The Five Books That Have Most Shaped My Mystic Mind, Day 2

*This week I will be posting each day about a book that stands out in my memory as having helped shape my thinking–specifically regarding my relationship with God.  I will start with the first book that stands out in my memory and work my way up to more recent books, and for that reason they will be numbered in reverse order from 5 to 1.   If you feel inclined to read them, you are, of course, free to read them in whatever order you see fit.

From time to time people who’ve read my blog have asked me for suggestions about what books I’d recommend they read.  (I’m speaking about popular culture here, not Sacred texts like the Bible, Qur’an, Torah, etc.  I think that goes without saying, doesn’t it?)  This is always a tricky question to answer because everyone has a different journey experience, a different past, and different wants/needs for where they are going.

That being said, I can tell you which books really launched my awareness and shaped my thinking along the spiritual journey that is my life, as well as why and how they’ve shaped me:

4.  The Faith Club: A Muslim, A Christian, A Jew — Three Women Search for Understanding  by Ranya Idliby, Suzanne Oliver, and Priscilla Warner

If you’ve not heard about how this book came to be, that story is pretty interesting in and of itself.   The idea for it began with the intention of being a children’s book to help kids better understand the similarities between religions (the Abrahamic traditions, specifically) after the events of September 11, 2001.  But, when the woman who had the idea, Ranya Idliby, a Muslim, got together with the other two authors, a Christian and a Jew (hence the title), they quickly realized they had many of their own personal issues to face and overcome before they could write something to bring children together.   To my knowledge their children’s book never did get written.  They wrote this book instead.

This book had in it the beginnings of an answer for me to  a life-long troubling question.   I was born into what the Catholic Church of the 1960’s and 70’s (and still today, I believe) called  a “mixed marriage.”    This meant I was the product of a Catholic and a Protestant  (Catholic mother, Protestant father in my case).   Now, this certainly had some advantages, and my parents focused more on the beliefs they held in common rather than their differences, but still for much of my life I struggled with how to come to terms with the sometimes clashing differences in their two “religions.”

Having no real answers by the time I went off to college (still in Midwest Iowa), my world got a little bigger and I began to meet people from other cultures and truly from other religions– not just Christianity in its various denominations– and I began to really wonder, how do we all fit together?

Wanting to carry on the family tradition, I suppose, (well and also because he’s pretty great and I happened to fall in love with him), I entered into a “mixed marriage” of my own.  Though, by this time we both had seen a larger world and, like my parents, chose to focus on the beliefs we held in common rather than those that may divide us.   And that is a great recipe for success that still works for us today, by the way.  But I still wondered how do we all fit?  How can God be in “my” church and in “yours”…and also in the mosques and synagogues? 

I’m reluctant to admit that even after reading about Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) taking her trip to Italy, India and Indonesia, I still was troubled with thoughts of her having a Guru after being raised Christian.   Did you have to leave Christianity to find God? Would I have to leave the Church? Was God Christian? Was He/She NOT Christian? The thoughts were stifling. This book was the first time the door opened enough for me to get to see beyond the differences within our Christian denominations  into the meat of the differences between these three Abrahamic religions–Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

But more importantly, it showed me what these three religions had in common.

And suddenly, the “mixed” marriage I’d been born into, and the increasingly “mixed” world I’d continued to explore, suddenly seemed less “mixed” and more “blended.”

I’ll admit that it was surprising and a bit troubling to me initially that it was the Christian woman who found herself struggling the most with her faith as their “Faith Club” continued to meet and question each other.  It was the Muslim woman and the Jewish woman who grew deeper in their faiths from the beginning.  Eventually this became more understandable for me as I realized that growing up in a predominantly Christian culture, it is difficult to really face challenges of our faith– especially when we spend so much time arguing with our own Christian brethren.  In reality, I’ve come to understand that the greatest challenge is never to point out what is true in my faith and untrue in yours, but rather to ask, how does the Truth that I know reveal itself in the Truth that you know?

But now I’m just getting ahead of myself.

Yes, it was these three courageous women –a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew–and their willingness to share their story and their struggles, that began to help me see this.

But it really wasn’t until I read the book I share tomorrow that I was able to see how holding opposites together is a sure way to reveal the Absolute Truth of God.

Stay tuned!

The Five Books that Have Most Shaped My Mystic Mind…

*This week I will be posting each day about a book that stands out in my memory as having helped shape my thinking–specifically regarding my relationship with God.  I will start with the first book that stands out in my memory and work my way up to more recent books, and for that reason they will be numbered in reverse order from 5 to 1.   If you feel inclined to read them, you are, of course, free to read them in whatever order you see fit.

From time to time people who’ve read my blog have asked me for suggestions about what books I’d recommend they read.  (I’m speaking about popular culture here, not Sacred texts like the Bible, Qur’an, Torah, etc.  I think that goes without saying, doesn’t it?)  This is always a tricky question to answer because everyone has a different journey experience, a different past, and different wants/needs for where they are going.

That being said, I can tell you which books really launched my awareness and shaped my thinking along the spiritual journey that is my life, as well as why and how they’ve shaped me:

5.  Eat, Pray, Love:  One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia by Elizabeth Gilbert

Admittedly, this may seem like kind of an “amateur” pick since it became SO popular and was turned into a movie.   (I generally try to stay away from such popular culture when I can), but the idea of it intrigued me:  a woman goes on a geographical journey around the world that coordinated with her spiritual journey within.  This coincidently was published in 2006 which happens to be, for me, the year my own personal geographical journey began (we moved from Wisconsin to Utah, which, though understandably not as challenging as some people’s adventures, was certainly geographically different enough for me).

This book is a true story.  A memoir of Gilbert’s own experiences as she discovers much about her passions, her relationship with God, her relationship with herself and so much more.  It was an easy read and at times laugh out loud funny, which is always a big plus for me.  What I learned most here, though–and it seems so ridiculous to say it now because it’s become so ingrained in me–was that most likely God is not going to communicate with us through a booming voice from the heavens as is described in the Old Testament.  Instead, Gilbert made me realize in her telling of her experience that God comes to us in our minds through our own thoughts, or (though I don’t remember her saying this specifically, it’s been my personal experience since then) by pressing words or ideas into our hearts.   (Or, as I’d later hear Paula D’arcy say, “God comes to us described as our own lives.”)  Still, as ridiculous as it may sound now,  at the time in my life that I read this I was still waiting, I guess, to hear God in a booming voice from the heavens.  But she spelled it out for me so clearly saying,

“It was merely my own voice, speaking from within my own self.  But this was my voice as I’d never heard it before.  This was my voice, but perfectly wise, calm and compassionate.  This was what my voice would sound like if I’d only ever experienced love and certainty in my life.  How can I describe the warmth of affection in that voice, as it gave me the answer that would forever seal my faith in the divine? “  (pg. 16)

It was Gilbert’s acknowledgment of this, that prompted me to pay more attention to the thoughts I was having.  You know those great thoughts you have and you start to think you’re a total genius for having come up with them?  I hate to break it to you, but there’s a good chance God put it there for you to take hold.

