Success Through Surrender

Single Golden Leaf FallingThe only way I know how to change behavior is to change behavior: make a different choice in the moment. This is difficult in a culture bound by addictive patterns fed by self-reliance. Addict Nation author Jane Velez-Mitchell asserts addiction is not just about the usual—alcohol, drugs, and gambling, but that top addictions in the US include prescription pills, technology, shopping, and food (fat and sugar). Dr. Mark Hyman argues that sugar is 8 times more addictive than cocaine because of the way it lights up the reward center of the brain. We probably all have some kind of addictive behaviors, making it challenging to change any unhelpful habit.

In my experience, the harder I try to change my behavior on my own, the more difficult it becomes. We live in a culture that idolizes hard work, never giving up, pushing oneself beyond previous or reasonable limits. When I exercise on the eliptical machine at the YMCA and stop to sip water, the digital read-out urges me, "keep climbing." We live in a "keep climbing" culture, which is why it's hard to accept that often times, success is found not in trying harder, but rather in letting go.

The moment of surrender is the weakest moment for a human being– an emptiness that admits, finally, that I cannot of my own will and power, do something different, create something new, change my behavior or become a deeper more whole person on my own. Ironically for Christians, this moment is also our most powerful for we become open to the movement of God. As the Apostle Paul says, "For whenever I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Corinthians 12:10). We surrender to a power greater than ourselves, allowing this power to work through us to effect changes, newness, and behavior beyond what we can do on our own. This is the basic first step of any 12-step program. I visited an AA meeting 14 years ago, and what the speaker on Step 1 said still sticks with me: it's not about trying harder; it's about admitting that we can't do it all.

On our own, we're stuck in unhealthy behavior, be it eating or drinking too much, using technology to avoid intimacy, and other cyclical patterns hurtful to ourselves or others. Surrendering our weakness to God, we are more powerful than ever through the great I AM, allowing God, the universe, the creative Spirit and power of life to work through us, fill us, use us, change us.

How does one do this on a daily basis—moment by moment? How does this God-consciousness permeate our being so that discernment of a power beyond us is ever-present on our mind and heart directing our thoughts and actions? The answer is the same as the joke about the pianist rushing down the street asking a New Yorker for directions: "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" New Yorker: "practice, practice, practice!"

How do we develop a daily God-consciousness? Practice, practice, practice. It's why we call prayer, meditation, and other disciplines Spiritual Practices. We're always practicing, we never arrive. Time with God in prayer each morning sets the stage for the day. The actors are Jesus and the Spirit, the props are the circumstances of my life, the script is revealed as I move through the day as I continually listen to God the Director feed me my lines. It's a relationship with the inward presence of God; a listening inward to the voice of the Spirit, rather than outward. It means a slower pace, a response not a reaction, a thoughtful, measured, centered pace to life.

Through such practices, a God-consciousness can become our daily companion, our daily script, our daily desire. Listening for God's voice and direction in the quiet of the morning enables me to hear God's voice in the noise of the afternoon. That the day is not up to me is pure freedom when I let it go. I am not side-lined, but through Christ I then become a valued actor who gives voice to the Spirit. Indeed, God's grace is sufficient, for power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Photo Copyright: <a href='http://www.123rf.com/profile_tuchkay123'>tuchkay123 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

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Images of God & Self: From Doing to Being

"Our image of God and our image of self are two sides of Taking Mary Moments in a Martha Worldthe same coin" said Dr. Hsin-hsin Huang, the leader and trainer for  Spiritual Companions to retreatants who go through a 9-month experience of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. As we each shared our prayer and spiritual experiences, Dr. Huang continued to pepper our discussion with more spiritual insights on the path to spiritual maturity.

Our image of God relates directly to how we view ourselves. Our first image of God often arises out of our relationship with our parents. Our early images of God can be rooted in several dynamics: fear of punishment, expectations of perfection or hyper-responsibility, an experience of abuse, absence or unreliability, and maybe even one of love and forgiveness. Just as our relationship with our parents changes over time to a more equal relationship between adults, so also can our relationship with God. We move from fear of God to love of God as we mature.

If we fear God as a judgmental moralist who demands right behavior, then we see ourselves as an unlovable, bad person who has to do better. We consequently live with a lot of guilt and shame that leads not only to low self-esteem, but also to judgmental attitudes toward others. There are a lot of burned-out Christians today who can never behave exactly the right way for their demanding God, and others in society are also judged for missing the mark.

The less we fear God, however, the more grateful we are to God for all God does for us in creation, in daily sustenance, in relationships, in talents and abilities, in forgiveness through Jesus. The less we fear God, the more we can love ourselves because God loves us. The more forgiving we believe God is, the more we are able to forgive ourselves and our own brokenness and imperfection. Such self-love, grounded in God's love, enables us to also love and forgive others, letting go of perfectionistic expectations.

This is the hope of pursuing a spiritual path – that we mature from an belief about God to the felt experience of God loving us. There is a difference between intellectually understanding God and affectively experiencing God's intimate, powerful love for us. We see this most clearly in the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Jesus invites Martha to move from doing to being – from doing for God to being loved by God in the presence and person of Jesus.

I have always been a "Martha" – with a hyper sense of reasonability to and for the well-being of others. When I began the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola in the fall of 2013, the first prayer exercise was to "behold God beholding me and smiling." For the first 56 days, I did this exercise, but it was an intellectual exercise – I held a picture in my minds' eye. But on day 57, I felt a physical shift in my body from my mind to my gut – I felt loved. I was a little startled and said out loud to God, "you really do love me, don't you?!" And I smiled. (I had been ordained as a pastor for 24 years and had been serving a God with very high expectations of me).

