When I first started practicing Centering Prayer in earnest, focusing on a sacred word to bring my thoughts back to the Presence of God, I daily focused on the word beloved. I was struggling to see anything good in myself. Borrowing from the teachings of Brennan Manning, I imagined crawling up in the lap of my loving Father. Something still felt amiss, though.
Living in Dhaka and learning the marvels of the Bangla language expanded my prayers in a way I never expected. The word for father in Bangla is “Abba,” that same loving name Manning uses for his Father God. “Amma” is the word for mother, but there isn’t a separate word meaning “parents.” Instead, Abba-Amma (or the more informal Baba-Ma) is used to signify parents, the combination of mother and father, the ones who are everything to the child. The distinct-yet-inseparable persons make up all the child needs.
I prayed in this way, calling God my Father-Mother, my good parents, my everything. And I breathed in the belief that I was their beloved.
For a long time, that’s all I could pray: “God, help me see you as good. God, help me understand your love for me.”
I don’t remember when the shift first happened. I just noticed when it had. I would see the face of others I loved while I sat silently anchored by the word “beloved.” I would hold onto the pain I knew a friend or family member was experiencing like I could take it away for a moment. It was as if I could sense God saying, “They too are my beloved; now help them see it.”
The sense of God’s love for me had seeped down deep into my bones and I didn’t need to ask God to show it to me anymore. I could hold out that hope for others. I could see the way we’re all connected to each other. I could clearly see, as Desmond Tutu said, that: “My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours. We belong in a bundle of life....”
A clump of dried Georgia clay crunched under my shoe. I sighed as I turned to grab the broom and sweep the floor again. I looked out the living room window at the mound of orangy-brown earth that had been the source of the mess. My husband took down a hundred trees a few months ago and left a jagged scar running through the yard. It is preparation for building the extension that will house a bedroom and bathroom eventually.
We put the build that will give our kids their own rooms on hold until our income is more reliable though. So a muddy heap of earth is a reminder of living in this in-between space of what is and what is yet to come.
I long for that more expansive home but there are so many steps needed to get there and so much cost associated. It’s going to be a mess for a long time before it is beautiful.
“I don’t feel like you don’t need to add anything else to your daily practice,” my spiritual director said. I wanted to believe her, to take her words as permission to feel like it is enough, like I am enough.
In response to her question of how I see God moving in my life, I mentioned how I am seeking God. I talked about trying to read through the daily office lectionary (a two-year cycle of Scripture for daily reading from the Book of Common Prayer), practice centering prayer, and take breaks throughout my workday in which I stop to pray and send encouraging messages to friends for which I am praying.
She could tell I was asking the question without saying it out loud: “Is this enough? Should I be doing more?” I feel like I’ve been wandering around in the wilderness for so long and I want to finally say I have it all figured out.
Friends who know me well tease me about my orderly way of living. I love to make plans. My house must be clean and organized before I can rest. What I am really after isn’t an orderly house; it is a well-ordered life.
“You make lists just so you can check things off them,” a friend recently said to me. I laughed in response. It was the nervous kind of laughter that says, “yes, this is true; I wish it wasn’t.” We were discussing personality types (How I am an ISFJ and particularly how the J-judging part of my Myers-Briggs type leads me to desire a structure and control).
I slipped into a rule-based faith in my teen years because it fit well into the way I saw the world. I could make lists and check them off. God fit nicely into a box inside my compartmentalized life and all was well...until it wasn’t.
Over the years, the lists kept multiplying. I couldn’t keep up and I felt like I couldn’t earn the love of God anymore with all my list-keeping.
When I first discovered contemplative prayer, I felt like it was the answer to the tyranny of lists that ruled my life. It was a slower, quieter way of encountering God. I was anxious and burned out and never felt any closer to the Presence of the one I wanted to please.
For a few years, I learned about and dabbled in contemplative practices. But instead of finding freedom, I added them to my ever-growing to-do’s. Finally, all the striving and anxiety left my soul in shambles. I couldn’t do any of it anymore. I couldn’t do anything but groan and hope that God understood that I had no more words.
As I tiptoe forward into what I hope are more life-giving rhythms of faith practice and spiritual formation for me in this season, I realize I am living a life under construction. I want to be living in the house already, the one that is inhabited daily by the sweeping winds of the Holy Spirit breathing new life into me. Don’t we all want to feel like that every day? We want to feel like we’ve arrived instead of wandering around in the wastelands.
My life is like the dirt heap I daily force myself to stare at outside my window. I needed to tear down a lot of things that were in my way. I needed to be still for a good while and just sit in the muck until I was ready to move on. And then sit a little while longer.
