You've caught glimpses of Michelle Derusha's new book True You and how impactful it has been in my life in my Lifelong Journey of Listening series the past couple weeks (The Movement Toward Stillness and Still).
I never noticed that oak trees are the last to lose their leaves until I began a daily practice of sitting still.
It all began with a whim. One sunny November afternoon while I was walking my dog, I decided to stop and sit on a park bench. As I rested there for a few minutes with Josie sprawled at my feet, I decided I would make this bench-sitting part of my daily routine.
I vowed I would stop at that same spot along our walking route every day, and I would sit for five minutes. I would sit in silence, I determined – without music or a podcast in my ears; without dialing my mother or texting my sister; without snapping photos with my camera phone or scrolling through Instagram or Facebook.
I would simply sit in silence for five minutes. It would be good for me, I reasoned.
Turns out, five minutes on a park bench seems short in principle, but is a surprisingly long time in reality.
The first afternoon I sat on the park bench, I looked at my watch after two minutes and then again after four. The next day I took a cue from Josie, who sat still, ears pricked, nose quivering. I looked at what she looked at; I sniffed, trying to smell what she smelled. When she twitched her ears, I turned my head too, trying to hear what she’d heard.
I noticed a little more of my surroundings that second day, like the fact that the leaves of the burr oak on the edge of the ravine still clung stubborn and tenacious to the branches. Unlike the maples, birches, elms, and ash trees, which had dropped their leaves like colorful confetti more than a month ago, the oaks were still fully dressed, their dry leaves scraping together in the wind like sandpaper.
I wasn’t at all sure what I was doing there, just sitting. All I knew was that I felt compelled to do it, even though I didn’t particularly like it, and even though I knew, after only two days, that I would resist it in the coming weeks.
At the same time, I knew this sitting in stillness was something I had to do. Somehow I knew that the stopping, -- the interruption to my daily routine and my incessant push to get from Point A to Point B -- was important, maybe even imperative.
Turns out, I learned over the weeks and months of sitting in quiet solitude that I am a lot like the oak tree that clings so fiercely to its leaves. In fact, I suspect a lot of us are.
We, too, clutch our camouflage -- the person we present to the world, to our own selves, and even to God.
We, too, are unwilling to shed our false selves, to let go, to live vulnerably and authentically. We are afraid of what might happen if we drop our protective cover, afraid of how we might be seen or perceived, or how we might see or perceive our own selves.
We spend a great deal of our time and energy holding tight-fisted to our leaves, simply because we are too afraid to let go, too afraid of what, or who, we will find underneath.
The thing is, though, even the stubborn oaks have to let go of their leaves eventually. New growth can’t happen until the old, desiccated parts fall away. Spring only comes after winter. There is a rhythm here – relinquishing, stilling, rebirth.
The truth is, God does not wish for us to stand stubborn like the autumn oak tree, cloaked in a façade of protection, our truest, most authentic selves obscured beneath a tangled bramble of false security.
Rather, he desires us to live open and free, our true essence revealed and flourishing, our true self front and center, secure and thriving.
God yearns for us to live wholeheartedly and truthfully as the unique, beautiful, beloved individuals he created us to be. Most of all, God’s deepest desire is for us to know him, to root our whole selves in him like a tree rooted by a stream, and to know his deep, abiding love for us.
God yearns for us to live in the spacious, light-filled freedom of Christ and to know ourselves in him, through him, and with him.
As we slowly begin to let go of our false selves, branch by branch, leaf by leaf, and layer by layer, as we finally begin to relinquish, open up, and allow God to prune us from the inside out, we will grow in ways we never imagined: in our relationships with loved ones; in connection with and love for our neighbors; in our vocation; in our heart, mind, and soul; and in intimacy with God himself.
Our true, essential self, the one beautifully and uniquely created by God, is there, deep inside, hidden beneath layer upon layer of leaves clinging fast. Within each of us is a spacious place, waiting to be revealed.
Letting go is the way in.
This post is adapted from True You: Letting Go of Your False Self to Uncover the Person God Created, by Michelle DeRusha, releasing January 1 from Baker Books.
