what’s next in my life, finding a job, paying my bills while I don’t have job,  managing family drama, remembering who I am, holding onto my faith, remembering who God is, staying sane, not being a victim and finding joy.

She suggests setting aside time everyday, even if its just 10 minutes to sit and be still before God.

It’s an invitation to be still and sith the the longings of our heart, soul and mind. We have to let go of control, busyness, distractions and fear. We have to let ourself succomb to the desperation.

Oh now that is interesting. I hate the anxiety that builds in my soul when I don’t have a plan or the answers. I will do anything to avoid it. Trying to self-soothe in the middle of these situations get me in trouble. Barton says that we need to stay with the feelings of desperation and let it do its good work. “Desperation causes us to be open to radical solutions, willing to take all manner of risk in order to find what we’re looking for.”

I don’t know about you but my sediment needs some seriously radical solutions. I have no idea. I have no earthly way to wade my way through. Even thinking about it stirs the pot.

The rest of Barton’s book is about learning how to be still before God. I recommend it. The basic idea is to find a sacred space where you can sit and wait for God to speak. It’s not about an activity or a purpose beyond a conversation with God. We have to make ourselves available. We want God available to us but are we available to him?

[We need to]Run into God’s arms and give [ourself] to his embrace but we are carrying too much baggage and don’t know where to put it, sometimes we just need to write it all down and put it into an envelope marked TRUST, which is an act of giving it to God.

It’s about trust. How much do I really trust God? Another topic for another post.

I have tried this week to spend time focusing on God. He has been gracious with me and been very present. I can feel him speaking to me through the Bible, books I’m reading, sermons, songs and even a movie.

I’m still not great at being quiet, but I’m learning. I have taken to swimming for prayer. The monotnous rhythm and motion of gliding through the water lap after lap helps calm my mind. Every lap I pray and listen. I’m not an expert swimmer or an expert prayer-er. But it helps. I like the woosh of the water, it drowns out my own thoughts. Every turn reminds me to refocus.

I’ve found that after five days of wooshing and turning I look forward to my time in the water with God. I feel more focused, refreshed and able to face my problems. I still don’t have answers. All the sediment is still there but I’m learning to let go of more of it.

What’s wrong with being a Martha?

I am aptly named Martha. I am a doer just like the one in the bible. But why does Jesus chastise her? Why would he condemn serving? What does he really want from her, and us?

As much as I hate my given name, Martha, I embody its biblical reference of a task-oriented, get-it-done kind of person. I generally am the one in the background organizing, planning and DOING.

In church we have been taught for years (from Luke 1o) that being a Martha is a bad thing. Don’t be like her. You should be more like Mary. The one that sat at the feet of Jesus and listened when Martha was working. You can even read books learning how to be more like Mary.

But what’s wrong with being goal oriented, organized, and focused. I cannot completely divorce myself from my first-born, natural leader self to shirk duties, forego an obvious need and leave something undone. I wouldn’t be able to be present with the task at hand knowing I was not fulfilling my obligations and duties. It is just who I am. It is how God made me, if you want to get all churchy about it.

So what really was Martha’s sin? Didn’t Jesus and the guests need to eat? Why was Mary really rewarded and made the bastion of all womankind for being a slacker? That theology does not compute with me.

Jesus has discussed this concept before with the disciples about the woman who broke the perfume bottle on his feet. (John 12) The disciples chastised her for wasting the perfume, which she could have sold and donated the money to the poor. But Jesus said (Marti translation) you will always have the poor but me, not so much.

Yeah, I know the perfume foreshadowed his death and burial. But it says more about what God wants from us, something I’m not always good at – relationship.

I don’t think Jesus was chastising  the disciples for wanting to take care of the poor. Just like I don’t think Jesus was rebuking Martha for being herself.  Both of those tasks are important and good.

Many times Jesus tells us to take care of the poor, the widows and orphans. Martha, well she was the original hostess with the mostess. Think of her culture, her work was expected, but what Jesus drew issue with was that she never stopped. If you think about it Jesus was throwing culture out the window by celebrating women being in the room. He was giving them a place in the conversation and movement.

Jesus wanted Martha to be present. He wanted her to hear him. I know in my life I complain that Jesus isn’t speaking. He isn’t clear. But is it really that I’m not listening? Is there too much noise? Am I distracted? Am I too focused on tasks? Probably. I rarely slow down. My mind is constantly moving.

