I saw a meme on Facebook the other day. It showed a map of the United States that tracked the outbreaks of Coronavirus in comparison to Sanctuary Cities. What was/is this meme trying to communicate? How does that message define one's understanding of God?
We speak about a God of love but often characterize God's actions by violence and judgment defined by our own bias. Due to our inner system of judgment, who is right and who is wrong, we categorize who to exclude. Those who we consider on the outside are rebuffed from God's care through our messaging.
I recently read a book, How God Changes Your Brain, which shared a Baylor study that found that 74% of Americans view God as authoritarian, distant, or critical. Only 23% saw God as benevolent.(1) In fact, 20% viewed God as aligned with a political party.(2) This analysis is a sad state of affairs and doesn't represent the God I have come to know through contemplative prayer.
Newberg continued to share through this study that research showed a person's view of God aligned with the way they understood and related to the world. For example, those who viewed God as authoritative (32%) also firmly believed that God punishes people. These same participants supported the death penalty.(3)
I believe this punitive understanding of God and the world correlates with our theology - the way we understand God, salvation, and why we are here. When we view God as violent and judgmental, casting those on the outside out, we can do so ourselves. When we look at the gospel accounts, the Jesus we read about doesn't cast out who the religious deem as outcasts. Jesus continually sees these outcasts and invites them back into community.
When we fight for black and white answers, we limit not only our own but others' experience of God as a God of love. We see this in the gospel accounts, and we see it today across our political and social landscape. But how do we move forward from here?
One of the gifts of Newberg's book is the description in his study on those who participated in spiritual contemplation. He tracked, through studying people with different doctrinal understandings, the changes in their brains as they followed their contemplative practices. They became more open to subtle experiences by strengthening the neural pathways that enhance social awareness and empathy. Also, he found that hard and destructive emotions were subdued.(4)
He continued to discover that those, Franciscan nuns, for example, who spent time contemplating God, became less self-focused and felt more of a union with God experience. This intimate experience opened them to greater compassion for themselves and others. They became more tolerant of those who were different from them, and this was validated as the researchers tracked the nuns' brain activity.
These findings are interesting and line up with what Paul tells us in 2nd Corinthians: to take our thoughts captive to the obedience of Christ. The problem with using this verse is defining what the "obedience of Christ" means. Often, Scriptural texts are understood within our own cultural bias and allow us to cast people out. We prove ourselves right in our preconceptions.
Some would say that this verse would be understood by what I rationally know, forcing myself to not think about harmful things and only thinking about "good" things. It comes down to behavior management. Others consider this text as an invitation to contemplative prayer, letting go of our thoughts, and being aware that we are in God's presence. Recognizing these two understandings show us the same thing - what we believe about God influences how we read Scripture. It can create an unbreakable cycle of condemnation.
Can we trust God to break into our judgmental understandings, this unbreakable cycle of condemnation? We can, and it usually comes through great suffering. It takes being in a place of disorientation to allow that process to begin. Currently, we are in that place globally. We are all experiencing it differently, but things are not how they once were.
Some people are blaming others and fighting for things to be normal again. We also see displays of kindness and collaboration taking root in our communities. Both are visible, sometimes in the same people, even ourselves. The breakdown happens when one side judges the other as being less godly or right. But what if the opposing sides worked together to form a solution instead of working against each other. Can we set down our entitlement or need to be right? Can we value and hear all sides?
According to Newberg's understanding, contemplation is a space that opens up that kind of space in us. So, how do we practice spiritual contemplation? One of my favorite ways is to walk in nature. I invite you to do so, given social distancing criteria, and spend time in Creation. I've written a previous blog on a practice, I have found helpful: http://www.boldlyloved.org/blog/among-the-trees
Then I will invite you along with myself to take notice, do my words and actions represent what I believe? Do my posts on social media speak about what I hold true? Or better yet, what do my postings, words, and actions say about what I hold true about God, myself, and others.
1 Andrew Newberg and Mark Waldman, How God Changes Your Brain: Breakthrough Findings From a Leading Neuroscientist, 1st ed, (New York: Ballantine Books, 2009) 109.
2 Ibid., 107.
4 Ibid., 3, 14.
It seems that stating we are in an unprecedented time is an understatement. How do we faithfully walk through a time like this? Do we visit stores and restaurants offering take-out to support local businesses? Do we wear face masks and visit people online instead of in-person? Coronavirus is changing the way we live life, and we have no way to know when it will get back to normal. Really, what is normal?