But, since making this realization, I’m happy to report that it’s changed nearly everything about how I think and act.  It didn’t change it overnight, mind you, but I can remember the time in my life before I read this book.  I was a young mom, with young kids, transported to a “foreign land” (a.k.a. NOT “HOME”), and any time I spent thinking was pretty much synonymous with worrying.  Worrying about the future, about my kids, about my husband, his job, our house, our money, our time, etc. etc.  And then trying to control whatever of it I could.  Newsflash here:  this was largely unproductive, and a waste of time.  I know, like I said…newsflash.

But once I made this discovery–that God was in my thoughts–I was able to pick out a thought here or a thought there that brought me some peace, some solace, some calm in the middle of a storm, and it slowed me down enough to be able to do whatever real cognitive thinking I needed to.

Though to be honest I’m not sure I put all this together until several years later.  But I do remember some of my earliest discoveries with this.  For instance, I was worried about something and I’d find myself humming a song.  I’d suddenly think to myself, What am I humming?  Most of our worrying is about things we can’t control, so let’s say I was worrying about whether or not my kids were going to miss me at school that day, and I’d realize that  I was humming my answer to those worries in song.  And what I was humming was The Beatles’ “Let it Be.”   (It turns out God is prevalent in the secular world, too. He doesn’t just linger in the churches. Who knew? wink. wink.)  That’s just one example in a bazillion, but I think you get the idea.

Or maybe not.

I’m still not sure if the way I’ve described it here makes any sense, but I can promise you this:  if you become more aware of your thoughts, you’ll likely become more aware of how God works in your everyday life.  Sifting through our thoughts is no easy task, because many of them (not surprisingly) are not put there by God.  They are put there by our own ego, or as distractions to keep us from making progress in our own lives.  So, though it may be a bit off the topic, one way to think of free will  (which is almost always a stumbling block in our faith) is to understand the “power” God has given us to freely choose which thoughts we hang on to and which ones we let go.

It’s like He’s saying, “It’s your choice.  You can spend all day worrying, or you can listen to Me (via The Beatles, via your own humming) and just Let It Be.”

And once you realize that is how a relationship with God really works, you’ll begin to see it’s no wonder we first read about Moses speaking to God in the clouds.

It just sounds so much less crazy when you say it that way.

What Dr. Hfuhruhurr and His Two Brains Taught Me

Years ago when I was a tween, my brother and I rented a video (yes, no DVD’s or Blu-ray back then) of a Steve Martin movie called The Man with Two Brains.  I don’t remember a whole lot of that movie except for one scene:  Steve Martin’s character, the laughably named Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr, is wanting to marry a woman who is clearly (in everyone’s eyes, but his own) all wrong for him.  Not wanting to do something that he’ll later regret, he walks to the foyer in his mansion and looking to the sky he tosses the question up to God saying, “If I’m not meant to marry her, give me a sign, God!”   At that moment the ground begins to shake, the pictures on the wall begin to spin, Dr. Hfuhruhurr losses his balance and begins teetering around the room, the lights flicker off and on, and finally a booming voice from the heavens shouts, “NOOOOOOO! NOOOOOOO!”    All of this is as clear a sign as one could imagine from the viewer’s perspective.  But when the shaking stops, the lights stop flickering and the thunderous “NOOOOOO!” is quiet, Dr. Hfuhruhurr, now disheveled and sweating from the whole experience says this, “Just give me any sign, God.  ANY SIGN, and I’ll not marry her.”

It is laugh out loud funny to see someone miss such obvious “signs.”  What is also clear to the viewer is this:  we see what we want to see.  We spend a great deal of time and energy trying to get God to see our side of things.  To convince, persuade, entice, beg, even bribe Him to give us what we so desperately want at any given moment.  It’s so much harder to put aside what we want and in those moments try to see what God might see.  And because of our limited human nature, it can sometimes seem impossible.

But I think, like so many things in life, the prayers we say reveal more about who we are, than we realize.  Have you ever examined what it is you’re asking?  Just the other day I found myself saying, “But, God, you have NO IDEA how badly I want this…” and as if for the first time, I really heard what I was saying.    If I believed that, then why was I praying?  Did I really believe that?  That GOD –the God who I claim knows everything –has NO IDEA what I want?

Uhn uh.  Not the God I believe in.

So how is it that I could think otherwise?

I needed to find the Truth.  And the Truth (as He laid it on my heart) was this:  I was trying to get God to do what I wanted.  To be my winning lotto ticket in life.  To hand me the jackpot of whatever my heart/mind was desiring in that moment.  To show me the sign I wanted to see.

It was a humbling thought.

And like Dr. Hfuhruhurr, I now had a choice.  I could continue to ignore the signs, or…I could change my prayer.

It’s been nearly two decades since I saw that movie, but I’m finally learning something from that scene.   And so from this moment forward (or at least until I forget–because isn’t that a big part of the struggle, to remember forever what it is we’ve learned?) I have changed my prayer from, “Please show me/tell me, God,”  to one that seems more consistent with the God I claim to know and believe in, the God who already knows what is best for me, the One who very likely wants more for me than I can ever dream or imagine for myself.

I pray the only words I can think of that the faithful, trusting servant I claim I’m trying to be would say…

“Open my eyes, Lord.  Help me to see.”

Traffic Lights

As I was reading my devotional yesterday over some verses in the Book of Ruth, it brought up a point about the difficulty we often have trusting in God.  It went on to say that we have almost no difficulty hitting the gas when we see a tiny green lens light up on a busy traffic corner, fully trusting that all other drivers will stop for us because a simple red light tells them to.  We just fly on through.

And it asked, “Why do we not do the same thing for God?”

It was an interesting thought.

And so I vowed to spend today in a spiritual “driver’s ed.”  Trying to “see” the green lights as they stretch out before me, and trying to  “go” without hesitation.

So, I started with big plans of cleaning the house.  (Always a thrill a minute around here.  What can I say?  Still, I couldn’t argue with the dog hair and dust bunnies that  housecleaning was overdue).   I grabbed the vacuum and a dust rag and got busy.

