For the “Down” Day

It’s very hard to avoid them completely. Sooner or later, it seems that we will all have days when our spirits are troubled by doubt or loss or confusion or a frightening suspicion that we might have been abandoned by the Spirit we must have to sustain us.

Christian Century (April 29, 2015, issue) published an article entitled, “Books for the Dark Night.” Eight persons who are active in the Christian community in one way or another were asked to identify and reflect on a book that helped them at a low point in their faith journey.

Several of these books are worth taking a look at. These are titles that would be useful to have available in any case, but especially for those times when you need a place to turn. Here are the books mentioned and briefly discussed:

The Sacrament of the Present Moment, in a translation by Kitty Muggeridge

Don Quixote, in a translation by Walter Starkie (This one surprised me!)

The Soul’s Sincere Desire, by Glenn Clark

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson

God Is More Present Than You Think, by Robert Ochs, SJ

Morality: Memory and Desire, by Luigi Giussani

Companions on the Inner Way, by Morton Kelsey

Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott

I will be reading a few of these and will likely report on them here in future posts.

           

Getting Pushed Around by Your Thoughts?

In his 2003 book Stillness Speaks, Eckhart Tolle offers the startling advice: “Here is a new spiritual practice for you: don’t take your thoughts too seriously.”

His point is that we get trapped in our concepts of what is going on, when really those concepts form only one of many perspectives of reality. Further, your thinking constitutes only a small portion of your overall consciousness, so it’s best not to assign too much weight to your thoughts.

Other authors too numerous to list urge us to take control of our thoughts because “we are what we think about.” This theme suggests that we must take our thoughts very seriously because they determine who we will be.

These are really not two diametrically opposed positions, though at first they appear to be. Instead, they work together quite well if we can approach them deliberately.

The first step is to compose in your thoughts the kind of person you want to be, then use your thoughts to intentionally cement that persona into your subconscious. Thoughts can also be used successfully to sort out decisions and plan actions. But left to itself, when those thinking activities are completed, the mind goes off in all sorts of tangents, forming judgments, criticizing what we ourselves or other people are doing, remembering and reliving nasty experiences best forgotten, etc. Clearly, these “left-to-itself” thoughts of the mind are the ones we must not take seriously, but, in fact, should replace as quickly as possible with the deliberate thoughts composing the persons we want to become.

           

Sometimes You Have to Start Over

With Dancing on the Whisper of God safely completed and available, I’ve been working on another novel for many months now. I am both loving it and feeling overwhelmed by it—a sure combination for keeping my interest. But just this week I came to a startling realization: The chapter I’ve been struggling with simply has to be scrapped and I have to start over. I suspect there are earlier chapters that are the same.

I admit to a twinge or two of regret, but sometime more important is there too: an excitement that maybe the revision I have in mind will be strong and solid enough to carry the project to completion.

We are all beset with issues of “historical cost”—that tendency to want to stay with something way past its expiration date on the argument that we have so much invested, we can’t possibly throw it over for something else. But there are times when that’s exactly what we have to do if we are to choose life.

I have decided to trust the excitement that tells me there is a better track over here.

           

Value of Loneliness

This morning I caught a few minutes of Jesse Duplantis, a television minister whose message is usually good and whose delivery is always lively. Though I did not hear his entire message, I was struck by this comment:

“Lonely times and wilderness times in your life—you’re going to have them—help you get clearer on your calling and your goals.”

Lonely times and wilderness times both refer to those times that come to all of us when we feel isolated, alone, and lost. We sometimes remain in those places so long that we begin to drift. It doesn’t take long before we conclude that there is very little worth working for; we give up on pushing toward our goals because they aren’t materializing anyway; we are left going in circles and getting nowhere, much like the Israelites who took forty years to make an eleven-day journey.

Duplantis is saying that those times are, instead, perfect opportunities for stopping to reflect on where we are going in life. The dissatisfaction inherent in those lonely, lost times provides the optimal environment for us to ask the important questions, such as: Where am I supposed to be headed? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Is this emptiness what God intended for me, or am I missing something really important here? What could my life be about if I only allow it to go in the direction I believe God has in mind for me, based on the talents I was given?

Asking these questions prayerfully and letting God provide the answers to us will not only reconnect us with our talents, goals, and calling, but also help us find our way out of the wilderness.

           

Search for Meaning

Yesterday I attended Seattle University’s Search for Meaning Book Festival, which has brought together readers and writers of spiritual books every February for a number of years. The event gives many authors a chance to sell and sign books, and readers have a chance to speak directly with writers about their work.

But what I value most are the workshops and keynote addresses. My favorite this year was a presentation by Timothy Radcliffe OP entitled “How Can Christians Touch the Imagination of Our Contemporaries?” The presentation was built around the French film Des hommes et des dieux (Of Men and of Gods), which recounts what happened to eight Trappist monks in Algeria when work at a monastery was interrupted by terrorists. Actual events that inspired the film occurred in 1996 at the monastery of Tibhirine.

The film, said Radcliffe, is an exploration of the beauty of our faith as these men “embark on a terrible adventure that may cost them their lives.” That they seem ordinary people, with similar fears, feelings, and opinions to our own, is one key to the appeal of the film and its ability to touch the imagination of people of our times.

