This last weekend I attended a training held at one of my favorite places, a local Trappist Abbey. The first morning, before it started, I took a walk by the ponds. The morning felt a little damp with a low fog, making everything a little mysterious.
As I walked between the two ponds, there was a large splash across the largest pond, and an animal of some sort was swimming straight towards me. I could not identify it and wondered if it was a dog with an owner close by. My eyes scanned the fields behind the creature, but I only saw another dog, possibly a coyote. I began to wonder what was going on - this felt very surreal. What was swimming directly towards me? What do I do? Should I be concerned?
I kept watching the creature, still unable to identify it except to recognize it was large with huge ears that stood straight up. The rest of its body was completely submerged in the water. It continued to swim directly toward me. As it came closer, I could tell it was a deer. I have never seen a deer swim before.
The doe stepped out of the water about 3 to 4 feet away from where I was standing. Her front right leg was severely wounded. It looked like it was broken and entirely out of place. It seemed swollen and painful. She pulled herself out of the water and stood on 3 legs while surveying the space around her noticing my close proximity.
Across the pond, I could now identify the coyote jumping around looking for a way to get to its intended next meal. It moved quickly and came around the same side of the pond where the deer and I stood. Further down the path it crouched, watching and waiting for what the deer would do next - would she run, would she come towards it, what would she do?
The doe’s little heart must have been beating with fear as she navigated what to do with this strange person close by, a coyote closing down on her, and the Abbey presenting a place of safety ahead. Her brown eyes connected with mine and my heart was filled with compassion for her predicament. I could tell her leg wasn’t something that would heal on its own, it needed to be reset to be functional again. All I could say as she slowly walked by was, “I’m sorry baby, I’m so sorry.”
As the deer slowly walked in front of me and past my right side, the coyote watched from its crouched and ready position. I stepped between the two out of instinct. This obvious, expected process of the natural circle of life would not happen on my watch. The doe walked up towards the safety of the Abbey and the coyote, recognizing its defeat, turned and walked away. My heart was drawn to compassion for this beautiful coyote losing its prey.
As I have reflected on this surreal experience and my training at the Abbey this last weekend, I began to see a parallel in what I saw and what I experienced. In one session, my own story was triggered by something someone else had brought. I was able to do what I needed to do in my role, but my heart felt a harshness in the experience, a lack of compassion for myself. Sometimes we need to do what is before us and take care of how it makes us feel at another time. Yet, being careful to notice the pain that can get triggered is not only essential to notice but also essential to hold with compassion, grace, and love. We can actually do both at the same time. Being present and having compassion are not opposites and do not preclude one another.
The woundedness of the deer, her deep pain, fear, without any hope of the situation changing reminds me of the pain I felt being triggered during the session. The pain and the triggered experience doesn’t define me, as the wounded leg doesn’t define the doe, yet it is an invitation for compassion. We are invited to recognize, acknowledge the painful parts inside of us with an intention to return in a safe spaciousness, to hold the pain with compassion, grace, and love.
How do we do that? Well, for starters, we do it very imperfectly. We can recognize and become more tolerant of the tension we experience in discovering a place of pain, either in us or in those around us. I tend to try to fix whatever I discover inside myself. But what if it can’t be remedied so quickly? What if the gift of embracing the pain is the invitation? Instead of fixing or covering over what we discover we allow it to do the work in us. If the journey of spiritual formation, this growing in our understanding of our own belovedness, is about letting go, then we let go of the escape or numbing practices we may have and hold ourselves and those around us with compassion, being present to what we discover.
Doing so doesn’t make us stuck in a victim mode either. Being a victim or a martyr isn’t a place of compassion. True compassion doesn’t rescue or fix anyone, but it is about walking alongside while feeling with the other, even ourselves. It is treating one another and ourselves with kindness. When we try to reduce or fix an issue, it is usually about us being uncomfortable with the tension. Can we hold the tension of not being able to fix it? I didn’t fix the issue for the deer but only gave it space to live another day.
Sometimes, there are things we can do to fix the systemic issues that cause places of pain. Stepping in the middle of this natural cycle of life delayed it for another day. Both coyotes and deer deserve to live, and the natural circle of life isn’t something to fix. Yet, there are many kinds of systemic injustices in our culture that do invite us to step in the way of what seems like a natural consequence.
I believe holding pain with compassion is the ground of being able to step into places to fix systemic issues without making enemies of the other side, those who disagree with us. The coyote wasn’t doing anything but being a coyote, the way it was created to live. The coyote deserves our compassion too. The question I have been considering is who in my, your, world is an invitation for compassion today?
So much demands our attention! So many things clamor for what we have, what we can give, and who we are. The world we live in expects status, power, things to fill us. The more we strive after what we desire, the less we feel at peace. Our hunger for whatever we perceive will fill our desires never seems satiated. When is enough, truly enough?
