Today I Saw God
Some days, I have a hard time getting into the Christmas spirit. I watch the news and wonder if we will ever, ever figure out how to stop hurting one another. Advent is meant to be about longing, but I want to skip Advent and rush to Christmas because longing is messy and uncomfortable. We are yearning for the coming healing, we are hungry for the almost-but-not-yet Kingdom. On some days, the Kingdom of God seems very far away.
As a follower of Jesus, uncomfortable feelings of sadness, anger and longing eventually move me to prayer. A few weeks ago, I gathered with some dear friends and we prayed for our world, our leaders, our Church, our community and our children. We prayed we would not become cynical, we prayed we would be agents of the change we want to see in our world. We prayed for God to help us be brave and loving in a world teeming with fear and hatred. We prayed the same things for our children,primarily young adults who don't remember a world before 9/11 and weekly mass shootings. We prayed God would show us the path to peace and empower us to lead the way for our communities and families. We prayed and then we planned. We vowed to continue our prayers with our feet, our hands, our voices, our money and our votes. Pray, and then DO.
Another thing I do when I am feeling sad and angry is go to church. I have sat in church many, many times with tears running down my face, full of hurt.Sometimes, the church has even been the source of that pain. But whether I go full of sadness or full of joy, every time I show up and listen, God shows up and speaks. In all its brokenness, I still believe in the Church as a source of good in the world. If you haven't yet found a church that looks and sounds like Jesus, keep looking.
Last year, I remember going to church and hearing a sermon that particularly spoke to me in that place of longing, a reminder of things I can DO when I am looking for light in the darkness, Here are the three things we might consider doing when life feels overwhelming and circumstances seem to be stealing our joy:
Watch for God at work.When we become overwhelmed by difficult circumstances, we can become focused only on the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in front of us and it becomes all we can see. Yet, God is with us and the deliverance or healing for which we are praying may have already begun. One of my favorite versesJeremiah 29:13says
"You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart."
Every time I purposely, intentionally watch to see God in the circumstances around me, I see His hand at work. It might be a coincidental meeting, a fortuitous phone call, a specific answer to prayer, a changed attitude in a person in my life or a word of encouragement from an unexpected source. Sometimes it might be as simple as hearing the words of a song that touch my heart right where I needed healing at exactly the right moment. When I watch and listen, I always find Him.
Plug into the Holy Spirit.This time of year, we have many, many strands of light working their magic and making our house a sparkly wonderland. What many who visit our home don't see is the myriad of extension cords required to produce our light show. Simply put, the lights don't work if they aren't plugged in. Similarly, I find I have difficulty accessing the promisedfruit of the Spirit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control- unless I too "plug in." I think it is different for each of us, but I plug into the Holy Spirit through prayer, reading scripture, journaling, and spending with others who are seeking God. I plug into the Holy Spirit by choosing to acknowledge I need God to help me be brave and love well. When I plug in, I have access to a power greater than my own. When I don't, I get overwhelmed by circumstances.
Bless somebody else.Like many of us, I can get wrapped up in my own little world. When I am hurting and sad, I can become even more self-focused. While we certainly need to learn healthy ways to care for ourselves when we are hurting emotionally, sometimes the most healing thing we can do is to look up and look out. There are a whole bunch of people out there in need of the love we have to give. Finding ways to bless someone else reminds us we are connected to one another, members of the human family. We do not travel this journey alone. We need each other and we each have the capacity to provide encouragement to someone else. A listening ear, a kind word, and a warm smile are gifts when offered with nothing expected in return.
Watch and listen for what God is doing. Be open to the Holy Spirit. Bless people around you. Pray, and then DO.
O come, O come, Emmanuel!
Originally published on www.kellyiveyjohnson.com
"Not speaking and speaking are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each," writes Paul Goodman in the Nine Kinds of Silence.
"There is the dumb silence of slumber or apathy;the sober silence that goes with a solemn animal face;the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, whence emerge new thoughts;the alive silence of alert perception, ready to say, "This this";the musical silence that accompanies absorbed activity;the silence of listening to another speak, catching the drift and helping him be clear;the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination, loud and sub-vocal speech but sullen to say it;baffled silence;the silence of peaceful accord with other persons or communion with the cosmos."