Evoking a sacramental imagination is another key. Religious sacraments resonate widely throughout Western culture, even among unbelievers, so the monks’ Last Supper touched a chord for viewers. Another is the paradox that as the men became more Christ-like in the course of the film, they became at the same time more different from each other. Radcliffe’s point was that a Christian identity does not make us all the same but actually more differentiated as we each become the person we were intended by God to be.

The vision of nonviolence may have been another point of the film’s appeal. Radcliffe said, “It is beauty that ultimately overcomes evil.”

Having seen only the four short clips shown during the presentation, I am eager to get my hands on the film in its entirety and urge you to see it too.

           

Revised Cover for Dancing on the Whisper of God

I am thrilled with the revised cover my publisher, Trafford Publishing, has designed for my 2014 book, Dancing on the Whisper of God.

The reason for the revision was to add two items to the front cover. One is “The Gold Seal of Literary Excellence” put there by Trafford, and the other is an excerpt from a review by The US Review of Books. The latter reads: ” … this novel brings to light the positive transformational power of prayer. Gilbertson gracefully succeeds in her effort by presenting an engaging narrative, well-written dialogue, and emotionally revealing characters, all showcased against the backdrop of a classic art form …”

I was so pleased to read the full review, and even more that this portion of it is now on the front cover of the book!

           

Lesser-known Heroes

I continue my subscription to Christian Century because there is always something special in every issue—something that makes me pause and think or maybe causes me to be a little more grateful. A lot of my blog posts had their roots in something I read in the magazine.

“Faith Matters” is a column that I always take a look at, and in the January 7, 2015, issue the column was entitled “Lesser-known Heroes.” It was written by M. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological Seminary. His lofty title notwithstanding, Barnes was writing to recognize local pastors who not only do not usually have lofty titles, but are seldom celebrated. He reminds us that “there are many unpretentious, undistinguished pastors in the world who are quietly doing heroic things.”

And what is the main heroic thing these pastors do? Barnes tells us: these pastors go before their congregations, people often beaten up by the effort life can be, to remind them, “We have a Creator for our lives who is not done. We have a Redeemer for all of the tragedy we have created by acting as if we were gods. We have a Spirit who will not abandon us to the mess we’ve made of ourselves and the world.”

To be thus reminded has to be one of the highest reasons to attend local church services.

           

New Year—Reason to Reflect

We’ve just brought the New Year in, but this year I did not take part in any of the usual festivities. For example, we usually dance with the dogs at midnight, write in journals, watch fireworks, and otherwise take special note of the passing of one year into another. Not this year.

This year we were, instead, caught in the life-and-death reality of my partner’s illnesses.The crisis came on suddenly around five in the morning on December 31, continued all through the day, all through the night, and all through New Year’s Day to approximately eight in the evening, when she was finally again stabilized. In the night, I had been setting the alarm for every two and a half hours to get up to see how she was doing. (I should add that she adamantly refused to go to an ER.)

So where was the “everyday spirituality” practice here? It was in my continuous praying, of course. It was in my constant belief that the divine Spirit is always with us, seeing us through whatever trial we face. The health crisis was not my idea of how to welcome in a new year, but maybe it was ideal for causing us to stop and reflect on what it means to come into a new year.

           

Why Do You Pray?

The December issue of Christianity Today included a graphic entitled “Prayers of the People” that included 10 responses Protestants had given concerning their prayer life. The response with the highest percentage was “prayer for my own sin” – prayed for regularly by 51% of the respondents. Of course, you might have guessed that one, along with the 44% who pray for people in natural disasters.

But I found some surprises in the graphic. According to CT, 46% of people who pray actually pray for their enemies. Seems high but hopeful. Then, 20% pray to win the lottery, and that’s one number I would have thought might be higher, along with 11% for a favorite team to win a game, 9% to find a good parking spot, 7% to not get caught speeding, and 5% for someone’s relationship to end. Really?

I contrast this graphic with the introduction to a wonderful book entitled The Little Book of Prayers. The first sentence of the introduction asks this question: “How soon after humans stood upright and turned to the sky did they begin to pray?” Editor David Schiller poses the more commonly considered reasons to pray: to give thanks, to ask for answers, to receive, to give, for ask for help. Typical names for types of prayer include praise, petition, thanksgiving, and atonement.

Schiller offers another “universal quality” to prayer. I hadn’t thought that it was universal, but I hope it is. That is humility. He writes: “And in an age that could be characterized by its astonishing lack of humility, prayer offers a rare chance to put our inflated selves aside, and in the suddenly unburdened state that follows rediscover the things that really matter.”

Humility before God, regardless of the content of your prayer, seems like the surest way to build that crucial relationship.

           

Grace as a Second Wind

Anne Lamott, in her 2012 short book Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, offers this comment on grace: “But grace can be the experience of a second wind, when even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on.”

Grace is commonly defined as an undeserved gift from God. Lamott’s observation suggests that God, as the giver, always has a better idea than we do about what kind of grace we need. We may think we need clarity and resolution, but God gives us stamina and the strength to continue. We may think we need a different job than the horrid one we have now, but God gives us the patience and fortitude to manage to stay where we are a little longer and “bloom where we’re planted.” We may think we’d like a change in something fundamental about our partner, but, if we’re really fortunate, what we get is the grace to change something fundamental in ourselves.

Today, look at the second winds you’ve received in your life and take a moment for gratitude that God is in charge of grace and is a whole lot more astute than we are.

           

(Author photo by Mark Bennington.)