Introductory comment: Last week I told you a bit about my friend Anne and her new book, and the question it got me thinking about which was “How do I make room for God?” And I promised to share with you a list of ways I’ve learned to do just that. So, as promised (except later than I promised) today’s post is in response to that question. I hope and pray this helps you realize ways that you already make room for God, and gives you ideas for more. Feel free to leave a comment about your own ways of “making room for God,” because the possibilities are truly endless here. I’d love to hear from you!
Before I begin sharing my list, I think it’s important that I tell you how life was for me before I “discovered” the mystic way of viewing the world. I’m not sure I can properly express to you just how narrow and shallow my understanding of “having a relationship with God” was back then. You see, I thought I was supposed to pray (ask God for stuff and thank Him for stuff) and He was supposed to answer (if He wanted to), but most of the time He was going to just exist (in silence). And every earthly thing that I did “wrong” would count against my “being saved” (whatever that meant…a life in Heaven?…wherever that was). And every earthly and prayerful thing I did “right” would be a little check mark in my favor on God’s Giant Scorecard . And that was pretty much how I thought it was supposed to go with me kind of patting myself on the back when I’d done “good” and berating myself for the times (that were plentiful) that I’d done “bad” But it wasn’t very inspiring or motivating– spending all that time talking to God and asking for things that I wanted RIGHT NOW, and seemingly getting nothing in reply. So, those experiences turned what was supposed to be a relationship with God into words-I’d-say-to-a-Silent-Existence-in-moments-of-extreme-desperation-or-panic.
Which really isn’t much of a relationship, you see.
But like I said, that was before.
Now, my understanding is much different. And I hope that if you are struggling with any of the experiences I mentioned above, you will be able to find something in this list that opens new possibilities for your relationship with God, too, and all the ways I’ve learned to make room.
- Devotion – When we hear this word in terms of spirituality we often think of it as worship. I’m asking you to think of it another way. Think of devotion as dedication. Any relationship, in order to be successful, takes dedication on the parts of both parties. Since we *know* that God is already devoted to us, we need to think about making room to make some commitments ourselves. One of those commitments should be in the form of community prayer. To Christians, that may sound a lot like going to church. Good. That’s a great idea! Take the time to go. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t been to church for years. Mark it on the calendar and commit to going. If you want a relationship, you’ve got to spend some time at it. In addition, I’d heard for years that the only way to know what God is saying to me as a Christian, was to read the Bible. And since I was an English major that pretty much survived on making up a lot of b.s. about the things I’d read (or I’d read parts of) in college to get me by, I was pretty sure I could work with God the same way. Read a giant, seemingly boring book? No thanks. I’m sure there must be a shortcut here somewhere…. But if there is, I still haven’t found it. Instead what I’ve found is that more than anything else what I was lacking was a clear understanding of how to read the Bible in a way so I could understand God’s Word for myself. (And I still haven’t read it all). But I have read a lot of it, and I pick my way through it bit by bit. If you’ve still never really cracked the spine of a Bible (or downloaded one), I suggest you start by finding a version that you like. (FYI, there are lots of different versions of the Bible available, and in general there are more books in the “Catholic” versions than in some “Protestant” versions. Don’t let this stop you. If you’re worried about this, find a book that explains the differences in the versions of the Bible at your local library. Do that research first to make you more comfortable, and then pick a version and read it!) Contrary to what someone else may tell you, I don’t believe that one version of the Bible is better than another. How can God’s Word be better than God’s Word? As the deacon at my last parish liked to say, “The best version of the Bible…is whatever one you’ll read.”
- Discipline – If you’re anything like me, you can get real excited about starting something new. I can devote myself to eating healthy right up until I see the cookie jar. Then I forget all about eating healthy and I think about how good sugar sounds right about now. And usually sugar wins. So I know that making room for discipline doesn’t exactly sound like a fun start to a loving relationship, either, but hear me out. There is a reason the followers of Jesus were called “disciples”. They made a commitment. They disciplined themselves to following Jesus even though most of the time life was probably pretty mundane. From what I can tell they spent a lot of time on the road walking from town to town with no money or food for the journey, and no loyalty card at the Hampton Inn. That takes a tremendous amount of discipline that I’m fairly certain I don’t have. And thankfully God isn’t asking me (or probably you either) to make that kind of sacrifice. Instead, we simply need to make a committment to form good habits about church going and Bible reading and then do our best to stick to them. Once you begin to go to church more regularly, you’ll usually begin to see that it really doesn’t take as much from the rest of your week(end) as you thought it would. And as for Bible reading, I personally have found that a Bible that contains a daily devotional or meditation of some kind really helps to keep me going, because after struggling with God’s Word, I can relax a little and let someone else share their thoughts on it from a 21st Century perspective. This has helped me tremendously, as have Bible study classes. Feel free to experiment with what feels most natural to you, but try it for a while and if you don’t like the devotionals or reflections that accompany your Bible readings, by all means don’t quit! Try, try again. There are plenty more writers out there willing to share their thoughts on this…just discipline yourself to keep looking until you’ve found one you like.