What a beautiful display, like the unfurling of cards in your hand. At first, one, and then one by one, slowly displayed and made available to be played.
Silence, not just one thing but many. Mesmerizing. As in the magical world of The Phantom Tollbooth
"Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven't the answer to a question you've been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you're alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully."Norton Juster
Ah, the moment after the door closes when you are all alone in the whole house. Silence is so much more than quiet. It is shush. It is thinking. It is fear. It is failure. It is overpowering. It is overpowered. It is an expectation. It is reciprocation. It is listening. It is distracted. Isn't silence amazing?
Goodman and Juster have inspired me to think about the many kinds of Generosity, for "not giving and giving are both human ways of being in the world, and there are kinds and grades of each."
There is the selfish generosity which withholds because it doesn't notice need; the generosity of scarcity which hoards and stores, fearing scant days ahead; the glad generosity which gains by opening generosity's door; the generosity of the perfect gift which smiles in anticipation; the generosity of giving without expecting anything in return; the generosity of listening which, by its attention, strengthens and grows; the shrinking generosity of payment due, extracting joy; the gift declined; and yet, yet, the generosity of spirit, unbidden, uncompelled, offered wholly back to God and to those whom God loves.
Giving and not giving are both human ways of being in the world. Only one remains.It is not the gift God loves, it's the giver.
Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.Each one must give as he has decided in his heart,not reluctantly or under compulsion, forGod loves a cheerful giver. ~2 Corinthians 9:6-7
I am alone the majority of my time and yet I struggle to find silence.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate if I said I struggle toallowsilence.
When I say silence, I am not referring to the complete absence of sound. My house is quiet most of the day, often eerily so. I am defining silence in this case as a refuge from the onslaught of words, images, input from the outside world. I am constantly connected, a slave to the next ping or vibration indicating someone, somewhere has something to say to me.
To be completely honest, I am addicted to my phone.
I don't use the word addiction lightly. I grew up with an addicted parent. Our home was blown apart by the hold alcohol had on my father's life. Addiction is a devil, a slave master, an insidious seducer. But if you define addiction as a "compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences," then my relationship with my phone could be characterized by the word addiction.
In the interest of full disclosure, I get antsy and nervous when I am away from my phone or I haven't checked it lately. I think about wanting to check it when I am in the midst of something else. I reach for it compulsively at stop lights, in the grocery store line, or when my dinner companion steps away from the table at a restaurant. I move it from room to room with me throughout my day, afraid to miss something important.
The greatest consequence of my relationship with my phone is my inability to sit with silence, to rest with my thoughts, to daydream and imagine, to listen for the voice of God. My constant connection to my phone and all the lovely bells and whistles it provides gets in the way of my ability to tune in to my best self, the part of me connected to the Holy Spirit. My constant connection to my phone gets in the way of my ability to hear the voice of God.
On my coaching journey, both my work with my own coach and the time I spend with my clients, I am learning to ask two good questions repeatedly:
- Who do I want to be?
- What will I do differently?
I want to BE a person who is connected to the Holy Spirit, who recognizes the quiet whispers of God, who is in tune with my creativity, imagination and inspiration. I want to be a person who is constantly learning new things, reading good books and connecting with the people I love. I want to be fully present in each moment, neither tethered to the past or worried about the future.
A couple of weeks ago in church, Pastor Tom delivered a beautiful sermon about listening to God. He talked about the value of pursuing silence as a practice and highlighted the Christian traditions of centering prayer as a way to connect with God. He challenged us to spend 20 minutes in silence seeking God and see what happened. After church that Sunday, I took a walk in the woods and put my phone on Do Not Disturb and turned off my music. I resisted the urge to chatter at God, deciding instead to just listen and enjoy the beautiful day. It was alternately difficult and wonderful, but God was gracious with me while I settled down. Since that day, I have been playing with this practice and have become increasingly curious about the gifts to be found in intentionally choosing to pursue silence on a regular basis.
In order to be the person I want to be, I sometimes need to do some things differently. Now the question is this: what am I willing to do to be a person who listens to God?