It seems that instead of doing things the normal way, living our life as we always have is changing. As we adapt, it makes doing the ordinary things that make up our life - relationships, going to the grocery store, working, education - take more time to consider how to do differently. It slows me down. I can’t live on autopilot. I can do less.
We are globally experiencing a disorientating time in which life is radically different from what we have known. Some would call it a liminal space, where things are different, and we do not know when we will get to the other side of this experience. I attended the Gathering Time with Dr. MaryKate Morse through the Companioning Center this last week. She shared an image of a bridge to illustrate the journey we are all undertaking. We have left what we knew, and we do not know how long it will take to get to the other side of this experience nor what it will look like when we get there.
She offered an opportunity to lament over what we have lost and to embrace the transitional journey of navigating the bridge. It is in this place of disorientation where transformation happens. We want to escape the uneven ground we feel underneath our feet. We do not like suffering nor seeing those we love experience suffering. This doesn’t feel normal.
For me, I sense the unsettled energy in the air. I’m less patient and less focused than usual. Part of this is the family concerns I am holding, and the other is the conversations I am hosting. When we listen to others in their disorientation, often, our own struggle resonates with theirs. We are all in this together, even as we experience it differently.
So how do we embrace the journey that feels so disorienting? The invitation given in the Gathering Time was to lament - what have I lost? I miss hugging my daughters and my grandchildren. I’m concerned for one son-in-law who is immune-compromised and the other who is on the front lines as a paramedic. I admire my daughters in mothering during this time because I know the weight of being with children 24/7 and can’t imagine homeschooling them too. I miss not being in physical connection with people even at the same moment being thankful I live in community. My college classes have gone online, so I will not be able to host in-person courses this summer, a gift I genuinely enjoy.
I don’t need to negate these unsettling emotions of sadness - as I recognize them, name them, and share them with others; the sorrow and grief transform. It transforms into something not as big or overpowering, and it transforms me as I hold them. The sadness and grief honor the relationships connected with each of these instances. These hard feelings aren’t something to escape or negate.
These are hard realities to hold. If I push the hard emotions away, I also push or numb out the positive ones. As I hold both, I am thankful for living in community and how my family is holding up in this current situation, and I can lament the suffering I see around me. Together both the positive and negative emotions are beautiful and create beauty. To listen in these places reminds me to recognize the gift of the ordinary.
From a place of holding both the positive and negative emotions, I can host my own self with compassion. Listening to my desires and needs that I am experiencing so I can notice and meet those needs. What I recognize is my need to connect so I can do so differently than before. I also discover that too many hours meeting with people virtually is tiring - so the invitation is allowing more space in-between and finding different ways of meeting.
The invitation, at least for me, is to be present in my experience while listening to my own process through the experience. When I can listen to my inner self, then I can have compassion not only for myself but for others, this is really living in community through the isolation. Community can be defined with me and myself, me and God, and me and those either physically around me or who are virtually present. Living intentionally in community allows me to be in the ordinary even though it isn’t very normal.
I wonder how you find the ordinary in the loss of the normal. Recently, we brought a new puppy into our household, and his invitation to me is to always play before work. I find that he helps me to remember to pause and just be in the present. May you also find a grounding space in the ordinary way of living that may be ordinary, even if it doesn’t feel normal.
You can hear Dr. MaryKate Morse's Gathering Time here.
In my mother’s kitchen pantry, there were always a few items we could go to when the refrigerator seemed a little vacant, or even if it was full when nothing there could really satisfy our particular hunger.
When you are feeling a spiritual or emotional hunger in a moment, what is your “go to” that is not merely distraction but truly lifts up your downcast soul? Is it music? physical exercise? a song? a passage of scripture? laughing with a friend? poetry? a novel? an old hymn? Go to your “pantry” and feast on the goodness you have stored away with God.
Spiritual practices can by grace lead to Holy Encounter. While complying with Stay-at-home orders, the following practices are offered to alleviate a sense of disconnection, ease the tension of uncertainty, and approach the Life that is lived from a Divine Center.[i]
Be attentive in this day to what you can do. While your usual ways of serving might be limited for now, let your acts of mercy be primarily in your home.
For one day, let humility guide you into courteous respect, solicitude, and tender love for others by fasting from the use of sarcasm, ridicule, teasing and having the last word.
Choose to practice loving Listening:
Everything is different now. Make a list of all the things you now miss that a month ago you took for granted, and offer your gratitude for them to God. Make a list of the people taken for granted, and offer your gratitude for them to God—then check in with them by email, phone or text. Or for those of us who remember how, send a thank you note by mail.
