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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Reflection-The Gift of Nothingness

Why do migraines and headaches haunt me daily?Cloudless Blue Sky

    Why do ailments, stress and anxiety accompany many of us?

What does our mind and body and soul desire

     in our 140-character, sound-bite, tech-drenched world?

 

Perhaps our inner self wants nothing - the gift of nothing.

What if my body had nothing to do; how would it feel?

    Just resting, being upheld by the bed of creation and relaxing into the weight of it.

All dis-ease and impurities can crumble to the bottom of my being

    and slide out the open chakra at the bottom of my feet.

 

How deeply can I let my body do nothing, need nothing, feel nothing?

Can I allow my body and soul to be in suspense without need or urgency,

    just present to the void, the space, the emptiness?

What can nothing release?

What can nothing regenerate?

 

How can I give my mind the gift of nothing?

I spend my devotions reading spiritual sages, poetry, assurances of the presence of God;

    I imagine meadows or beaches in the mind of my Spirit to see God's presence;

I rattle off questions about what I am to do today and in life

    with a spiritual list of clarifying inquiries that demand immediate answers.

But what if my mind and spiritual imagination desire the gift of nothing?

    Nothing to imagine as God's presence, but just to be.

Nothing to read about peace, just the absence of thoughts, needs, directions, questions, insights.

 

When I can give my mind and soul the gift of nothing, perhas the urgent pain will recede.

I can listen to my own body functioning -

    the high-pitched buzz of my nervous system,

    the pulsing of blood

    the steady thump of my heart.

 

Maybe my mind doesn't want more medicine, it wants more of nothing;

A presence to everything, the absence of everything, the presence of nothing -

Can nothing lower the sound of the inner buzz, slow the pulsing, breathing that is me

    And enter into the void that is God?

The constant presence of sacred energy that is not managed, just noticed?

 

Nothing is the place of creation -

    the void before atoms collide,

    the darkness of the soul buried in the ground,

    the dropping of the grain into air, earth

    the chrysalis hiding in the dark,

    the tomb of the 2nd day.

 

Perhaps only when we enter nothing do we become fully present.

Only when we enter the gift of nothingness

    do we become the void where God creates newness of life

    without our assistance.

 

Nothingness is freedom.

St. Ignatius of Loyola beckons me to see God in everything

    and be attached to nothing,

To see God as fully present in every molecule

    and myself as fully present in nothingness.

 

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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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