I’ve always said I want to be a lifelong learner; I just didn’t realize that I would spend my whole life learning one thing.
I have spent a large part of the last four years writing about listening and learning. I’ve watched my faith becoming an ever-evolving plunge into the Mystery of God and others have come along with me on the journey. I am so grateful for those who have.
I have been fighting the downfalls of my perfectionist, ISFJ, Type A tendencies for years. Being highly driven is an asset in some parts of my life but the quest for the contemplative is not one of them. The need for control is not conducive to a life lived in abandon to the God who rarely reveals the path before we walk it.
Four years ago I began focusing more on reordering my life around the ancient and the mystical, longing for the transformation of my always-hustling soul. A denominational mutt due to many moves, I have attended Baptist, Episcopal, non-denominational, Coptic, Lutheran, and Pentecostal churches. I found beauty in each of these traditions. As I was drawn deeper into the contemplative by my time spent at a Benedictine monastery, I craved the intersection of structure and freedom found in a Rule of Life.
(A Rule of Life is a personal or corporate commitment to live life a certain way, the most well-known Rule being the 1500-year-old Rule of St. Benedict that guides much of monastic life Next week I will share more resources if you are interested in diving into crafting a Rule of Life for yourself).
I’ll let you in on a secret. My Rule of Life is still just a draft, a work in progress like me.
But all my attempts at knowing God intimately still felt like more striving, more tasks to check off my to-do list. The more I tried to meditate on God’s word or character, the more I believed I was doing it all wrong. I read more, tried to figure out the missing ingredient.
I can’t tell you how many times I have re-read Ed Cyzewski’s Flee, Be Silent, Pray (a second edition to be released in February). An evangelical turned contemplative, he gets me. “Contemplation is about doing less so that God can do more,” he says. Doing less. Letting go. It feels so upside down from everything I’ve ever known.
Like everything else in my life, I have approached finding God as a project to complete. I love to see a goal broken down into tasks I can check off, progress I can mark, and finally set aside as completed. Job well done. My evangelical faith reinforced this desire. Complete this discipleship program. Read that Bible study. Serve. Lead. Repeat. You’ve arrived.
When I started trying to build a Rule of Life I also came across the idea of choosing a word to be your focus for the New Year (instead of setting resolutions that I felt would only be swept aside quickly). I would pray and ask God to reveal a word to me. It is no coincidence that my words have gotten increasingly more focused on slowing down, on smallness, always a movement toward stillness.
The more I tried to move forward, the more God said, “stop.” Finally, this year I didn’t have a choice but to listen. When I was forced to my knees by anxiety and depression, I was finally still long enough to hear it.
“The deepest communion with God is beyond words, on the other side of silence,” said Madeleine L'Engle. Yes, this is what I long for, I cried. Where can I find it?
The answer was always there but I couldn’t let myself see it—on the other side of silence. Silence isn’t the answer; it is the beginning. One I kept trying to bypass.
I wanted movement, progress, results. God said, be silent. Be still. Be.
I started the year with Ruth Haley Barton’s Sacred Rhythms and breezed through it as I do with most books, looking for the answers and missing the ones right in front of me. Speaking of the other spiritual disciplines she suggests later in the book, Barton says, “We really can’t engage any of them until solitude becomes a place of rest for us rather than another place for human striving and hard work.”
I didn’t listen to the small urges to first find a place of peace in solitude and silence, to stop trying to manufacture God’s Presence but be comfortable just acknowledging it. Finally, after a whirlwind few weeks in the US this fall dealing with a family crisis with very little time for solitude, I came back to my quiet little corner room overlooking the most densely populated city in the world.
Literally above all the hustling, I took what felt like my first deep breath in three weeks. I read Michelle Derusha’s words in her forthcoming (hitting bookstores January 1 but you can pre-order now with some free bonuses) book True You: “Silence and solitude are an absolute necessity if we truly desire to know and understand our true selves and enter into intimate relationship with God.” Okay, Lord. Okay.
I took another deep breath and closed the kindle app on my phone, set a timer for ten minutes instead. I sat alone in silence.