And that is how we build. First, we have to tear down what is between us and God. Maybe it’s a raging bit of ego in our own way, our own anxieties and expectations. Maybe it’s lies we’ve let ourselves believe. Maybe it’s a relationship that is broken or something we need to let ourselves grieve. An addiction. A sin. But we can’t keep building on a faulty foundation and expect our houses to not come tumbling down.
“The wilderness, by design, disorients,” said Rachel Held Evans. “As any wilderness trekker past or present will tell you, the wilderness has a way of forcing the point, of bringing to the surface whatever fears, questions, and struggles hide within.”
We spend so much of our lives trying to tidy up our filth, to find our way to the Promised Land at last. We miss the vibrant life that can exist right now, not sometime in the future when we have it all figured out.
I yawn as I wrap a blanket around my shoulders and head to the window. The mound of earth is but a shadow under the faint early morning light. I smile in the darkness, remembering it is there. I am growing fond of the grimy reminder that life isn’t perfect (and neither am I).
That is where God finds us, in the middle of all the ways we realize how much we need grace for our messes. I close my eyes and do the last thing I want to but the very thing I need. I thank God for the disorder, for the wandering, for all that has been torn down and is being rebuilt. For today, that is enough.
The quiet of the morning is broken by the alarm that starts off on the periphery of a dream and shifts to a nagging pull into reality. I stumble out of bed, untangling the little limbs wrapped around my body.
In the dark I can't decipher which child is to my right and who is to my left but I don't want to wake either one. My husband lies across the abyss, cradling the far edge of the bed to make room for our children who found their way between us sometime in the night.
Everything in me wants to return to the comfort of sheets tangled up and to little blond heads waiting to cuddle up against my chest for a couple more hours. Most days that is exactly what I do: I shut the world out for a while longer, find my way back to the quiet and simple hours before the chaos of the day starts to pull me in four different directions away from them.
The days I allow myself to hit snooze I wake feeling defeated, knowing I failed at my first attempt at self-discipline for the day. I am desperate to bend my will to the call of the early morning.
I know I will handle all that chaos better if I prepare myself now, so today at least, I make my way downstairs in the dark, just the light from the moon illuminating the path.
I move through the space, my body waking up before my mind. My muscles remember the patterns without much effort. Downward Dog anchors me back to a place of quiet, both waking me and allowing me to find rest. The dichotomy isn't lost on me. It is the kind of rhythm I am trying to find in the remainder of my day—finding ways to be still inside even when I race around in the raging world....
Sometimes a book shows up in your life and you tuck away the knowledge gained from it for another day. Sometimes the words slam into your life and you feel like the author intended every last word for you and God must have ordained its writing for this very moment in time.
Maybe it’s just me that has this kind of gut connection to words sometimes, but I have a feeling it’s not. If you happen to know what I mean, then let me tell you that Emily Freeman’s The Next Right Thing: A Simple, Soulful Practice for Making Life Decisions slammed into my life that is facing major upheaval and just about a dozen massive life decisions pending. When I started listening to The Next Right Thing podcast where she talked about decision paralysis and how people face about 35,000 decisions per day, I knew I needed to read the book at this point in my life.
We are ending our current jobs and moving back to America after a year and a half in South Asia. While this is familiar territory after the move here, it is different. Saying goodbye to life there was hard but we knew what we were walking into and we were excited about the changes to come. While we know where we will be living and are thrilled to be returning to a place miles from family, we don’t know what is next for us. We are walking into the complete unknown and some days we are simply paralyzed by the largeness of the questions.
Enter Freeman’s book that is a beautiful mix of practical and inspiring. If you’re looking for someone to help you make pro and con lists and be certain you are making the wise choices, look elsewhere. If you are looking for someone to help you ask the right questions and dig deep into spiritual practices that will help you be certain you are engaging the process of discernment well, stick around Freeman’s book or podcast for a while.
I want assurance I’m doing the right thing. Instead, over and over again I am getting the assurance that I’m looking at the right person to guide me:
“What I’m finding to be most helpful more than any list, question, or sage advice is simply to get quiet in a room with Jesus on the regular, not for the sake of an answer but for the sake of love.”
I want a clear destination. I am reminded that the path, one day at a time in step with Jesus, is what matters:
“The darkness can invite us into a mystery, a place where we don’t know the answer. We know that seeds need to bury down deep in the ground, sometimes for a long, long time. Eventually, those seeds will break open and take root. But first, they have to settle into darkness. Still, that seed carries with it a narrative of hope. It just hasn’t lived into the whole story yet.”