Five minutes later the phone rang.  Caller ID informed me it was a friend.  Probably wanting to chat.  Normally I would let it go to voicemail because  I HAVE A PLAN FOR TODAY.  But I felt the urge to pick up.  The friend did most of the talking.  I listened.  (Oh, stop it!  I know that’s not normal for me OK?  But from time to time I do let others talk.  Really.)  I then shared my opinion some wise insight where I saw fit.

Then, while still on the phone, a knock at the door.  Another friend.  Bringing me some goodies!  Hmmm….a choice to make here.  The house is a mess.  I need to clean.  I could stand at the door and talk.  (They usually get the idea then).  But my motto has become, “You know you’ve become my friend when I let you see my dirt.”  So I let her in.  I even pointed out the dog hair.  (As if it needed to be pointed out).

She stayed a while.  Turned out she’d gotten some bad news and was trying to come to grips with the near imminent loss of a family member.  There is little to do then, but listen.  (Not much talking on my part again.  Shocker number two for the day, I know).  Still, I was in no hurry.  And since I rarely listen without throwing in my two cents and then meandering onto different topics of interest plus throwing in a smart remark or two, the friend and I parted ways laughing and smiling at each other’s good humor and fun.

I shut the door and then I did a little vacuuming.

I remembered the interrupted call with the first friend and called her back.  No answer.

I went about the rest of my chores, and got done with many of them in record time.  After all, what’s more revitalizing than having just spent time with friends?

Then I sat down here ready to think of a brilliant post for today.  Wondering when my green light would come (hoping it would light up an idea or two).

And so I asked God…Why aren’t You giving me a green light here?  Should I not write today?

And the God of Wisdom Who Can Never be Outdone asked me to review how my day had gone so far.

Ok. Easy enough.  *I* wanted to clean house today.  *I* wanted to come up with something to write about while I was cleaning.  *I* cleaned the house, PLUS visited with some friends.  *I’ve* been doing quite a bit of work around here.  Seriously, You are GOD, is testing my abilities to answer your “green light” with my “go” so much to ask?  Especially when it would give me something to write about??!?!

Then a flutter in my heart … I did. (FYI, God speaks very softly to my heart, but it’s rarely faint or fuzzy.  It’s almost always crystal clear.  Even if I don’t understand it oreven agree with it.  So I print it in bold.)

So I looked back at my day and wondered when God had snuck into it.  What threads had He woven together in the fabric of my life, that I may have missed?

And suddenly.

Suddenly I saw my day as He may have seen it:   friends crossing paths and phone lines, bringing gifts and sharing laughter and seeking comfort in one another.  With plenty of time left to do what was on *my* list, too.

And I smiled.

Cheater, I teased.  It’s not much of a challenge when the green lights comes disguised as friends. 

But I was grateful and humbled nonetheless.

Because what He’d shown me here (and you, too) is what He’s continued to show me all year.  Or at least since I made that Lenten promise last Spring.  Remember that promise–embarrassing as it was– to love myself a little more?

What I’ve learned REPEATEDLY since then is that the old adages are trite, but so true:  GOD IS LOVE.  Always.

If He wasn’t, how else could I explain this?  That at every opportunity I take to think and learn and TRY REAL HARD to get things “right,”  He comes along and  “tests”  me with “green lights” disguised as my own friends.   Then He holds and soothes me by pressing into my heart these words:   Relax, Kid, you’re doing just fine.

Room for More…: My List

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?

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.

Room for More

“Isn’t it funny how we try to busy ourselves with ‘stuff’ just so we don’t have to think about how far we pushed God out of our lives?”

-Anne Slamkowski, Revealing Faith

I read this question in a book I just received from a friend of mine.  Did I mention that the friend also happens to be the author of the book?  Isn’t that exciting?!  Imagine my surprise when I read in her post on Facebook (of all places) that her “new book is coming out September 1st!”  What???  Of course, I had to order it!!  (And I requested an autograph, too, ’cause I’m kind of pushy like that).

Anyhoo, last week this little gem arrived in my mailbox:

It was complete with a lovely note and autograph, per my request.  (Well, technically I didn’t request the lovely note, but I’d really hoped for one.  What a gift!)

So…let me fill you in on how I know this author!

From the moment I met Anne Slamkowski she was an instant friend who I was so happy (and grateful) to have come into my path.  We’d both traveled (somewhat reluctantly) to the mountains of Utah from the Midwest.  Raising our young families in a valley between mountains was not something either one of us flatland Midwestern gals had ever imagined for ourselves, and we weren’t entirely sure why we’d been brought so “far from home.”  Still, we must have trusted enough– especially in finding each other –that somehow we’d  been brought together for a reason.

One of those reasons (as it turned out for me) was so I could become better acquainted with another friend named Lisa, who happened to be (and still is) one of Anne’s best friends.  Lisa proved to be a tremendous source of strength and support for me when– as quickly as I’d come to know her– Anne was yanked from my life due to a relocation for her husband’s job “back home” in the Midwest.  (And if you’re following this right, you’ll note that I insisted on placing my grief of being left behind by a brand new friend over Lisa’s grief of being left behind by the same person who happened to be one of her best friends.  Dear Lord, do you see why she’s so special??)

Anyhoo, as I was saying  both Lisa and I were saddened to see Anne and her family leave Utah, but her absence paved the way for our friendship to develop.  And to this day it is Lisa that I refer to as  my “sister” because we are of similar heart and mind.  Also, it’s quite fun to have a sister with my same first name.  It makes me think of “Darrell and my other brother Darrell” from the old Newhart show.    Now, six years later, all three of us reside in separate states, but I still hold tight to those memories of the time the three of us spent together in the same “hometown.”

That’s why today  I’m happy to tell you a little about Anne and her wonderful book and this great blog she writes.  I finished her book last night after just starting it yesterday.  It’s probably not exactly meant to be read cover to cover like that since it’s full of reflective questions and all, but since I am privileged enough to know some of Anne’s story, I found myself wanting to read it all RIGHT NOW to know the parts of Anne’s story that I didn’t know.

So I read it all.

And there were things I underlined and put little hearts and smiley faces by because I loved them or they made me smile.

And then there were questions to answer.

About God.

And me.

And our relationship.

And with Anne’s urging (she’s always been a good urger)  I feel inspired to write about something of which Anne calls us all to be mindful.   Between her blog–found on her beautifully titled website “Making Room for God” which you can find right  here— and her book Revealing Faith  (which you can order from the website),   she is determined to make us all a little more mindful of putting God first in our lives.

So, I’ve been thinking about that.

And since Anne asks lots of questions of her readers on her blog, and I almost never do (because my blog is all self-focused and whatnot), I thought I’d go ahead and share some of my answers to the one lingering question I think about every time I visit her site.

