Tag Archives: Images of God

The God who is already here

Neighborhood Cat

Why do we rush about looking for God
who is here, at home with us,
if all we want to do is be with God?
(Augustine, On the Trinity VIII)

“Ah, you again…”

I’ve always had a favorite neighborhood cat, everywhere I’ve lived. In central Berkeley, it was this tiny, round, soft-furred little delight with the sweetest little ears. Her name, according to her collar, was Donut. In my current neighborhood, my favorite cat is Matches, whose coat is the perfect mixture of tawny, brown, and white, and whose friendly demeanor charms me every time I encounter him.

I never know exactly which house the neighborhood cat lives in, or who owns it. I just know that, again and again, often when I’ve forgotten to expect it, I run into this familiar feature of my street.

The most staying spiritual lessons of my faith journey are often like those neighborhood cats. They’re special to me, and I like them, and they seem to have this nagging ability to keep showing up. I can’t say I completely understand where they come from, but I’m well acquainted with their repeat appearances: “Ah, you again…”

Don’t look for it outside yourself

Lately, I have been running into this particular cat quite frequently: God is already present with me, closer than my own breath.

I encounter this lesson when I sit in silence at the end of the day and notice a gnawing feeling of separation from God. My soul can get hurried — “Where are you?! Where are you?!” — and then I remember that God’s presence is immovable: it is only my perception of it that waxes and wanes.

I encounter this lesson when I am surprised by the beauty of creation and realize I have somehow forgotten that “every common bush is afire with God,” that every moment is ripe with invitations to come home.

I encounter this lesson when I listen to others speak about their faith journeys: it is a gift to sit on the outside and see the weaving threads of divinity moving in and out of another’s life, even when they’re not able to see it themselves.

The mystic poet Rumi writes:

Wait for the illuminating openness,
as though your chest were filling with Light,
as when God said, Did we not expand you?
Don’t look for it outside yourself…
Beg for that love expansion. Meditate only on that.
(from “A Basket of Fresh Bread”)

Don’t look for the illuminating openness outside yourself. Don’t rush heedlessly through life looking for the God who is already here.

For me, for now, this cat just won’t stop following me home. And thank goodness for that.

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3 Lenten Lessons

The Final Stretch

Wow, Lent is long, isn’t it?

At the beginning, when we talk about 40 days  — less than 6 weeks! — it sounds so simple and doable, like the kind of thing I can mark off in my planner. Easier than a New Year’s resolution, right?

I come up with some theme or scripture passage or spiritual practice, and I’m set… And then it takes about four days to forget what I’m doing and lose focus. Every year.

By the time we get here, to the final stretch before Holy Week, it feels like mile 25 of a marathon, like I’m just crawling to Easter. The book that I was supposed to be using for daily devotionals is mocking me from my nightstand, my meditation practice has gotten lost in the hectic reality that is church work in the spring, and I’m just ready for that tomb to be empty already!

But Lent is really just a season to intentionally notice and invite whatever is emerging in our souls. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy.

So, as Lent draws to a close, as we enter the final stretch, I thought I’d share three Lenten lessons that are emerging in me.

1. “My image of God creates me”

This is a phrase I’ve learned from Richard Rohr. It has been sticking with me, like a mantra, and reminding me to consider not only what kinds of God images I carry within my heart, but what they mean about me. Our understanding of God and our understanding of humanity are intertwined. As Father Rohr writes:

The miracle of grace and true prayer is that they invade the unconscious mind and heart (where our real truth lies) — and thus really change us! They invade them so much that the love of God and the love of self invariably proceed forward together. On the practical level, they are experienced as the same thing! (From Yes, And, 8)

I think there is something sacred and critical about developing self-compassion, and that process is not divorced from our spiritual work. Loving humanity, that includes ourselves, is part of learning to love God.

2. Listen to the ocean of silence

This one’s really simple: meditation is important.

Lest you think that I’ve learned this during Lent by having some superhero meditation practice, it’s more accurate to say I’m learning this by omission. Lent ushers in a busy season in the ministry world, and I have noticed my quiet time steadily diminishing as Easter approaches. In the absence of a steady meditation practice, I have noticed myself to be more tense, more frantic, more busy.

As Rumi writes:

Inside me a hundred beings
are putting their fingers to their lips and saying
“That’s enough for now. Shhhh.” Silence
is an ocean. Speech is a river.
When the ocean is searching for you, don’t walk
to the language-river. Listen to the ocean,
and bring your talky business
to an end.
(from “Send the Chaperones Away”)

Not a particularly radical or comforting spiritual lesson, but a clear and timely one.