Early morning. Sit quietly and watch the light begin to brighten the sky. Notice it move through the trees. After a time, taking steady breaths, slowly rise and whether you’re inside or outside, walk directly into a patch of light. Inhale and feel the light on your face. Be still and know the unnamable One. Inhale and receive God’s peace. As you exhale whisper your gratitude to God.
Afternoon. Go for a walk. Feel yourself move in rhythm with your breathing. Allow your senses to focus on details—sunlight on a branch, the shimmering surface of a puddle, moss growing on a stone—and touch the things that have captured your attention. Allow yourself to feel wonder about them.
Evening. Sit quietly outside. Allow your breath and the air you are breathing to become one. Keep breathing slowly until you feel, with each breath, the spaciousness of God.
Think about the things that are used to define you.
While social-distancing is wisely the universal and global practice for the duration of this pandemic, I know I’m not alone. The invisible and always present Jesus, is still closer than my next breath.
For more information about spiritual practices and Jean - please visit:
[i] Kelly, Thomas. A Testament of Devotion. (San Francisco, Harper & Brothers, 1941), pg.3
[ii] Nepo, Mark. The Book of Awakening. Gift edition first published in 2011 by Conari Press,
an imprint of Red Wheel / Weiser, LLC, San Francisco, CA . Copyright © 2000 by Mark Nepo. Introduction to gift edition © 2011 by Mark Nepo
[iii] Willard, Dallas. The Divine Conspiracey, Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. (Harpercollins, NY. March 24, 1988), pg. 211
The sun rose this morning in a pale-yellow sky behind the faithful stand of trees at the edge of our lower field. Its rays reach in through the windows of my living room—and the windows of my soul—and bids me to awaken all the more to what still is beautiful.
The earth continues to turn. The stars hold their places in space, and the planets’ orbits are steady in their positions and paths. On this tiny patch of ground on which I live, buds have burst open on the trees, grass rolls out new green at my feet, and squirrels scurry, chattering and chasing each other.
In this mandated Pause, while all movement in travel, entertainment, work, business, education, even whole cities halt, I wonder if this is a divine invitation to humility. Certainly, as social distancing is more and more stringent, we human beings are exiled from our lives as usual. Worldwide poverty moves into my neighborhood. We are ordered by our governor to withdraw further into ever more solitary lives.
St. Isaac of Syria records that an elder was asked “How can someone acquire humility?” The elder offered some guidance and closed his remarks saying, “In sum: exile, poverty, and a solitary life, all of these give birth to humility and cleanse the heart.”[i] Exile. Poverty. Solitary life. Humility.
It is humbling for us humans who are accustomed to ruling over the earth and others, to be halted by a microbe. In contrast to the squirrels’ hurry and scurry—which has been our normal pace—we are now made to lie low, to be still, to acknowledge our finitude. I wonder, as we collectively acknowledge that we are NOT gods, if we can “be still and know” the ineffable and unnamable One.
The Corrymeela Community’s morning prayer includes their intention, “We make room for the unexpected; May we find wisdom and life in the unexpected.”[ii] While the unexpected disease has aggressively moved in, we are learning how frighteningly slow we’ve been to make room for it. What wisdom may we find; what life?
I am grateful for the witness of Nature, that she continues faithfully morning by morning proclaiming God’s handiwork. And for the witness of the Psalms and prayers that have carried other generations through plagues and pestilence. They do call to mind the ancient memory that God IS, and is not far off; that the Lord is my Shepherd and therefore I have all that I need. Even now.
And that consoles me. Yes, I am confronted by the equally true reality that my body is mortal and finite. I do not know the hour of my death, but that was true even before the outbreak of a global pandemic. From the Reality of God’s shepherding sufficiency and grace I will once again choose to live. How shall I orient myself in this hour for Life, to live this moment and every moment? I will myself to be attentive in this day to what I can do, to work and prayer, to ponder even as I reach toward hopefulness: “I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” Still, and again, amen.
Jean's next post will include spiritual practices to guide us in this time. For more information about spiritual practices and Jean - please visit:
[i] An excerpt from Daily Readings with St. Isaac of Syria, introduced and edited by A.M. Allchin ; translated by Sebastian Brock. (Springfield, Ill.:Templegate, 1989), pg. 70
[ii] Morning prayer from Daily Prayer with the Corrymeela Community by Padraig O’Tuama. (Canterbury Press, August 22, 2017), pg.