Can anyone relate? Does anyone else have a less than healthy relationship with their phone, tablet or computer? Is anyone else struggling to find a balance as we enjoy the miracles of twenty-first century communication?
Originally published on www.kellyiveyjohnson.com
I think prayer may the the most difficult thing for me to practice – not the kind of prayer that thanks God for my blessings, acknowledges the beauty of creation, requests healing or help for others or even prayers of confession but the quiet, silent, listening prayer. As an extrovert meditation and contemplative prayer don't come naturally, I've had to work at it.
It's a little like beginning an exercise program. I knew I needed to develop a practice of weight bearing exercises. I knew that it was critical to my well being; that it would help reduce my cholesterol and strengthen my bones. I also knew that there was no substitute for lifting weights. But none of this "knowing" was going to make it happen until I took the first step. As Jesus said to his disciples, "The spirit is willing, but the body is weak."
Last December I started a regular practice of going to the gym. At first it was awkward. I felt like a novice, like I was doing everything wrong. Eventually I started to see progress. I could lift heavier weights. I began to really see the difference. Then I got my bloodwork back and I had concrete data that said this practice is changing things.
Practicing meditative and centering prayer has been a similar experience for me. I knew in my head that I needed to do it, I just needed to make my body comply. At first I felt silly sitting in silence waiting for something to happen. Inevitably I would fill the void with my words then I would scold myself and feel like a failure. One day someone said to me, "Be nice to yourself. Be patient. It takes practice." With that everything changed.
Like going to the gym, I set aside time every morning to be still. I first read from the Bible then I practice my time of silence. Sometimes I put myself in the story, sometimes I think about a specific verse and sometimes I just sit in silence. At first I did this for about five minutes each day. Eventually as I have become more comfortable, my time has lengthened. Like going to the gym, I was encouraged when I started to see progress. My days are more peaceful and I am more aware of God's presence in my life and the lives of those around me.
I still have much to learn about prayer but the practice of listening is changing things. Like going to the gym regularly for my physical health, I can't imagine not spending time in silence for my spiritual health. Francois Fenelon said it this way, "The more you seek for God, the nearer He will be to you; every step that you take toward Him will bring you peace and consolation."
"If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day. If you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord's holy day honorable, and if you honor it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find joy in the Lord" Isaiah 53:13-14a
This scripture has been pervasively showing up over the last few months. My regular reminder that if we focus on God we will be given what we need and be used for God's glory. I am in constant need of this reminder, but I evidently wasn't getting the message.
I have a problem. I don't like to say no. One of the shortest words in the English language and I struggle saying it. My friends, family members, therapists and supervisors over the years have tried desperately to teach me how to say that word. I don't say it because I like to be helpful! I HATE to disappoint! And, truth be told, I impose others' expectations on myself, some of which don't actually exist. I have been this way my whole life. In fact, my college roommate used to tell me that I was the busiest person she knew. She still tells me, "you always were the busiest person I know"; because I never say no, not to myself, not to anyone.
Maybe that is why I acclimated to Northern Virginia culture so easily. In my twenties, I lived in London for a time as well as New York City. I think I felt at home in these places because their pace could keep up with me! Just like those other cities, here in NOVA we are all moving at a million miles a minute, to accomplish a laundry list of tasks that are not ever realistically going to fit into a 24-hour period. And, sleep should fit in there somewhere. Not one of us is the exception. We all do it. We go, go, go all the time and in the busyness things get forgotten or forsaken.
Over my time in ministry, I have developed some pretty solid self-care practices at the urging of my mentors and seasoned clergy who have experienced the consequences of failing to practice consistent self-care. I have faithfully observed the Sabbath, not only for my own good, but because God gives us that example and calls us to a day of rest and worship. I have talked to many others, who likewise manage to take care of themselves faithfully and still conquer the world all in a day's work. But, no matter how well we take care of ourselves with diet, exercise, sleep and spiritual disciplines, when we embrace a busy lifestyle and are immersed in a culture that supports that lifestyle more often than not, the busy wins and we lose sight of the parts of ourselves that are more easily lost. These parts are the hardest to see. You can usually look at someone and tell if they are taking care of themselves or under stress. But so often, the part of us that is screaming to be cared for is the part people don't see because we've gotten very good at smiling, nodding and social niceties.