God has a way of getting our attention. Because he wants us to just BE with him. How in the world do you do that? I think in some regards that has been part of my journey and story for the past 2 and a half years. In my former life I was a doer. I was in two small groups, lead two support groups, and volunteered for several organizations. It’s all good stuff but at the end of the day I was exhausted, not recharged. I was needed but after a while I had nothing left to give.

The spiritual discipline of silence or noticing God is one I first heard of in grad school. As I’ve struggled these last six months, most specifically, with what’s next in my life I realize that my ears weren’t attuned to really hearing God.  So that’s what I’m working on, listening.

It’s hard to do there is so much clutter in my brain. While my lifestyle has been drastically simplified my mind is a scary space. There is a lot going on in there. I tend to even opt for activities in this area. I’ll do a bible study. I’ll go to worship night. I”m at church on Sunday. Again, all of these things are good, but not that point.

It’s about silence, centeredness, and a space of being able to really commune with God. I have done mini-silent retreats and it took me half the time to just unwind. I even went to a “silent” movie in 2007, no it wasn’t a Charlie Chaplin flix. It was a rare glimpse into a silent order of monks hidden away in the mountains in Europe. It took me over two hours to settle into the movie.

So I’m working on it. I’m trying to be more focused. Of course my first thought is to study about it, figure out how to do it. I have about four (unread) books on it in my library. But I’m trying to keep it simple. Much to come on this, I’m sure.

The Power of Story

Who doesn’t love a good story? The love, the fight, the drama, the comedy. It’s why we go to the movies. It’s why we read book. It is what transports us to another time and place. We are inspired, horrified, scared, captivated and engaged.

All the while we are writing our own story, full of the same emotions, plot points and events. Yet there are so many elements of our lives we keep hidden. We’re afraid we’re the only ones. We’re worried about being judged. We’re ashamed of what happened to us or what we’ve done.

Yet my old pastor always said, “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” It makes a world of difference as soon as we begin to give voice to what is happening to us, what we’ve been through and how we are feeling. It empties out brain space. It frees up our heart to move on, so we don’t get stuck in the mire of our circumstance.

This is in part why I chose to blog. Some write stories. Some sing songs. Others write poetry, paint or play an instrument. Anything is better than being silent. Anything is better that being alone. Anything is better than quiet surrender. We have to fight for ourselves. We have to shout, in a way that is healthy, so we can be set free.

My friend Jenn is choosing to give voice to her story of breast cancer. At 34 she is facing a stage three diagnosis, a mastectomy, chemo, losing her hair and fighting for her life all within about a week. To reach out for support and keep those who love her updated on her progress she is blogging through it. I am amazed at her strength, resilience, faith and the joy in her journey so far. I know there isn’t much I can do but pray and her blog helps me do that more specifically.

We are also part of a bigger story that God is telling through us. All of our stories overlap and interact with others. We are not alone. We are part of a huge family. In that there is comfort, encouragement and faith. In the midst of pain it is easy to burrow inward. It is easy to become destructive or self-sabotage. But having the courage to speak out means that we can be held accountable, someone can give reason to our voices of insanity. Or in some cases someone to just give us a hug and tell us to hang on.

I think my friend Erika is right in that we are all a beacon of hope for someone who isn’t as far in their story as we are. We get to lead the way for someone, if we let ourselves speak of what God has done, how he has provided, how he has healed, how he has disciplined and even through how we suffered.

It’s easy for me to forget these things. I want to shut down. I want to block out. I have done that a bit over the last few months. The pain of my parent’s divorce was just too fresh. The death of our family unit was overwhelming. I was fighting out of wallowing in it. I was trying to help my parents. I was trying to be there for my brother. I didn’t know how to be there for myself. I just slipped into survival mode.

I am so grateful for those friends that have kept me sane. I am so blessed with their love, joy, distractions, prayers, encouragement and support. They have made this time of pain tolerable. There have been moments when I didn’t want to talk to God. I was angry at him, yet I knew that I was getting his voice through them. They kept speaking truth. They kept speaking love.

As I come out of the shock and denial of what is happening I can finally begin to give voice to everything. I am starting to process out what it all means to me. I learning how to have a different kind of relationship with my parents and my brother.

It’s all a process.