Often there is nothing wrong with what we want in or out of life. I mean it is one thing to seek after power to use it over people but for the most part that isn’t what drives us. Maybe we are fighting for someone else or even just to make ends meet. When our desires tend to be the focus of the issue, we deny them, feeling satisfied in that solution.
I read this verse in worship the other day.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27 NIV)
In this passage, Jesus is speaking to his disciples about leaving them and the Father sending the Advocate, the Holy Spirit. I can imagine their confusion and fear hearing the message that their teacher, this rabbi who was going to save them from Roman oppression, was leaving them. But Jesus promised peace, perfect peace.
How do we live out this promised peace given all there is to do? My own schedule seems busier and busier as things continue to grow. Working is easy for me to do. Many times, I walk by my computer to only get sucked into something that needs to be done.
Jesus promised something different. Jesus promised to provide all that we need (remember the birds) and peace. As I was reflecting on this verse, I noticed that Jesus stated he did not give as the world gives. When I chase after what I think I need, it never satisfies. It is never enough. When I stop chasing, I can become content with what I have and where I am.
So, how do I stop chasing when my own ability to pay my bills rests on my working? Do I really believe the promises of Jesus? I think this goes deeper than my ability to believe. I used to think that I needed to believe hard enough like Jesus was a magician to give me what I thought I needed. But we can look around, and see that just isn’t a lived experience of many who are suffering, starving, wounded by the world in one way or another.
It isn’t like the work I do is a bad thing - it is good, very good. Often it feels like play which is undoubtedly connected to how easy it is to get sucked in by my computer when I walk by. The work is good and meaningful. And yet, God invites us to rest.
For me, the invitation is taking a Sabbath each week. It is closing my laptop and walking away while following the leaning of my heart for the agenda of the day. It can be a walk at the Abbey, in the midst of trees and the sound of running water, a chat with a friend, or a much-needed nap. The flow of the day can be whatever leads me as I rest in the day with the Creator of my soul. The One who created me to work, rest, and play.
If Jesus gives us peace, perfect peace, then our invitation is to rest in that peace without the striving, achieving, and getting it right that comes so naturally for us, for me. But to rest requires intentionality on my part. I have to know what I truly desire in my life. Getting to the guiding values of my life has been a place of knowing myself and seeing the gaze of God upon me as unconditional love, not something to be earned.
I can only live in my values and my work of hosting space for others if I lean into the rest I am offered. My intentionality started with a Rhythm of Life - a structure that is framed around what I truly desire in life. Walking through understanding and forming my own Rhythm of Life was part of my journey through seminary. Examining its usefulness and making adjustments has been a continuing of that same journey of discovery of both myself and God in the midst of my life.
Trusting Jesus’ invitation to peace, which is only possible in the space of rest in my life, hasn’t been about believing through rational thought that it was true but in resting in the trueness of it being a reality. In it, I have discerned my own guiding values - Choosing Love, Being Real, Living Simply, Embracing Family, and Valuing Life. When I can hold each of my invitations for work, life, and play through this matrix of values, I am able to discern the way forward. Can I live an authentic life according to the values I have come to realize are the core of the way I want to live? Not a forcing of believing but a living and walking out of reality. It comes not from my rational thought but from a lived groundedness deep within. This informs our discerning of the value of enoughness.
Lynn Holt and I are starting a course on March 18th which will be a space to walk through this process within a safe community. The course will be online with virtual zoom sessions to share the wisdom of the gathered community as we process what our own invitations are. If you would like to join us, please check it out on our website.
This last week has been a difficult one for my family. My daughter with her family live, or lived, in Paradise, California. The massive devastation through the CampFire has been beyond difficult for the community of Paradise. Many people have lost homes, schools, and their town. And others did not make it out alive. How do we manage such places of loss?
My daughter called me early the morning of the fire, to tell me she and her family were okay but that they were being evacuated. She had actually started leaving her house just before the mandatory evacuation. I am so thankful for her decisive action and their safety. One of the things she remembered about leaving their home was that the trees around her house were crackling. The fire wasn’t there yet, but the trees on her property were making crackling sounds.
I don’t know a whole lot about forests. Once when I was researching, I discovered that trees in a forest or grove are actually connected underground through their root system. What one tree lacks due to pests, drought, or disease, other trees send through their roots.
I wondered, was this crackling due to the heat and the approaching fire or was it the community of trees sending on the message to those further ahead? Could this be a warning to whoever or whatever was ahead of the fire?
This image - born in time of devastation - offers a beautiful illustration of community. Together, we live this life in healthier ways than if we are isolated. When we can walk alongside others within community, we can learn to share our needs and meet the needs shared.