Because it’s a really good question.

And that question is this:

How do I make room for God in my life?

And I’ve been kind of curious to see what answers I  come up with.

And I  want to share my answers because until recently (in the past couple of years or so), I’d somehow bought into the belief that there’s was a “right” way to spend time with God.  And that “right” way felt really reverent and formal and kind of forced and uncomfortable for me.  But I still thought it was “right”  and as a result I thought that all the other times I was thinking about God or wondering with God or even marveling at God didn’t really “count.”  But then I found a spiritual advisor and discovered the Desert Fathers (and Mothers), and mysticism, and Richard Rohr and the Benedictines and the Franciscans, and most recently dipped into some of the Eastern practices for getting to know God, and I started realizing that almost any time spent thinking about or being with God is a valid part of developing a relationship with Him.

It’s how mysticism helped move our relationship forward– God’s and mine– because while He was all Fine and Perfect?  I was kind of stuck.  And when I discovered the mystics and their writings, they pointed out to me that the reverent, formal prayer I struggled with… is right.

Yep.  You read that correctly.  Formal, reverent prayer is right.

But they went on to say that all that thinking and wondering and marveling that I was doing?

It was right, too.

Think of it this way:   it’s like adhering to the belief that the only part of your relationship that matters with your spouse or your friends and loved ones is the time you spend talking to them, and then making the realization that your relationship is based not only on talking to them,  but also any time you spend thinking about them or wondering what they’re up to or remembering something they told you, or sharing stories about things they did or said.  (Of course, Anne does a good job of pointing out that if you’re not talking to them at all, –which  almost all of us are guilty of at least some of the time, especially when it comes to God– then that’s not so good either).   But, I’m working here on the  assumption that you already are talking to them/Him.   Now, I don’t know about you, but when someone says to me, “So… [your husband/son/daughter/mom/dad, etc.] tells me you are…” and they go on to tell me something that  my loved ones or friends shared with them about me, that tells me that even when we’re apart, they are still thinking of me.

And that only adds to the things we say to each other when we’re together.

(And yes, I do realize that God is always with us, and never apart from us, Smartypants, but sometimes we do find ourselves drifting from Him.  Anyway, it’s an analogy.  Which by the way I  stink at.   But it’s the best I could do).

That’s kind of what mysticism is.  And once I embraced this mystical element to my relationship with God, I changed my mind about there being only one “right” way to spend time with Him, (or, as Anne points out in her book:   God changed my mind for me) and I just started kind of hanging out with Him.

And I thought you might like to know how I do it.

Hang out with God, I mean.

So,  later this week I’ll be sharing some of the answers I came up with about how I make room for God in my life.

And I hope you’ll put some thought into how you do it, too.

And then I hope you’ll leave a comment or drop me a note about it.  Not so we can stand up proudly and say, “Isn’t it great that we do this?” (well, OK, maybe a little of that…) but rather in the hopes that if we make a conscious effort to consider what it is we are already doing,  it will help us to see and hear– through each other– more of what God may be asking of us.

Because– as Anne’s question has reminded me– when it comes to having a relationship with someone we refer to as The Eternal One… isn’t there always room for more?

What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

“All too often, we think that God wants us to offer up our individuality, to become something other than who we are, but that’s not what God desires at all.  God wants the exact opposite:  God wants us to sacrifice those things that keep us from becoming unique individuals.”

– Woodene Koenig-Bricker

I can’t tell you how long I’ve tried to be someone other than who I was meant to be.

But as I stare down the big 4-0, I am beginning to see more clearly (and accept more willingly) who that person is.  I also see more clearly the things I need to sacrifice to become that person.  And don’t laugh, but I think who I’m meant to be may have something to do with writing.  (And yes, I realize as you’re reading what I’ve written, that this is shocking only to me).

From the time I was very young I enjoyed keeping journals of my thoughts and dreams.  Over the years I’ve started and stopped countless other journals, too.  It seems that the idea of putting pen to paper has always been something I’ve enjoyed, even though it rarely comes easily.  Plus, there’s the fact that when I was in high school I won a state award for two essays I wrote.  (FYI, so did a good friend of mine who went on to become the best wordhound I know).  And, when I was in college, studying for my English education degree (maybe another clue that I enjoyed the language arts?) , I  had a college professor (a published author herself) encourage me to try to publish a short story I’d written.    So I took her advice,  sent it off to one magazine, received a very polite rejection letter, and decided I was too thin-skinned for that business.

But what I’ve come to realize is that all these years–until only very recently– I was only willing enough to be that  one-in-a-kajillion person who sits down and writes a flawless rough draft of a book that gets sent off to a big publisher, becomes an instant best seller, and then goes on Oprah to tell about it.

(I know.   Should be any day now, right?)

Yes, somewhere inside me that’s still what I want.  The only problems are that

1.  I have no ideas for a book,

2.  Oprah’s show is over, and

3.  the loss of anonymity that fame requires scares me a little.

 (Ok, it scares me a lot).

So now what?

Well, I’ll tell you what.   I’ve realized if I want to be successful at all, I need to open myself up to more.  More failure.  More rejection.  More, well…writing.

And to do that I need to sacrifice some things.  I need to sacrifice my fears;   Fear of failure.  Fear of rejection.  Even fear of success.  And I need to sacrifice my expectations;  expecting fame, expecting validation, expecting acceptance.  And I need to sacrifice my time;  time doing anything other than what I claim I want to do so much– write.

Do you know what occurred to me the other day?  It occurred to me that I couldn’t possibly count for you the times in my life I’ve thought, Oh, I’d love to be a writer because I’ve thought it so much.  But I’d almost never write.   Especially not for others to see.  I felt like I wasn’t “qualified.”  I only wanted the “How to  Write a Best Seller for Dummies” version of writing.  Not the raw, gritty, self-sacrificing kind of writing.

But the other day, I had to ask myself, what does “qualified to write,” even mean?  Lots of people write.  Books even.  So I took a look at my “credentials” and you know what I  saw?  An award-winning writer (I’m fighting the inclination to put “award-winning” in quotes since it was from high school and all…), who received a nod from a published author and who holds a college degree in English.   Hmmm…seems like maybe my “credentials” aren’t so off the mark after all.

Sure, they may be outdated.  But the experience is still my personal truth.

So what occurred to me the other day, then, was that what I’ve been doing up to this point was actually no different than if someone said to me, “Oh, I’d love to be a marathoner.”  And I’d say to them, “Oh?  How often and how far do you run?”  And they’d reply, “Oh, no.  I don’t run very often, because I only want to run marathons.”