I didn’t worry about my thoughts wandering and try to wrangle them to the ground. I didn’t think about doing it right. I didn’t measure my progress. I just did the first thing. I finally stopped. And then I began…
Have you felt a tug towards a more contemplative faith and what have you found difficult about a less results-oriented spiritual practice? How have you found silence and solitude in your daily life?
Join me next week for Part Two. I’ll be sharing more about my journey of listening and my word for 2019.
If you spend time this week praying about the next (or first) thing in your journey, your word or thoughts to guide your year, I’d love to pray with you.
When we read and talk about presence, there are usually peaceful undertones to the conversation. We can be talking about slowing down, self-care, and finding holy in the mundane. I imagine the beautiful farmhouse of Ann Voskamp. Not that she has an easier life than anyone else but to gaze upon her poetic words and photos is to believe she has found a way to choose presence over productivity. We believe we too can mine the deep wells of life for beauty in every day. I think of Emily Freeman’s admonition to find life in simple Tuesdays. I picture her park bench imagery of sitting still when the world around us asks us to hustle.
It was with these images of letting go and letting joy into life in the back of my mind that I chose I present to be the word to guide my year in 2018. My life was far from peaceful (nor did I have access to a park bench or farmland) but I imagined metaphorically finding this kind of place to be present in my own life. Thoughts of presence begat images of foundness, of knowing my place and finding my way. I dreamed of relishing in the beauty of diversity and even in the difficulties of a different kind of life than I’d ever known having moved my family 8500 miles away from home.
But less than two months into the year I could already feel myself going under the ravages of culture shock, language study, anxiety, and depression. I not only didn’t know where I fit anymore, I wasn’t sure who I was. Could I still be a writer on top of being a wife, mom, non-profit-worker, and immigrant? The dark parts of me that rose to the surface under the stress made me question everything about who I was…and consequently who God was. Plainly said, I was lost.
It was then that Jan Richardson’s words (from her Walking Blessing) became the soundtrack of my life. I wrote them in my journal. I cried them in my prayers. I read them while I washed my face in the mornings. I dreamed them when I slept fitfully at night…”Let yourself become lost.” Being physically lost (as someone with little navigational sense) is one of my greatest fears. Whoever enjoyed the feeling of not knowing the way ahead? Who lets themselves become lost?
A life-long achiever trying to find presence instead, lostness was just what I needed. And the last thing I ever wanted.
“Progress is not the goal anyway,
to feel the path on your skin,
to the way it reshapes you…”
Instead of on a peaceful park bench, I found myself becoming present in the eye of a hurricane. Instead of writing words for others to read, I drowned in the reading of ancient prayers and scribbled out my confusion to God alone in my room. How could You call me beloved when I am not producing anything? How could You call me beloved when I am falling apart?
The places I wanted to run from, there I stayed. I wept and I raged. I prayed and I remained silent. I asked for help and I talked endlessly to a counselor, to my journals, to friends that never missed a day to text me even if just to say, “I love you.”
I never expected the places that God asked me to stay present to be places of such deep rending and stripping of all I knew before. But as I dug my feet into the ground and forced myself to stand when I wanted to collapse, my loving Father held me. My gentle Mother consoled me.
Just as I had reordered my life around lostness this year, found my peace with not knowing…the storm continued. A family crisis back home reminded me that we never truly know the way forward. It doesn’t take an international move to plunge us into the ravages of unknowing. And yet we move forward, assured of God’s love for us and of His knowledge of the paths that will shape us into our truest selves.
I experienced the coming of two autumns this year, my favorite time of year. My unexpected trip to America allowed me to stand still for a few moments on familiar soil, the soothing crackling of dead leaves underfoot a song that has long eased my soul. I stood in the woods and breathed in David Wagoner’s words from the poem Lost:
“Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
must ask permission to know it and be known.”
Two weeks later I returned to Bangladesh to the first cool morning breezes of Hemontokal, the late autumn season. More like Spring in America, hemontokal brings clear skies and the songs of the magpies, the blooms of marigolds, and the rice harvest. I reminded myself to stay present to this autumn and what God is saying in it, divided though my heart may be. It is this path that God is using to reshape me. My Father knows where I am. He knows who I am.
I am not lost when I remain Here.
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