This is what I noticed for my daughter and her family in California and for myself as I was holding my family from so far away. My daughter and son-in-law are surrounded by a community that is supporting them as they navigate life after such great loss - as they find a place to live, replace toys for the kids, and clothes for each of them, even a space for their dog. So many needs as they have lost everything.
I also see community and support being offered to them from afar. People, family and friends, who have known us throughout their lifetime, are providing support and love. I can say this speaks volumes to my momma’s heart as I watch their sadness and courage in the face of such a devastating loss.
I’ve been surprised at the impact on my own heart in watching my kids suffer. I live 500 miles away and am not able to rush down and give them a hug. Even if I could, I would not be able to make the pain and loss go away. But my heart hurts to watch them. So much so that I am unable to think about much else. I find I am paying attention to the news and the progress of the fire. I even checked to see what view was available through Google Earth. (Just so you know: it is only updated every one to three years.)
The intentional community I live in has been a place where I am welcomed just as I am. These relationships allow me to understand the intensity of my own emotions, to be honest with permission to allow the pain of holding the hurt of my family.
I wonder if this is living in community - our empathy with the others in our lives, feeling with or even in the emotions of others. When the people around us are suffer, we get to hold that burden together, and that makes it a bit lighter for all. Maybe it is in the sharing of the weight of the load that allows us to benefit from sharing the weight of the pain and also the gift of the joy together. Maybe this is the way we are designed to live, sharing the struggles and joys of life in community together instead of in isolation in this individualistic culture in which we live. This seems to be more like the trees with the root systems connected under the topsoil.
I’m thankful for the community that is surrounding my family. I’m grateful for the community that is surrounding me. I’m also grateful to be part of a community of family and friends that allows us to experience each other's grief, happiness, sadness, and joy. In community, the load is lightened and more beautiful. It comes from how we understand God - if God is about relationship, being with us, then it seems that living life in community, one with another, there is both the experience and the reality of a God who is always with us.
What if this is how we experience the goodness of God? We experience this goodness within relationship, within love, within a community of people where we can both see and be seen, to know and be known, to love and be loved.
In a few of my previous blog posts, I wrote about current events through Brueggeman’s framework of the Psalms: Orientation, Disorientation, New Orientation. The first stage is a place of contentment with the status quo with an understanding that it will go on forevermore. Kind of like happily ever after…
The second stage is a place of lament, shifting sand, a dissonance that can shake us to our core. This is uncomfortable and not easy. It seems safer to protect ourselves from the difficulties of facing our emotions or the loss in our lives.
The last stage is a new orientation. This is a space of a bigger view of God. If we follow the invitation toward God through the dissonance involved in the state of Disorientation, we come to a new awareness of God. Often, it seems like a hard-won gift of freedom.
You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever.
We can see this movement through many Psalms. This last state is a place of praise for being met in the difficult spaces of life. However, once in this space of praise, this new awareness begins to feel like an old orientation, once again. For example, in Psalm 147 the praises begin to be more generally stated. This is when new awarenesses become another theological box that holds our expected happily ever after…
So what do we notice on this journey? I believe the invitation is to be aware and to take notice of what it is that flows through our days. To hold, without judgment, what we notice and what we feel about whatever we notice. This means to hold whatever we sense without assigning value - be it good or bad. What we sense, what we feel, what we notice, just is.
This doesn’t mean taking a passive stance to whatever we notice. Noticing isn’t passive. To refrain from judging what we notice, doesn’t feel natural. What it seems to take, is a decision to be gentle with ourselves.
Our tendency, at least mine, has been to fix what I discover in my own heart, what I notice. This comes from a place of deciding that whatever I find has to be fixed because I am not “enough” as I am. This is a place of shame - the definition of shame is to be “not enough.”
Let me explain - I love to play in the ceramics lab. The feeling of clay beneath my fingers is a place where I am invited to join the Creator in creating. For me, it is a healing and worshipful experience, more so than just about anything else. Through my time in the lab, I have made bowls for my grandchildren with their names on them and a heart traced on the bottom of the inside. My hope is that the heart will represent my love for them as they finish whatever is in their bowl.
My five-year-old granddaughter called me up the other day to let me know that her bowl was broken. She was crushed and I could tell she was afraid to tell me. It was something I had created for her with great love and it was ruined. Maybe I would be mad. Maybe I would shame her. Through many tears and with the encouragement of her mom, she told me what had happened.
Now, as a loving grandma, what would I do with this newly acquired information? For me the answer was simple. Mema, my grandmother name, would, of course make a new one. I couldn’t promise it by her birthday, but absolutely by Christmas!
What did my sweet granddaughter learn from this experience? Hopefully, she learned that Mema was safe and loved her, regardless. That I was for her, regardless of anything. I hope she grew to understand that she could share anything and not be rejected. To do this, she had to be vulnerable and share her truth. Her bowl was broken and she really wanted another one.