Essentially what I’ve been doing is no less laughable:  writing when I felt like it, sometimes publishing it on Facebook, sometimes not.  Bit by bit, I’ve gotten more ideas, and I’ve gone with them.  Piece by piece I’m feeling my way through this interweb of stories and blogs and articles out there trying to make a go of it.  But I’ve not been able to accept that this is what I want to do.  If “this” is anything at all.

And then I decided something.

I decided to exercise a little discipline.  I decided that since I can see small dots of encouragement and nods in this direction throughout my whole life…well, then this may be worth connecting those dots to see what picture they create for me.  Of course, the scariest part is, I really don’t know how it will end.  I honestly don’t even know how I want it to end.  The truth is my little blog here?  It may be a stepping stone to something else.  Or it may become just another blog in a large bloggy graveyard of forgotten blogs.

But I won’t know unless I try.

And I can’t try unless I’m willing.

So I’ve also decided that rather than focus on the possibility of failure, or the possibility of success, I’m going to focus my willingness to accept my fate by getting to work writing.  (At least my heart has decided to accept this…my mind is still pretty bent out of shape about it and holding onto the dream of writing a best seller and landing on Oprah).

But I found this little gem to keep me going.  I don’t know where it orginated, but I found it on Pinterest and I’ve pinned it to my board:

Source: i.imgur.com via Lisa on Pinterest

While I’m not certain of the original source, I’m grateful to him/her all the same.
I’ve also decided that if I’m going to get to work writing then that means I need to make time for it.
So, I’m now setting aside time each day just for writing.  I don’t answer the phone, I don’t read my emails, I don’t run errands during that time.  I write.  (OK, sometimes I read someone else’s writing a little bit first — I call this my R & D time– to get my thoughts jumpstarted, but mostly I just write).   I’m not always writing this blog, either.  Since I’m still a bit skiddish about just putting all my thoughts out there without some filtering and editing, so don’t go thinking I’ll have something here every day.  That’d be waaaaay too much pressure for me right now.
I made another decision about writing, too.  I decided to volunteer in a capacity that feeds my hunger for writing:  I get my inspiration by helping kindergartners  in a wonderful little process I became part of last year known as Kidwriting.  Right now, there is no better “food” for me on this journey than to see the writing process from the very beginning.  To remember what a gift it is to learn how to urge lines and curves into shapes that form letters… and then string letters together into words… and words into sentences.  It’s such a miraculous a thing!

So it turns out what I want to be when I grow up (at almost 40) is the same thing I’ve always wanted to be:  a writer.   And I guess I’m a little closer to seeing that happen since I write a blog and all.

I guess getting close to 40 has made me foolish enough to believe something I read once that “a call from God really only requires three things from us:  courage and a willing spirit, and trust that God will do the rest.”

I’m finally willing to take that risk and sacrifice some time– and my fears and expectations– to help make me into the writer I’ve long said I want to be.

I’m also finally willing to be disciplined about what it is I want to do.

And if I don’t succeed here?

Well, then,  I guess I just have to let go of my expectations and know I did my best.

But even if I fail at this blog it doesn’t mean I need to stop writing, especially if it’s what I love.

Because who knows?

There’s always the possibility that God’s plan for me is to write a best seller about how to fail at blogging.  🙂

The Day I Let My Elephant Run

So it turns out I have an elephant.

I never realized it before.

Fortunately, I don’t need to exercise it or anything because I have a rider for it, too.

But that’s kind of getting ahead of myself, so maybe I should back up a little.

Two years ago I joined a group on Facebook formed by a friend of mine that I knew pretty well in high school, but she graduated a year ahead of me, moved on with her life and I with mine, and as sometimes happens with “old” high school friends, we lost contact for a decade or so.  I’d hear updates of her life through other mutual friends or family that knew her, but mostly we were both off just living our lives, doing our own thing.

Then one day Mark Zuckerburg engineered his way into our lives with the invention of Facebook.  And suddenly all the friends anyone ever wanted to know what happened to were suddenly very reachable.

She and I were one of the lucky ones who reconnected.

As fate would have it, she was going to begin an exercise challenge known as the “30-Day Shred.”  It’s a workout created by Jillian Michaels (of TV’s The Biggest Loser fame) made up three 20-minute workouts of increasing intensity consisting of cardio, strength and ab training all in one.  My friend offered that any Facebook friends of hers could join this challenge with her, and since I already had the DVD (but had never really done it in 30 days), I joined the group.

Fast forward two years, and her humble little group of “friends” has grown to over 50 people (friends of friends are in now, too, so many of us do not know each other), and we post our workouts, our frustrations, our favorite healthy recipes and generally try to be encouraging to one another in the area of fitness and healthy lifestyles.  It’s a great thing and definitely an important part of my road to wellness over the past few years.

That being said, it can also be incredibly annoying.  Why?  Well, because some of these ladies tend to make Jillian Michaels look like she’s a lazy wimp.    Just when you start to feel all proud of yourself for doing 10 situps without passing out, someone will post (usually the same day) that they just completed the 10,000 situp challenge in 4 days.

Or something like that.

Anyhoo, despite the fact that it can be annoying, I realize there’s really nothing wrong with someone finally reaching a goal they’d set for themselves.  And their goals really don’t have anything to do with me, so in general I find it easy to be supportive.

But there was one challenge that just really bothered me.  It was called the Couch to 5K, and much like it’s name, the intention of the workout is to take you off the couch and up to running a 5K in  8 weeks.  Pretty neat, but I was doubtful I could do it.  I mean, the couch part I was OK with, but the 5K?  Not so much.  Especially since the last time I remember running was in 2005, and that was just to the end of my driveway because  I was trying to flag down the postman for some mail I needed him to deliver.   So running a whole 5K seemed unlikely.

Still…many of the women swore by it, so I decided to give it a try.  I tagged my dog as my running partner and for three weeks we ran together.  And you know what?  It really wasn’t all that bad.

Then I started getting bunions.

And it started getting hotter.

And so we quit.

And that would have been the end of it, if it weren’t for these nagging encouraging women on this chirpy little motivating group on Facebook.

About that time was when I realized the “positive peer pressure” that we parents so often hope our kids will experience in order to give them that little bit of courage they’re lacking to try something new,  was actually happening to me.

Suddenly, I didn’t want to be the only one (out of 50 women) who couldn’t run a 5K.

Starting from the couch.