Dr. Huang offered another exercise to help us identify childhood images of God that affect our relationship with God today: write about each of one's parents, describing them in about a page. Take a break and come back 30 minutes later to notice what, if anything you have written about your parents describes your image of God. What brings you deeper in your relationship with God and of what can you let go that hinders you from experiencing how much God loves you? Then practice "beholding God beholding you and smiling - a Mary practice in a Martha world.

Visit The Bridges Program to learn more about how you can experience the Spiritual Exercises!

Photo used with Permission - https://vimeo.com/41702334 2012 Awaken Church Pastor Nate Witiuk, Clarksville, TN 

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God-sighting at the Coffeehouse

Picture of a Corner Coffee Shop called The BridgeOne thing I love about the Holy Spirit is that you never know how and when she will show up! I expierenced a wonderful "God-sighting" this past Sunday as I led worship and preached at a coffeehouse-fair trade ministry in New Town St. Charles called The Bridge. The mission developer/pastor, The Rev. Libbie Reinking was doing a series on Creation and the theme for the day was water - Living Waters. Libbie saved this theme for me since I have worked a lot with image in the last couple of years as part of a new mission congregation by the same name (we ended the mission start due to my chronic migraines - you can read about our learnings here).

The Gospel reading was taken from John chapter 4 where Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well and offers her living water. I divided the reading into 3 parts – narrator, the woman and Jesus. As people arrived, a man, Derrick and his teenage daughter, Katie sat down and I asked the two of them to read the parts of Jesus and the woman. A little bit later, their wife/mom joined them. At the appointed time, Derrick and Katie stood up and did a beautiful job giving voice to the Scripture story.

Before I could start my sermon, Katie's mom, Judi, interrupted me and said, "I just have to share something with you about this passage. Katie is adopted from Serbia and in the Eastern Orthodox tradition in that country, the woman at the well is named 'Svetlana', so Katie read the part of Svetlana from her home country!  And Svetlana is Katie's Serbian name!"

This reading meant a great deal to them as a family and there is no way I could have known this! We were all "wowed" by how the Holy Spirit showed up, and I was able to use the name Svetlana in my sermon which followed.

Later I read that Svetlana, which means light, is not only the name of this woman at the well, but that she is a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church – St. Photina (from phos which is Greek for light). She preached the Gospel of Jesus, as did her 2 sons and 5 sisters. Under Emperor Nero (54-68 CE), known for his excessive cruelty against Christians, they were all imprisoned, tortured and martyred, but not before bringing many, many people to the light of faith in Jesus Christ, including Nero's daughter Domina. You can learn more about St. Photima here.

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Like Mother, Like Daughter

Empty Bench Near WaterLike most women I know, I've gone through several phases in my relationship with my Mom. There were rebellious times when I didn’t want to be anything like her; there were grateful times when I recognized that some of her qualities are unmistakably a part of me, and there was everything in between.

Today, I feel a deeper connection to her 3 ½ years after her death and I wish so much that I could talk with her about that of which we never spoke.  Things like how she prayed, the ways she experienced God, how her volunteerism was connected with her faith, what she gave up by being a stay-at-home Mom, what she would change about her choices if she could, what she would do exactly the same. 

Six months after she died, I was at annual district church meeting called Synod Assembly. During the opening worship, we sang 3 of her favorite hymns. I could see her in my mind's eye, standing near the heavenly throne singing with me in her full beautiful voice. Quite suddenly, I saw a window into heaven that slid open from the inside and an awareness came over me that said, "your Mom had a call to ministry." 

I stopped singing and sat down to process the gift of this awareness, while worship continued around me. I thought about all of the activities my Mom had done throughout her life and of course, so much of it was ministry: running our girl scout troop, writing the church newsletter, managing the hospital gift shop, leading suburban women's education, hosting parties and great fellowship events, and the list goes on. Had she been this vibrant woman today, her pastor would have encouraged her to go to seminary. And I thought I was the family weirdo who is the first and only pastor in my extended family.

Accepting with gratitude that I am more like her than not, came over me again a couple of weeks ago when my sisters and I went through her worldly possessions with the daunting task of deciding what to keep and what to give. We first tackled her dozens and dozens of cookbooks – we took pictures of the recipes she had marked in the books we gave away, and found more recipes tucked in the pages of many of them. But in one cookbook, I found a hand-written sheet of paper on which she had written a reflection about Silence. I had written the reflection about The Gift of Nothingness (which I posted last week, and you can read below on my blog or link to here) just a few months before. The language and the sentiments are remarkably similar. Here are her words:

     Silence – the chance to eliminate all sounds so the blood which beats in your pulses

     become the only conscious awareness you have

     A quiet and peace return as you begin to relax and your blood pulsing begins once again to recede and be natural.

     The quiet becomes manifest and your being fades into the stillness of the moment –

     be it dawn, high noon, dusk or midnight.

     Dawn – a new beginning, a chance to be aware, to feel, to experience, to begin new thoughts and ideas; 

     to re-establish the positive of yesterdays, 

     but keep open to the gifts and newness of today

     High noon – bright day time, highlighting motives, thoughts, ideas

     no shadows- no hiding

     dealing with what is visible, what blossoms open.

It looks like she started a reflection similar to praying the hours throughout the day, but she didn't have a chance to finish writing on the silence that comes at dusk and midnight.

We'll have a lot to discuss when it's my turn to join her in the choir around throne of God. Until then, I'm glad that death has not stopped me from learning more about her and loving her more deeply.

 

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Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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