My granddaughter had to trust me enough. Maybe she had to trust her mom’s trust in me enough to tell me. She will be rewarded for that trust in just a little over a month. But it required trust.
That is the invitation. When we take what we notice to God, we trust God to meet us in our noticing without condemnation. This is a bigger view of God that allows us to believe that God is for us, regardless. This vulnerability with God allows God to heal our wounds based on the lies, fears, and doubts we hold as truth. Our tendency, at least mine, has been to hide in my shame and not trust. To judge what I notice and keep it hidden. This creates a barrier between God and me.
For me, noticing takes quiet and space. I have to learn the difference internally of when I am resistant or receptive toward God and others. When I notice that I am resistant, my practice has become to take what I notice to God to see God’s view. The gift has been to experience a God that is gentle and for me, regardless. When I experience a God that is harsh and judgmental, I’ve learned to understand that god is usually of my own making. The invitation is to let go of my barriers and trust God to be outside of my own expectations and judgments. This is a little like my granddaughter and her broken bowl. God is certainly for us!
Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.
We are hearing about so much devastation in our world through natural disasters and wildfires. We need rain in parts of our country and need less in others. The content of our prayers differs depending on our perspective.
Unfortunately, we hear many things to blame for these circumstances. I’ve heard it blamed on our morality, who our president is, our inability to love one another, and natural consequences for how we have treated our environment. In the midst of the blaming, we see division and judgment.
I’ve been doing reading for a class I am teaching on Psalms and another I am taking on Church History. Both of these topics have given me something to think about as I notice loss in our world and in my own life.
Brueggemann defines the flow of the Psalms starting with orientation, moving to disorientation, and ending in a new orientation, only to start the cycle again. This flow reminds me of our journey through spiritual formation. In my last blog, I spoke about disorientation or lament. This time I would like to start with the first stage.
Orientation is a mindset where we are content with the way things are, the status quo. Brueggemann actually states that our dominant culture is resistant to change, both from loss and surprise.
Amazing, we are as unwelcoming of change from surprise as we are from loss. We prefer the way things are. We are full of gratitude as we think this place of contentment will continue on forever. The thing is, it never does.
Often, we are unaware that our place of goodness is often at the expense of another. During the Babylonian exile, Israel wrote psalms of despair while Babylon was content to have slave labor. We see it in our own country as we debate about white privilege and racism. We see it in the way we define the reason behind natural disasters. In the midst of seeing our own lives of goodness, we are completely blind of another’s struggle or pain.
Sometimes, from this place of blindness, we define “right” and “wrong” and ultimately how we expect God to act based on our own circumstances. Often, we are unaware of how our own place in society shapes our lens. Our definition of a life of faith and our understanding of God is shaped by our culture, what we have learned, and our circumstances.
How does God meet us in this predicament where one person’s gratitude bumps up against another’s cry for mercy. What do we do with this tension of seemingly opposing understandings? It is difficult to hold this tension and sometimes we respond out of fear and with judgment. This place can lead to viewing others as enemies.
We may think that God needs to fix others without really looking at ourselves. It makes me wonder…what if God is actually for all of us without division or favoritism? How does this make sense in our lived-out understanding of God?
This brings me to my reading in Church History. As the early church tried to figure out the way forward, they weren’t defined by land or temple as other religions in that time. The surrounding communities wondered about this New Way due to the courage shown in facing martyrdom and the willingness to care for those impacted by a plague that made others turn away. They lived out generous hospitality.
Jesus taught that Christians would be known by their love and these early Christians lived out that call. In fact, they defined morality not by what was “right” or “wrong” but by generous hospitality, loving and hosting space for everyone, regardless.
It makes me wonder about us, about me. What does generous hospitality look like? I think we have seen it in Houston and even locally during the fire in the Gorge. Firefighters risked their lives to protect precious areas in Oregon. First responders and neighbors risked their lives in rescuing others in Texas. I think we live it out when we walk alongside others in their loss and grief without judging them for being in the midst of such sadness. Maybe it is loving those around us, regardless, recognizing God is in them as well as in ourselves.
So how does God meet us in this tension? What if God grieved with us in our places of deep loss and celebrated in our places of safety and gratitude? What if God was big enough to be in the midst of our circumstances, regardless?
What if we allowed God to show us how our own places of orientation impact another? What if our hearts grieved with God for those who suffer injustice or are oppressed in our system?
It seems that becoming aware is one of the first steps toward changing our system. But first, let us grieve together and allow that journey through grief to be a place to join God in God’s work of generous hospitality. Maybe, this is the real work of living out the incarnational life Jesus invites us to experience.
Brueggemann, Walter. The Message of the Psalms: A Theological Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1984.
Irvin, Dale T., and Scott W. Sunquist. History of the World Christian Movement: Earliest Christianity to 1453. Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 2001.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!