So, I laced up my (new, better-ftting) tennis shoes and I started over (with the dog).  And the dog wasn’t too crazy about trying this again, because he’s more about walking and sniffing and pooping and leaving pee-mail for all the neighborhood dogs than he is about running for no reason.  And since it was getting hotter all the time and he has a long furry coat, he’d often be trotting as far behind me as his 6 foot leash would allow.  This was fine by me.   Because every day I ran, I could at least brag post on my Facebook group’s page that I’d completed the workout, met the goal for the day,  (and I’d try not to rub it in too much that I was running faster than my dog).

So the weeks wore on, I met the three week mark and blew past it, knowing this time I would not quit until I reached the end of the eight weeks.  Sure, there was a week or two when I’d take off for vacation and unlike my dedicated Facebook friends, I would NOT continue my workouts then.  But, when I got back home, I’d start up again.  And I was pretty thrilled with that.

At the end of week 5, I thought something must be wrong with the plan.  Because suddenly my workouts jumped from running no more than eight minutes at a time (with 5 minutes walking and then another 8 minute run, alternating for 20 some minutes) to suddenly running 20 minutes non-stop. 

WHAT????

That couldn’t be right.  I checked the posts of some of the gals on the Facebook group and (big surprise) those who had surpassed Week 5 reported how, while intimidating, it was not only possible to achieve a 20 minute run by that time, but that they’d actually surpassed that goal on that day.

*sigh*

I was surrounded by insanity, it appeared.

Still, I wanted to at least have bragging rights to completing SOMETHING (the last thing I’d completed, I think, was the original 30-day challenge two years earlier.  I’d never even tried to go beyond that other than to workout somewhat regularly each week).  And I was curious (though plagued with doubt) to see if I could also meet this goal (since it was now confirmed I wasn’t reading a typo).

So, when Week 5, Day 3 (you “only” run three days a week) arrived, I strapped on my running shoes, juiced up my iPod, leashed the dog and began the 5 minute warmup (which is supposed to be a “brisk walk”).  I’m not going to lie to you.  I was practically throwing up at the idea of running for 20 minutes.   And yes,  I did realize it was entirely possible that my biggest obstacle was my head.  (What if my body was really capable of this challenge?  What then?)

That’s when my thoughts turned to the elephant and the rider.  They were mentioned in an audiobook my husband downloaded before our vacation, and together we’d listened to much of the book on our way to and from our vacation destination.    The book was called Switch:  How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.

In it, the Heath brothers talked about how, when motivating others (or ourselves) to change, it’s important to determine whether we need to appeal more to a person’s head (their mental outlook, thoughts, etc) or a person’s heart (the way they feel about something).  They likened these two parts of our selves to an elephant (our emotional side) and a rider (our thinking, analyzing side).

I’d enjoyed parts of the book, but hadn’t really applied it to anything in my own life… until that moment.

Suddenly, as my warmup was winding down and I was going to begin running, I knew that everything I needed for this run was in my (elephant) heart.  Because my inner dialogue, my thoughts and analysis (rider) of this whole situation, were just not positive.

So you know what I did?

I told my rider to dismount my elephant.

And he did. (I have no idea why my rider is a man…that’s probably a whole ‘nother book I’ll need to buy).

Anyhoo, that was it.  Off my happy ‘ol elephant-self trotted.

Prior to this day, I’d roughly planned my route so that at about the 10 minute mark, I’d feel closer to home (in case I needed to stop).  (Curse you rider for tainting my elephant’s thinking!).  And I’m not gonna lie.  For about the first 5 or 6 minutes, I felt like an elephant out there.  I was moving slow, I was trying not to exert myself, saving my energy for this looong run.

As I neared my “10-minute marker”  I was growing nervous, because on this program (it’s an app you can download) a voice command will tell you that you are half-way.  And I was nearly half-way, but still no voice had told me so.  Oh no, I thought, maybe my iPod stopped?  Or worse, I wasn’t even half-way?  Just as the doubt nearly consumed me, I reached for my iPod only to hear the blessed announcement, “You are half-way.”  And you know what?  I still hadn’t reached the spot I’d imagined.  I was so happy (this would come to haunt me later, but that’s another story…) because in that moment I *knew* I could run another 10 minutes.

So I did.

Just me, my dog, and my elephant.

Not a rider to be found anywhere.

And then, when I was nearing the end and heading for home, I heard the “one minute left” command.  And I found myself thinking, only one?   I thought I could go at least the remaining loooong block to my house, then I thought maybe I could even go around the block one more time…so I did!

When I finally stopped running, I looked down at the time completed to see I’d been running for 28 minutes!!  A whole 8 minutes beyond what was necessary!  Then I came home and did 25 pushups, too! (The pushups were part of another challenge.  That I never even finished.  But that’s irrelevant.)

And that’s when I realized something.

My elephant can be a real showoff.

So what does all this have to do with God, you may wonder.  (Since that is usually my angle here.)  Well, at first, I wasn’t entirely sure it had anything to do with God.  I mean, what more was there to think about:  I trained.  I ran.  I conquered.

Even so, I invited my rider back in, who couldn’t help but get me thinking again (it is his job, after all).   And he helped me take inventory of what I knew for sure:

1.  It was a great day!

2.  I’d surpassed a goal that had seemed impossible.

3.  I was savoring every moment.

4.  Everything was coming up rainbows and unicorns and life in general was just about as perfect as it’d ever been.

5.  I’d also (for the first time, really) plugged into a new awareness about identifying whether my internal messages were coming from my heart (elephant), or  from my head (rider).

And with that 5th nugget of info, suddenly, a new thought occurred to me.  Before I started running, *I* told the rider (my thoughts) to leave my elephant (unthinking, energentic heart) alone:  Which *I* was giving this command?

It wasn’t my elephant.  (He [I know, another male, uh!] was busy eating grass, minding his own business waiting to run).

It wasn’t my rider that told himself to get down. (He was busy throwing a little hissy fit about not being able to go along).

So who was this–now third–I, then?

Well, I can’t prove it, of course, but I’m pretty sure…

  it was my soul.

You know, that all-knowing, all-loving,  part of me (and you) that houses the Spirit of God (goodness)?

I held onto that revelation for a moment.

I let it sink in.

I exhaled.

And I felt a certain Truth resonating within me.

Wow.

WOW.

And suddenly?

Well, suddenly setting a new personal best record of a 28-minute run didn’t seem like the biggest part of my day.

How could it?

After all, I’d just spent 28 straight minutes running with God.

Soapy, Dirty Water: The Parable of My Soul

“You’ll have to wake up tomorrow just like you did today.   If you despise repetition, what you’re really saying is that you despise life itself.”

-Kathleen Norris

“Spring cleaning” is something I try to do at least once a year.  I said try since housekeeping in general is not something I’m very motivated to do on a regular basis.   And the very fact that we’re well past spring and I’m just now getting around to it should be a good indicator that it doesn’t happen on a regular basis.