That's where I found myself a little over 6 months ago; tired, empty, neglected and disconnected because in the daily grind, checklist and even in the fun, I was not allowing my "cup" to be filled. Sure, I was taking my days off each week, I was taking vacation, I was worshipping regularly and exercising regularly but I was still in way over my head. I let some people see but for the most part I kept swimming because if I could keep swimming I could trick myself into being ok. Between a busier schedule than I could manage and navigating a hard life event, I was done.
I had reached that irrational place of done. You know, when you want to quit everything?! So, I pondered what to do to help me get my head back above water.
Thanks to divine inspiration and the gift of a phenomenal benefits package and supervisory staff. I figured it out! I asked to take a 4 week Sabbath, a mini sabbatical if you will, and IT WAS APPROVED!!! As the time for my Sabbath approached people would ask what I intended to do with my time. Where was I going? What fun thing was I going to do? Each time I explained that I was not planning my time. I shared and reminded myself that I am an over scheduler. I knew that if I started filling up the time it would be full and gone before it even began.
But, it was actually a good question to consider, "what am I going to do with my time off"?! I thought about what I was missing, which of my cups were empty, and which parts of me I had lost. I came up with 3 guiding focuses and a challenge for myself. I realized I needed to fill my time by practicing stillness, reconnecting with God and finding joy. It has been my observation that of all these things, joy is usually the first thing to get lost. When we are stressed, tired, grieving, empty, angry, sometimes even busily content, we lose joy. The challenge that I gave myself was a means of accountability. I was going to pursue these 3 things by posting a photo a day that illustrated how I spent that Sabbath day.
So, even though I didn't make specific plans I really did have big dreams for my month. I was going to do all of the things I'd been wanting to do and hadnt't had time for! Berry picking, sleeping in, catching up with friends, laying by the pool for hours each day, reading 15 books, crafting, organizingit was going to be epic! But, as is the case with life, things didn't go like I had planned. I didn't leap tall buildings or climb high mountains each day and in spite of that, each day was full and spent just as I needed to. Here's what's interestingturns out I don't know what I need as well as God does. Even when the day didn't meet my desires or expectations it ended up being exactly what it should be. What I did faithfully was approach each day with a willing spirit to see what the day might bring and how God might show up.
Each day I did manage to find stillness and I embraced it! I didn't fight the stillness and silence. I didn't try to fill it up; instead I reminded myself that stillness is wonderful and necessary and a sign of strength instead of weakness. I told people that I love and care for "no". With that "no" came a shift, in me and in relationships. Bottom line, I woke up every day with an attitude of intentionality. I wanted to make the most out of each day because they were precious gifts of Sabbath. They were MY four weeks and I needed to make the most of them.
When it was all said and done and I began preparing to return back to my daily routine (the one that involves working, homework, taking my niece to school, etc) I found myself thinking about all that I discovered during my Sabbath and all that God showed me. I have this new perspective now. I also have an awareness that this perspective can be far more easily lost than it was gained, but I can draw from it and remember how full my soul was, simply because I was available, flexible and intentional.
Here are five main takeaways from my epic month off:
1- God will surprise you if given the room to do so.
2- We truly must let go of the things that bind and hinder us if we really want to live. Holding on does no one any good.
3- Over ambition is overrated. At the end of our lives what will have mattered most?
4- We must be more willing every day to throw our plans out the window. (I'm a planner and I think a plan is a beautiful thing but, if it rains on a pool day you find a way to make the most of that day if the day is important to you.)
5- "No" really is a powerful word. And, it doesn't have to mean that someone will be hurt if you use it. As it turns out it may actually deepen your relationship.
I don't know the next time I will have a month off. I don't currently have my next vacation planned. But I now have experienced what happens when you intentionally focus your time. We've all heard the saying "yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, today is a gift, that's why it's called the present." Well, that's real. In a moment, things can change and we never know when that moment will be or what it will bring. So let's make the most out of what we've got. I will continue to start each day with a desire to connect with God, to find joy in even the small things and to make time to be still. I hope you will join me.