Through my doctoral program this semester, we are engaging with books from different starting points of understanding. We have read books on socioeconomic issues, race and ethnicity, and disability. Each of them has offered a different way of viewing what we regularly bump into every day. It has invited me to see and engage our world through another’s way of seeing and experience. I have found the journey truly eye-opening while offering a space to lament the systemic injustices hidden in plain view.
For example, I shared this quote by Rosemarie Freeney Harding in a meeting this week:
There is no scarcity. There is no shortage. No lack of love, of compassion, of joy in the world. There is enough. There is more than enough. Only fear and greed make us think otherwise. No one need starve. There is enough land and enough food. No one need die of thirst. There is enough water. No one need live without mercy. There is no end to grace. And we are all instruments of grace. The more we give it, the more we share it, the more we use it, and the more God makes. There is no scarcity of love. There is plenty. And always more.
Is this statement true for everyone? We trust it is true most of the time. We live in a place that represents abundance and not scarcity for the most part. Scripture states that we live an abundant life.
One of the comments that came up in our gathering was - well, what about those in ________? It is true; many places in the world do not experience a life defined as abundant, even here in the states. It feels like a false statement for those who are starving, oppressed, thirsty, or without a home.
So in some ways, this statement may be true for me but not for everyone.
Does your opinion about the falseness of this statement change when you hear that Rosemarie Freeney Harding was an African American civil rights activist, social worker, and healer? It was her spirituality that allowed her to experience this kind of freedom and generosity in her life.
The difficulty she experienced in embracing this kind of freedom becomes evident through watching movies such as Harriet and Just Mercy. I highly recommend both of them. They offer a glimpse into the way of life experienced by those impacted by the oppressive structures we have used to form our society.
One of the books I have engaged with this semester is The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby. I can’t recommend this book highly enough because Tisby walks through how the systemic structures have been formed throughout history. He clearly states that when we combine power with prejudice, we experience racism. Whenever we view someone as an object to own or control, we experience a hierarchy that is hurtful and incredibly damaging. Taking another's agency is one of the most harmful and degrading ways of relating to another.
And yet, we do this when we do not see the view or the experience of the other. Throughout history, I am heartbroken to see how this has occurred by people who have stated faith in God. For example, those who enslaved others may have tried to treat the enslaved well to appease the uncomfortableness they felt in their oppressive actions. It made them feel better about it, as if they were good caretakers. Yet, their dehumanization and commodification of human beings is still horrific. No amount of proper care makes slavery tolerable.
Tisby also shared how the White American church wanted to see a gradual change to set things right. This statement can only come from the majority group sitting in a place of power. The understanding of gradual change allows oppression to continue and devalues those being oppressed.
It wasn’t the intention and clearly showed that those speaking for gradual change didn't fully understand the implications of what they held true. Tisby states this as a "failure to recognize the daily indignity of American racism and the urgency the situation demanded.”
Yet, we only know what we know, and we can only learn through our own distorted biases. We have to see the lens we use to understand the world to be able to begin to clear the distortion.
Lecrae, in the introduction in The Color of Compromise, shares, "education should lead to informed action, and informed action should lead to liberation, justice, and repair." This place of healing and freedom is the gift of learning more. As we learn, may our actions include opening ways for others.
So what can we do? We can read and discuss together books like Tisby’s and learn more about those who are different from us in a variety of ways. We can listen to those who are both fearful and angry without judgment, to be able to understand their viewpoint. Essential to this a posture of cultural humility. We can embrace the idea that we do not have all the answers or the full picture. And with humility, we can then confront language, thoughts, and actions that are unhelpful, even within ourselves. We can engage in effective advocacy with a community that already does so. We can risk action, knowing we will make mistakes and learn through them.
As we walk this out, may we find healing because it is only in our healing that we can hold space for others.
If you engage with this book or know of others, I would love to hear your thoughts.
 Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering by Rosemarie Freeney Harding with Rachel Elizabeth Harding quoted in Plough, “Daily Dig for February 6,” February 6, 2020, https://us2.campaign-archive.com/?e=99b263795b&u=a6bd3334790eff8d8da4188b1&id=054a111466.
 Tisa Andrews, “Rosemarie Florence Freeney Harding (1930-2004),” BlackPast, February 18, 2004, https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/harding-rosemarie-florence-freeney-1930-2004/
 Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI: 2019), 16.
 Ibid., 137.
 Ibid., 10.
 Ibid., 214.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!