You’d think  since one of the main parts of being a stay-at-home is to be at home, I’d like to have things clean while I’m here, wouldn’t you?  Well, I DO like to have things clean.  I really do.   I just don’t necessarily want to be the one who cleans them.  So, more often than not, I settle for things to appear to be clean, even if I know they could be cleaner.

For instance, every once in a great while I’ll pick something up and dust under it, but most of the time, if I can get away with dusting around it, I will.  Sometimes if people are coming over and I haven’t had time to prepare,  I’ll dump excess papers and clutter into empty drawers (my kitchen desk drawers are deliberately empty for this very reason), and I have also been known to hide heaps of clean laundry that has yet to be folded inside my closet until the company disperses.  In other words, if I were “Dear Heloise” you’d be far more likely to get a tip from me that says something like, If company’s on the way and you need to do a quick clean up in the kitchen, load up the dishwasher as full as you can with dirty dishes and hide any other dirty dishes in the stove until they’re gone,  because I’m just not into making my own household cleaners out of baking soda and seltzer.  Or whatever.

I’ve had this love/hate relationship with housekeeping as far back as I can remember.  As kids, it was our job (my brother’s and mine) to dust on the days that our mom  vacuumed.   We also either washed or dried the dishes after supper.  These were our primary chores, with some others sprinkled in from time to time.   And oh, how I’d always want to rush through the cleaning to get on with whatever fun  was to be had that day!  I’d push dust around, I hide dirt behind, I’d scoop crumbs under any nook or cranny I could find.  (Which wasn’t much because my mom kept the house pretty spotless).  So this was  clearly not learned behavior.  At least not learned from my mom.

But, I can remember going to a friend’s house one day and seeing a sink full of clean dishes stacked high in the dish rack of their sink and a dish towel draped across the top.  “What’s that?”  I asked, pointing to the pile of dishes.

“What?  The dishes?” my friend said.

“Yeah.  Why are they like that?”  I asked (my friend clearly thought I was a total idiot, but I’d honestly never witnessed such an event).

“They’re in the rack so they can dry,” my friend said.

“Dry?  By themselves?”  I asked, dumbfounded.  And folks, I think it was right then and there decades before Pinterest existed that I “pinned” that picture to my memory and decided I would someday use my dishrack to let the dishes “dry by themselves” too, instead of drying them all by hand.  And so it seemed that from a very early age, I was more inclined to  “tuck things away” and “tend to them later” as a way of housekeeping, than “clean as you go” the way my mother taught me.

The only problem is, it doesn’t take long to fill up that dish rack.   And very often there are many other dirty dishes waiting their turn to be washed and dried.

Oh sure, I’ve tried a few things over the years to better stay on top of things.   I’ve assigned jobs to the kids (who almost never do them to my standards, which, as I already stated don’t seem incredibly high) or they whine and bicker so much about how unfair it is that so and so always get the easy jobs, etc. that assigning the jobs became more work than the actual housework.  That’s when I tried letting them pick their jobs for the week and I assigned an allowance amount to each chore with the understanding that there were also things I’d expect them to do without being paid at all.  This has worked better, but they seem to only be motivated to sign up for work when they are running low on funds.  Suffice it to say, it’s still a work in progress.

But enough about them.  How about me?  How could I get excited about doing housework?  That was the burning question.  Or, if I couldn’t be excited maybe I could at least make it all somehow seem worthwhile.

I will admit that I’d already realized good housekeeping was really nothing more than forming good habits.  And I’d recently read this very funny post over at zenhabits.net that made me realize that I’m not the only one who starts with very grandiose ideas about starting new habits only to fail at them…and quickly.  So I realized that if I was going to have any success at this, I would have to tie housework to something that I wanted to do everyday and insist that I do the chore (or chores) before I could do the fun thing.  This seemed simple enough, but what could I tie it to all the chores that fall under the umbrella of “housework” that I would want to do badly enough that I would do the chore…without cheating?

Hmm…nothing was coming to mind.

Except nuns.

Images of nuns (albeit probably from old TV shows, especially because they were images in my mind that were in black and white) of nuns humming to themselves content with jobs like scrubbing a giant floor with a toothbrush, or looking totally at peace while ironing one drab piece of clothing after another.  Maybe that was more the idea.  Rather than how to make housework fun, maybe I could figure out how to be at peace while doing housework.

And then I had it!  Meditation!  Meditation is one thing I want to do every day (I’m lousy at it, too, but I do enjoy trying) and maybe there was a way to tie housework to meditation.  (Quick sidebar here on meditation because so often meditation is misunderstand to be some deep, complicated, introspective quiet time where one must sit cross-legged, with closed eyes chanting “OOOOOOOhm,” over and over again.  It’s my understanding that while that is one way to meditate,  what I’m talking about is the bigger picture of meditation that I once read best described as this:  If prayer is talking to God, then meditation is listening to God.)

So I wondered, could it be done?  Could I hear God in the soapy water of my kitchen sink, or in the hum of the vacuum?  It seemed too good to be true!  I Googled the web and found some other posts and articles on the subject and it seemed as though this was no new idea.  In fact, I realized, how many books had I read (have on my shelf, in fact?) about the early Christian fathers and mothers of the desert whose very existence it seemed was to find peace in everything they did…including housework?  Wouldn’t that be something if I could do housework and feel…at peace?

That’s when I found this article and realized the one BIG STRUGGLE I always had with housework.   It was the fact that I could never be done with it.   Sure, chores could be done for a while, but never done-done.  Only done-until-next-time, which, when you throw kids into the mix it usually means whatever you’re cleaning is getting dirty as you’re cleaning it.   So…what was the point?

The point, I suddenly understood was peace.  To be at peace with never being done.  To understand everything as a “work in progress”.  What if I just did the chores accepting that they would get dirty again?  And what if I focused instead on the process of cleaning them for right now?  I found out that to be “mindful in the moment” of anything you’re doing is really a form of meditation.  It’s a chance for God to enter into your life in the simplest of ways.

I had to try it.

I decided to start with the dishes.  And even though the dishwasher was still partially empty, I decided to do all the ones that were on the counter by hand.  There were quite a few pots and pans, our drinking cups (which in a brilliant shopping move one day I decided would be “no big deal” that they weren’t dishwasher safe), and several odds and ends like the kitchen grater, a few plates and bowls as well as several annoying cans and whatnot that needed to be rinsed out for recycling.

OK.  I dove in.  I filled the sink,

I washed.  I rinsed.  I tried to focus on what I was doing.