I want action steps (you do get those in the book and I especially recommend pre-ordering before April 2 so you get free access to the Discern and Decide Video Series that will walk with you through the process of discernment) but I get prayers to breathe out when I can’t find the words anymore:
“Unbound by time or place or gravity, you go ahead of us into an unknown future. You walk toward us with love in your eyes. You stand beside us when we find ourselves in unsure places. You sit next to us in silence and in joy. You watch behind us to protect our minds from regret. You live within us and lead from a quiet place... Let us keep company with you at a walking pace, moving forward together one step at a time. Help us to know the difference between being pushed by fear and led by love.”
I’m daily clinging to this question as I try to take small steps forward: “Does this activity draw me closer to God or push me further from him?”
Yesterday the next right thing looked like listening to the friends who kept saying, “you need a buffer, time with your family as you grieve this big transition” and booking plane tickets, deciding to stop over in Europe on the way back to America. Today the next right thing looked like staying in with a book all day and letting the silence wash over me.
Friends, whatever you are facing today, this is my prayer for you: May you cling to the God who will not let you miss out on the love that is available for you, no matter what decision you make. May you accept grace from his hand and extend it to yourself and others, who are all just trying to navigate their next steps. Grace and Peace to you.
Let us walk together on this journey of listening to God. Sometimes the next right thing in sharing with someone who can sit with you in your circumstances, who can pray for you when you aren't sure how to pray. Please don't hesitate to leave a comment so we can journey together or send an email for my eyes only. I will be praying for you.
Why can’t anyone just sit with me and be sad? Why is it that Christians don’t give each other permission to actually feel what they feel?
The words to my husband came out more forcefully than I had intended. Everything that had been simmering inside for days was boiling over and he was the unfortunate recipient. He had watched me cry for two days straight as we wordlessly carried the knowledge that someone we loved was hanging onto life moment by moment in an intensive care unit 8000 miles away. He stayed silent because he knew I couldn’t handle anymore well-meaning “let’s just trust God” comments by people smiling and saying it was all going to be okay.
The weight of personal anxiety and family tragedies on top of local and global suffering I was carrying was bearing down on me. I can only pretend living in close proximity to suffering doesn’t weigh on me for so long.
I can try to stuff down the stories of my friend who can’t escape her husband’s anger in a society where women have little voice or power. The eyes of the Rohingya woman who told me about escaping her burning village and trekking ten days to the refugee camp where we sat together burn in my mind. The hatred spewed in my social media feeds. The divisions in our world. More and more, my heart was dying to know how to carry the weight of these things to God. Rote answers and brushing it off wasn’t working anymore.
I held my breath when I started reading Aubrey Sampson’s The Louder Song: Listening for Hope in the Midst of Lament. I held onto a prayer that the timing of these words would be a balm to my heart and a lifeline I could hold out to others I knew who were searching for ways to express what they didn’t have the language to yet.
“Not all suffering is the clear result of something. Not all suffering is reasonable,” I read. “In our deepest grief, we don’t lament to find answers. We lament to stop searching for them. We lament to be still in the unanswerable.” I exhaled, a groan too deep for words that I know Jesus received as a prayer. Finally, I found the words of someone not rushing in to fix or explain it all.
Lament is not an expression today’s Christians know. It’s not something we have learned in our churches or feel we have permission to do. But it is written into the fiber of our Scriptures and God knew we needed a language to lead us to healing. That’s exactly what Sampson explores in her book that chronicles not only personal accounts of walking through grief but how God’s word brings us to the place where we see “God sings a louder song than suffering ever could, a song or renewal and restoration.”
“To lament is to speak to the reality of our formless, chaotic suffering and to ask God to fill it with his very good,” explains Sampson. She mixes stories from her own life and others with Scriptural basis for the prayer form of lament, helping us find our way through suffering to restoration.
If you’re like me, you never lingered too much on the parts of Scripture that focus on suffering. We all want to rush on to the good stuff, the victory. But then when we find ourselves in the midst of suffering (of our own or others) we fumble through the words to express the pain without dismissing the reality of it. We need someone to tell us God can handle our doubts, that not rushing on is okay, and that yes—hope will come, but not without walking through the place we find ourselves first.
One aspect of the book I loved and needed to hear was the focus on lamenting with others. We can do so much damage when we see others in pain and do not know how to walk with them through it. Sampson gives us tools to come alongside others in a way that will ultimately allow God’s healing for us all:
“No matter where you live or where you come from, it is within your power to love your neighbor. As you lament, you reveal the compassionate hope of Jesus to a world in need. Don’t rush to fix. Just listen. Learn. Be present. Bear witness. Humbly acknowledge any biases and privilege you might have. Above all, love others as you lament with them and for them.”
Not sure what lament really means? Check out this post by the author, "What Does Lament Mean?"
Have you struggled with how to express find God in the midst of suffering? How have you found your way to hope in those times? Where can you see a need for lament in your life or in our world?
If you have had an experience with this expression of prayer, can you share how lament has helped you on the way to healing?