Welcome September! It’s time to start bidding farewell to summer…
I’m the one who’s been asking you –
it hurts to ask — Who are you?
I am orphaned
each time the sun goes down.
I can feel cast out from everything
and even churches look like prisons
That’s when I want you –
you knower of my emptiness,
you, unspeaking partner to my sorrow –
that’s when I need you, God like food.
(Rainer Maria Rilke, from the Book of Hours, trans. Barrows & Macy)
I have always been drawn more to certain images of God than others.
I love the shepherd God, providing for his flock. I love the mother God, nestling her chicks under her wing, or weaning her children into maturity. I love the strong God of justice who frees prisoners and bends the moral arc of the universe.
But I can barely bring myself to speak the words “Alpha and Omega,” not to mention the “Sovereign,” “Propitiation,” or “Potentate.”
Everyone is like this, connecting more deeply with particular names or images of God than others. I love to listen to people talk about their connection to images of God that don’t resonate with me because it feels so expansive for my spiritual life. It re-connects me with the wide mystery of God.
I think it is important to pay attention to the images that draw you, not only to explore what they reveal about your desires and beliefs, but also to explore what is hidden in them. When you call God by a particular name, or hold God as a particular image, there are necessarily ways that you are not perceiving God at that time. If I’m connected to God as shepherd, for instance, I might be missing God as creator, or God as refining fire, or God as judge.
One of my teachers calls this the “shadow image” — what is missing or hidden by a particular image of God. I often find myself asking: What happens when I encounter those “shadow images” for God in worship or prayer? How do I feel? What does that say about my soul?
I’ve noticed that, although there are some images that stick with me always, as my spiritual journey moves through different landscapes, the images that speak to me most shift. The last few months have been a time of darkness and quiet in my soul and difficult circumstances in my life. Images of God that weren’t especially important before are resonating with me now.
One in particular comes from Rilke’s words in the poem above: God as the knower of my emptiness and the unspeaking partner to my sorrow. How grateful I am to Rilke for naming the tension of a God who is intimately near but painfully silent. Sometimes it can ache to reach toward God.
Another image that is strong for me comes from the Sufi mystic Rumi, who writes: “Dissolver of sugar, dissolve me.” I love this image of God because it speaks to the devastation that grief and pain can bring in our lives. How does it feel to be dissolved, even if that is the path your transformation is supposed to take? Rumi asks to be dissolved “gently… at dawn” or “suddenly, like an execution.” “How else can I get ready for death?” the poet asks.
God to me is these things right now: a knower of my emptiness, an unspeaking partner to my sorrow, a gentle or sudden dissolver. I continue to be curious about what that means for me and how my experience of God will continue to change as my life journey moves forward.
It’s clear that poetry is a central source of spiritual imagery for me, but I know lots of people who connect most with images they find in scripture or hymns. One of the reasons I love diversifying worship sources and methods is because it opens us up to so many different ways of experiencing God.
So, what do you find when you explore your preferred images of God? What do they say about the landscape of your spiritual life? What “shadow images” that may be less familiar to you are you interested in exploring?
Jesus said to his disciples…
“Do not worry…
for life is more…
Consider the ravens…
Consider the lilies…
Do not be afraid, little flock…
Your heart will be…”
(from Luke 12:22-34)
Do not be afraid, little flock, of what will become of your life. Do not be afraid of having too much — you do not need extra storehouses. Do not be afraid of having too little — you are more than ravens and lilies. You are more, and life is more.
Instead of worrying, Jesus tells them, consider. You need not solve, you need not discuss. Just consider. Julian of Norwich writes:
The soul must perform two duties:
the first is to always wonder and be surprised.
The second is to endure, always, taking pleasure in God.
I think of this as I consider the lilies and the ravens. Always wonder, be surprised, endure and take pleasure in God.
There are so many things I have been hoarding in storehouses, desperate for security.
Things like excuses for my behavior, moments of self-righteousness, sentiments of those who think like me. Those excuses, moments, and sentiments are stacked so high, I will never run out.
Unless I return to find them unexpectedly rotten. Unless this very night, my life is demanded of me. Unless I am confronted with the words of Jesus, “Do not worry. Life is more.”
Then more stores will be nothing.
I remember, for now, that I am sheep, a creature created to yearn for safety and peace, and if I cling too desperately to what I cannot keep, I will be blinded to what I cannot lose.
It is the Shepherd’s pleasure to provide guidance and goodness, treasures beyond the simple protection of planning and hoarding. My heart will be turned in the direction of my treasure, drawn like moth to flame, so what will I chose?
Will I worry? Will I build more storehouses?
Or will I consider? Will I endure in wonder and surprise?
I haven’t prayed in a while.
Not because I’ve been too busy to take the time. Not because I don’t have anything to say to God. Not because my life is going swimmingly.
I haven’t prayed in a while because I’m worn out.
It’s one of those seasons when I wonder whom I’m talking to or why I’m talking. I often ask myself if anything would change at all if I stopped reaching toward God.