Immediately my mind would wander to my To Do list, to wondering what the kids were up to at school, to anything but the task at hand.

I tried again.

I’d think of something else.

Focus.

Wash.  Dry.  What do we need from the grocery store?

Stop.

Focus.

Wash. Dry.

After several startling realizations of just how difficult it was to stay in the moment and think about the thing I was doing, I finally had some success.  And you know what?  I think God did visit me in that moment.  As I looked down and saw the suds in the same sink as the brown water from the brownie pan I just washed I saw cleanliness and dirt coexisting together.  Seemed a lot like me.  After all, don’t I have spots on my soul that glisten with the sun, and spots on my soul that really need another look?  A bit more cleaning, if you will.

Then I wondered for a moment how those pans felt about getting cleaned.  And how the sink felt about sitting there with the paradoxical parable of my soul inside  of it.  And I thought about my intentions for them as their (now mindful)  Cleaner of All, and I realized something I think God wanted me to know:  that the intentions of any Great Housekeeper are never to make something (or someone) feel bad for the stains they hold.

No.

Because a Great Housekeeper knows that no matter how much cleaning has been done, there will always be more to do.  Sometimes it involves cleaning up the same messes again and again.

Simply put, I realized Our Great Housekeeper’s intention is nothing more than this:  for us (and all those who share life with us)  to feel better for having been cleaned.

However long it may last.

To Everything There Is a Season

My kids are back in school, so it’s time for me to turn my attention to my “other children.”  (This blog and our Golden Retriever who is kindly warming my feet).    And since figuring out where to start is often one of the toughest parts of the battle for writing, I’ve decided I’m going to start with a list to get us warmed up for another season of blogging.  These are some of the things I’ve learned, pondered and/or questioned at any given point this summer.

In no particular order, here they are:

1.  I’m no spring chicken.  The much-anticipated 4-0 is awaiting me at the tail end of this year (December 29th if you’d like to mark your calendars :)) and thoughts of my own mortality have been oddly comforting as I approach this infamous milestone.   I hope to write more about my thoughts on this in the days and weeks ahead,  so I’ll stop with that in an effort to not steal any “thunder” from anything I may want to say on this matter down the road, but for now let me share with you what is to many people a newsflash as they hit this 4-0 milestone:  Some day I will be dead.  And the humor of it, of course, is that in fact this shouldn’t really be a newsflash at all.   Still,  there’s something about this particular milestone–at least in America–(Something tells me not all cultures around the globe have as much of a hang-up about this particular age.  Hmm…but do all cultures have a “mid-life number”?  I’ll have to look into that…)  that forces most of us to really begin to personalize this reality.  I think many of us to tend to think and say from an early age that “all people die someday.”  But there’s something about 40 (in America) that makes us suddenly sit upright, gasp inward and say for the first time, “Oh, wait!  You mean ME, too?”

2.  Sometimes distance is good for a relationship.  I think you all know by now that I’m a stay-at-home mom.  I have been since the moment my oldest son was placed in my arms 12 years and 4 months ago.  Sometimes when I say this, mothers who work outside the home feel guilty about all the things they (think they’ve) missed by not staying home every moment of the day with their kids.  And sometimes it makes people downright irritated to  think about how “easy” I’ve got it that I’ve gotten to lounge around all day for the last 12 years (and 4 months).  While I’m currently happy with my “career” choice, I would like to enlighten everyone with a dose of reality here.  I spent my days of summer at home with three children (two “tween” boys and a grade-school aged daughter) while my husband worked 12 – 14 hour days (this equals three meals a day, every day, without Dad).  My kids have been in school for a day and a half now and I can honestly say that I have never loved them more.  Something about getting to say goodbye to them in the morning and hello again to them in the evening has brought us all a bit closer.

3.   God can handle some distance.   The Christian God is a Triune God — Father, Son and Spirit –two of these three God-persons are familial (family like).  To me, this means that our relationship with God is often going to be like our relationships with other family members.  Sometimes we’re head over heels, sometimes we’re just not feeling it.  I think what matters most is not that we never leave, but that we come back, otherwise the story of the Prodigal Son would have far less meaning.  After all, isn’t it the son who never leaves who is the most bitter in the end?

4. Talking about God is not the same as talking to God.  Duh.  I know.  This really shouldn’t be much of a newsflash, but the truth is it is highly tempting for me to talk a lot about God.  To think a lot about God.  To talk and think about how God interacts in my life.  And in yours.  I make these observations often.  But I seem to have stopped the flow from observation to action.  The appropriate action after making these observations, it seems, would be to say, “Thank you”  or “I love you” or “You amaze me.”  But I confess that I find those words or any similar words that would indicate an active relationship with God have been less present over this past summer than they have in months and years past.  Still, somehow it’s all good.  (And if that seems like a contradiction see #4).

5.  My dog is an amazing spiritual advisor.  I am fortunate enough to have in my life a competent, wise and well-seasoned spiritual advisor (shout out to Sister B here! :)), but I can’t be on the phone with her every minute of every hour (and trust me, I’ve tried!)  In her absence, my dog has stepped up to this challenge.  Now I love my dog very much and he’s very special to me but I bet he’s really no more special in the spiritual arena than your own dog.  Wanna know how to take in the world around you using all your senses?  Observe your dog.  Wanna know how to live in the moment?  Observe your dog.  Wanna know how to forgive?  Observe your dog.  Wanna know how to trust?  Observe your dog.  Wanna know how to let go?  Observe your dog.  If you spend enough time observing your dog, you may very likely find some wisdom to apply to your own personal journey (but you should be able to skip the monthly de-wormer and flea dip!)

6.  If you try to give all of yourself to God, the hardest part of all is not to take any of it back.  Perhaps some of you remember my attempt to “give up myself for Lent” last spring.  How’s that workin’ for me, you ask?  Well…probably about as well as you’d imagine.  It’s a daily struggle and I think in many ways I’ve failed.  Miserably.  Still, I smile at my valiant attempt and I’ve learned much along the way.  I trust that God knew all along this is how it would turn out, and perhaps in my zeal for A New Life of Joy, God is simply trying to tell me there were parts of me he wasn’t done with yet.   I’m OK with that.

These thoughts and many more are what kept my summer busy, though I wasn’t writing them down.  Instead, I tried to enjoy the time with my kids at home (plus, it was just really hard to get anything done with them here!) and I trust that anything that was important to me then, will come back to my memory to share with you in the near future.

I hope you enjoyed your summer, too, and I’m glad to be back sorting through the muck and miracles of my life in print.

Most of all, in case I never said it earlier, I appreciate so much that you’ve taken the time to share (and comment on) it with me!