3. Creation precedes Consumption

An artist friend of mine recently told me how much easier it is to teach art to children than to adults. Adults are more self-critical, more resistant to try new things, and more prone to copy whatever teaching example you show them. Young children, in her words, say “Just give me the paint brush!!” They’re ready to dive in and try and are less concerned with what counts as “good” art to an outside observer.

Somewhere along the way, it seems, we are learning and integrating that habit of self-consciously stifling our creativity.

I think that extends to the spiritual realm as well. I am often asked to pray in group settings because I’m considered the “expert,” despite my insistence that prayer is casual, open, and accessible. People, even very smart or religious people, frequently tell me that they’re not theologians, so their ideas about God and faith don’t count as much.

I find these kind of reactions a little bit baffling and a large bit disheartening, and I try to encourage people to embrace their natural spiritual creativity. I wrote recently about cultivating a creative faith — through the theology we teach, the rituals we practice, and the community we build. In my own life, I try to do this in lots of little ways: trying different prayer practices, sitting still in the sunshine, journaling, or playing late-night hymns on my piano.

I also try to practice creating before consuming the creation of others. We all carry our own inspiration within us. I try to make my own music, write my own poetry, or paint my own watercolor before I look to others’ work — not because others don’t inspire me but because I think it’s an important practice to connect to my own vision without the temptation of comparison.

Just give me the paintbrush already!

–  –  –

So as we move into Holy Week, feel free to share some of the lessons this Lent has sown in your life. What are you learning and noticing?

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Speaking into spiritual darkness

“[The dark night of the soul] is a time of special vulnerability,
not only the kind that makes you feel weak,
but also the kind that opens you to signals in the world around you…
You may think that the time spent in a dark night is a waste.
You accomplish nothing… [but] you need to see
the waste of your life as having a place in the nature of things.”
Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul,

Talking about spiritual suffering

It’s been difficult to write about spirituality over the last year. Mostly that’s because I haven’t been feeling very spiritual, and that can be difficult to admit — especially as someone who makes my living as a religious leader.

Our spiritual lives are intimate parts of our selves, parts that are often difficult to express in words. Working in ministry, I continue to be amazed at the depth and unique complexity of the spiritual lives of every person I encounter.

So, why is it so hard to say when we’re suffering spiritually?

A missing conversation

One of the main challenges I’ve encountered in my own effort to be authentic and transparent is that we just don’t talk about spiritual sorrow very much in the church.

Sometimes it seems to fall into that category of off-limit topics in the church — like divorce, addiction, financial accountability, or racism. You don’t hear very many pastors preaching about their own “dark nights of the soul,” seasons of spiritual darkness and separation from God. Even grief can become a topic that we push to the more private corners of our worship and congregational lives.

Perhaps it’s that we’re not sure how to measure our own spiritual well-being. Or perhaps it’s something too personal to share. Still, I’ve found myself longing for more openness and conversation within my religious community about the struggle to connect with God.

And I don’t think I’m alone. Often people in conversation with me — many of them also ministers or seminarians — will quietly admit that, secretly, they don’t have any kind of prayer life to speak of, or that they don’t actually get very much out of worship.

I wonder what resonance and edification might be possible if we brought those kinds of conversations into the open.

Re-framing spiritual language

One of the most profound insights I’ve had during my own journey with spiritual atrophy is that a deadened, grieving, or strained spiritual life is still a spiritual life.

We are not spiritual beings only when we are spiritually flourishing: we are always spiritual beings, no matter what our spiritual state.

One of the most helpful exercises for me has been identifying new images for God as my personal faith shifts and moves into new landscapes. Scripture, hymns, and poetry are filled with descriptions of a God that feels distant, or even entirely absent. Sometimes, we relate more to the God who forsakes us than we do to the God who shelters us under wings.

I think it is important to make sure we include these kind of dark or difficult images, names, and descriptions of God in our worship so that people who find themselves in a period of spiritual dryness may know that they are not alone in their struggle and that they may perhaps find new language for what they are experiencing. Otherwise we may unintentionally give the impression that the only God the church knows is the God of spiritual vitality and connection.

And how good it is that God is bigger than that. How good it is that, as Rilke writes, “even when we do not desire it, God is ripening.”

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