The last six months have been a period of person upheaval and painful growth for me, and my spirituality has had to transform along with the rest of my life.
I am a person of spiritual practice — I make gratitude lists, I journal, I write poetry and songs, I sing hymns and light candles before bed, I set up altars in my room, I carry prayer beads, I meditate.
These are habits woven into my life, but recently, in the wake of painful transition, they’ve all kind of slowed down. They’ve all gotten quiet.
This is not new. Scripture and tradition are full of great teachers and seekers who have walked through times of darkness and silence from God. No one needs to feel alone in that process, and I certainly don’t. Yet, the prayers of others don’t seem to fit for me these days. No prayers seem to fit at all.
So I stopped. I untangled my spiritual practices from the weaving of my life. I stopped speaking to God, with words or music or movement. I closed up shop, spiritually, and went dark.
Nothing happened, of course.
No bolts of lightning, no sudden light of revelation, no voice of the Almighty.
Just quiet, and the smallest kind of transformation.
Here is the truth I have learned: closing up shop and going dark, quitting your spiritual practices, telling God goodbye — these things are still prayer.
Our very breathing, our very being itself, is sufficient.
[P]ain and need and vulnerability lead us directly to God.
Then we do not need to practice prayer. We become a prayer.
We throw ourselves on the heart of God.
(Joan Chittister, The Breath of the Soul, 37)
As the Psalmist cries, “My whole being clings to you!” (Psalm 63:8) There have been days when clinging is all I can muster, and that is enough.
I do not always have to pray. I can let my life pray for me. I can let the spirit intercede with groans deeper than language. If that is the only prayer that fits, that is the prayer I will pray.
I do not always need to reach toward God. God will reach toward me. I love how the poet Rainer Maria Rilke expresses this:
Because someone once desired You,
I know that we, too, may desire You.
Even if we renounce all depths:
when gold lies deep in the mountains,
and no one’s there to dig for it,
one day the river brings it to the surface,
reaching in stillness into the stones,
into their fullness.
Even when we don’t desire,
When I read that, I think of all those great teachers and seekers who have gone before into the darkness. When I am out of faith, I can lean on their faith. I can lean on their doubt. I can lean on their desire.
When I do not desire, I can allow myself just to be in that place, trusting that the movement of love is not dependent on me. The web of the world will carry me anyway. God will ripen anyway.
I’m sure there will be a day when I pray again. My heart will heal and re-open, and a new chapter of my spiritual life will begin. There will be prayer beads and poems and hymns sung again.
Until then, I cling. And I become prayer. And I desire (or not).
And I trust that the whole while, I am transforming and God is ripening.
It is a season of Holy Saturday, an in-between waiting. Something is happening in the quiet darkness of the tomb. I cannot see it or control it, but I know it is coming. I know that life is coming out of this death, even before I feel its first breath.
Cling. Become. Desire.
Enough for now.
when I’m sure that no one’s watching –
I write what I feel.
I can’t do it on the bus,
when someone next to me might surreptitiously cast
one eye in my direction,
or at the office,
when someone might sneak a glance at my desk
from across a carpeted, cubicled span of inches.
Really, it’s best not to use paper at all,
in case it slips out of my pocket
while I’m climbing a flight of stairs,
and heavenforbid someone recognizes my handwriting.
So I write it on my heart instead,
traced into the veins and ventricles inside me,
I recently read Richard Foster’s classic The Celebration of Discipline. If you’re not up for diving into all 12 disciplines, can I invite you to read just his chapter on worship?
Brace yourself: it’s convicting.
Or maybe that’s just me.
I’m on staff at a church, so Sunday mornings are one of the most hectic times of my work week. I’m often filling in for missing Sunday School teachers or throwing together puppet shows or craft activities at the last minute.
Truth be told, sometimes I’m hiding in the choir loft by the time worship rolls around. Or at least sneaking coffee hour snacks from the Fellowship Hall.
Foster reminded me that praise is a sacrifice that we offer to God, and the praise we offer together as a community is impacted by the state of our individual hearts when we walk into the church building.
We need to be practicing hearing God’s voice all week so we will be more open and ready to hearing it from the pews on Sunday mornings. Worship is to “permeate the daily fabric of our lives,” as Foster puts it. If we aren’t accustomed to inviting the divine into our own mundane moments, we won’t be ready for it in corporate worship either.
I’ve been carrying that conviction around inside me for the last few months, and I can tell you: it’s been changing the way I enter into worship on Sunday mornings.
I want to be ready to be changed, not only because I’m entering a sacred space of communal worship, but because I’ve been tending to my spirit throughout the week. I am grateful to those who worship with me that they, too, are bringing their vibrant spiritual selves to the sanctuary.
As Foster writes, worship “is not for the timid or comfortable. It involves an opening of ourselves to the dangerous life of the spirit.”
Thank goodness we’re on the adventure together.
How do you prepare your own heart for communal worship? Do you think Foster is right that worship is a risky business? Have you ever found yourself hiding in the choir loft?