- Contemplation (or Mindfulness) – I will confess that this and all remaining points on this list are my favorite ways of making room for God in my life. I hope you’ll see why, because these practices are what took my relationship with God from sporadic dating to a full-blown love affair. Contemplation is one of those things (like meditation) that sounds so big and intimidating that we’re often afraid to try it, but once we get the hang of it we wonder how we ever lived without it. Or we realize that we’d been doing it all along. I explain contemplation with God like this: it’s looking for him in the simplest of things. For instance, you may remember from my post a week or so ago how I pondered the depths of my “dishwater soul”. That was contemplation (also called mindfulness). This is what I usually try to practice throughout the day after I’ve opened myself to a little dip in God’s Word. It’s as simple as folding laundry and thinking about how God has “ironed out” many a wrinkle in my life, or as easy as going to the mailbox and thinking about how waiting for God to answer my prayers can sometimes feel like I’ve spent weeks on end opening empty mailboxes… only to turn around one day and discover that the package I’d been looking for had been waiting on the front porch the whole time! And sometimes the words and verses I read in the Bible that morning will come back to me during the day, especially if I loved the words…like the time I read how David “danced with abandon” (2 Sam 6:14) before the Lord. I swear my heart pounded to the rhythm of those words all day long and even though I never “busted a move” I know my heart was dancing for God. And I’m certain He knew it, too. But most of the time my Bible reading is unrelated to whatever I contemplate that day. Maybe someday it won’t be. But I know that making a commitment to both reading the Bible and spending time in contemplation helps me to feel balanced.
- Observing nature – I really can’t get over how long I’ve just ignored nature. But ever since I moved to Pennsylvania and got a dog, I’ve made sure I’m outside EVERY day and then I observe my surroundings. And it’s amazing how many rules for life we can learn from nature! The changing of the seasons used to mean nothing more to me than shoveling, umbrellas, mowing and raking. I was missing so much that to think about it now nearly breaks my heart. Just this morning I went walking with my dog down a long road that goes between two corn fields across from my neighborhood. And now all the corn’s been chopped and combined and the alfalfa (at least I think it was alfalfa) has been mowed (or baled or whatever) and I thought of how it’s good every once in a while to just strip away all the “stuff” that we think is “us” and look into our hearts with a fresh set of eyes, because maybe some of what I insisted is “just the way I am” wasn’t really who God wants me to be. And then, as if God himself were nodding along with me, I saw in the distance a manure spreader fertilizing the stripped and barren soil, and I thought again, Yes, it’s not only good, it’s necessary to strip ourselves of “us” every once in a while and start anew if we want to continue to grow.
- Celebrating sacred spaces – When I say “sacred space” what do you think of? Is it your church? Your prayer chapel? Your bedroom? Your kitchen? Your family room? Now let me ask you this, what is it about that space that is so sacred to you? Is it the silence and stillness you find there? The laughter of your children? The warmth of the fireplace? The peacefulness of solitude? Whatever your answer, I’d venture to guess that how that space makes you feel is as much a sacred space to you as the place itself. Have you ever considered that? Consider it now: Laughter as a sacred space. Silence as a sacred space. Warmth as a sacred space. Peacefulness as a sacred space. Stillness as a sacred space. etc. This may sound a bit far-fetched at first, but sit with it awhile, and see if it begins to make sense to you. And if it does, then you’ll soon see that if that “space” can be sacred you’ll be able to “go to” those sacred spaces at times and places you’d never imagined. Finding peacefulness in a long grocery line? Warmth in the middle of a blizzard? Stillness in the midst of your screaming toddlers? It’s not out of the realm of possibility. And if you can center yourself enough to go within and find that sacred space, then God is sure to be there with you, too.
- Embracing paradox & mystery – These are two areas that most likely, in my mind, would completely deadend without a mystic understanding of them. Jesus’ life and teachings are all about paradox and mystery: the last will be first (Mt 20:16)…whoever humbles himself will be exalted (Mt 23:12)…death leads to new life (John 12:24-26). And on and on. Trying to understand these from any type of reasoning or logic has never worked for me. But when I opened up myself to the way, as an English major, I would look at poetry or literature for another meaning… a deeper meaning… a hidden meaning, that was when I felt my relationship with God really change. And then I began to “understand” how He “talks” to me. And now I see that He talks to me all the time. The sun that disappears behind a cloud and leaves rays of light shooting out from behind it? That says, “Even in darkness my Light will prevail.” And that tree that’s dropping its leaves out my window? It’s saying, “Trust that even though now you feel like you are losing everything, soon you will be in abundance again.” And that giant rip down the side of my son’s gym bag? Well, as far as I can tell that’s just saying, “Wait for your mom to come fix it. She can sew better than you.” My interpretation’s not 100%, you see. But I’m getting better.
So that’s my list. I’m sure it’s not complete at all. But I hope it helps you see that the God we Christians (and others) proclaim to be “everywhere” really IS EVERYWHERE. And I can’t help but wonder… even though I continue to “see” God in more and more places…how many places am I still missing?
But then I remember.
My understanding of God does not come from me. It comes from Him. And so I only need to continue wondering and marveling and thinking these things, and trusting that He will shine His brightness on what it is I need to see.
Because that’s what happens when you learn to “dance” with the Light.
It moves with you, continually opening the darkness.