As I read slowly, and more than once, sacred reading, scripture, a poem or short essay, I find that certain words transform my attention from reading to prayer. I used to write these words in my journal and then re-read the passage over a period of days as a form of praying or meditation. Now I am trying to bring that word or phrase to my mind as often as possible over the course of the day. This week I read this excerpt on Psalm 106 from Nan Merrill’s Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness.
May we become bearers of joy,
we who are invited to share in
the Cosmic Dance!
We pray for the gift of wisdom,
that the motivations of our heart
might be made pure,
That we may recognize the perfect
timing of all things
and know the seasons of
May we walk with faith all the days
of our life—
confident in your Living Presence
even in times of trouble,
and with assurance for what is
and all that is to be;
May we have faith in the unfolding of our lives, and
radical trust in the universe.
Radical trust. That same day I had to meet with some people I didn’t know and whom I perceived were smarter and more accomplished that I certainly thought I was that day. This meeting was really not very important but emblematic of many of my struggles. Radical trust that the virtual planning session would go okay? Not quite. The radical trust rests “with assurance for what is and all that is to be” in the unfolding of my life. Unfolding is a key word here that means I am not able to see it or know it yet…perspective makes a difference.
Joy requires radical trust.
I’m struggling today with the idea that I firmly believed yesterday that Joy is grace.
I do know that it is the truth. For several months I’ve been plodding along with Brother Lawrence as I read The Practice of the Presence of God and attempting to think less about the outcomes of what I do and to do the work that is before me that day. It is summer, after all, so some days, work might be a relative term. Even though I try not to, though, I do find ways to let outcomes sneak in. Admiring my kitchen floor that I finally cleaned, counting the number of days I’ve faithfully written my “morning pages”, viewing emails that report that someone downloaded an article or viewing how many blog views I had today. Achievement is insidiously measured and does provide a momentary feeling of accomplishment. There’s nothing inherently wrong here —I’m sure I’m normal. But do I want to linger here, that is the question. Because tomorrow my kitchen floor will be dirty again and I will write my morning pages in a hurry and I have the daunting task of major revision of a new article and you see where this is heading, My achievements are never enough.
More than once during the last 24 hours I have encountered Anne Lamott’s wisdom:
“I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”
I might co-op her wisdom to say the same thing about joy, the kind of joy that Jesus talks about in John 15: As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
Joy does not come from focusing on my achievements but on the One who completes my efforts that are never finished or enough on their own. The grace of joy is that I am enough.
“I wish I gotten you up so you could have seen it, the firestorm!”
I was already asleep that night when Mitch let the dog out. The next morning he added, “The lightening bug show in our backyard was incredible. I can’t even tell you what it was like.”
Okay, I grew up in the Midwest. I’ve seen lots of firefly filled nights in my yards. I remember when I lived in Texas and drove back to visit my family in Indiana. I felt like I was at home when the moon was bright and firefly lights peppered the stand of corn for miles down the road.
My backyard now isn’t typical for city living. A dense stand of evergreen bushes, over 10 feet high block the city park lot next door. On the other side of the yard my neighbors’ house lies a mere 2 feet from the property line; I can watch TV in their family room from my bedroom window. A row of leafy lilac bushes and a garden shed frames the yard on that side and blocks the TV’s glow.
In the back of the yard, it’s dark, I mean really dark. The couple’s yard behind mine is densely overgrown. It hasn’t been mowed in the four years I have lived here. I can barely make out the shadow of our dog roaming, as he sometimes does, through the grasses and weeds that tower over his almost 80 pound frame. Honeysuckle winds it’s way over and around other bushes shielding any view of the houses beyond even in the daylight.
When I let the dog out last night, I witnessed the firestorm. In my backyard the dark is darker at night. The light of the fireflies’ burst like sparklers you stare into on a family fourth of July except that the light didn’t linger in my eyes. The fireflies’ luminescence pierced that dark only for a moment, not penetrating the darkness, but showing up to awe. The only thing I had to do was to pay attention and open the door enough so the dog could get out and I could too.
Joy is grace, a gift like the firestorm, not an achievement.
Emilie Griffin writes that prayer is resting in God’s provision.
“God wants to draw us in. He wants us to know his affection. Authentic prayer begins when we turn ourselves over to the grace of God. It is not a prayer of making requests, of trying to get things done or figured out. This kind of ‘resting in God’ is not a matter of doing, but of undoing. Resting in the love of the Spirit, we are sustained by the power of the living God.”
During the past two years, I completed my dissertation and applied for many jobs. My prayers have been filled with searching for God’s direction in a world (academia) that I perceived is not so attuned to divine leadership. I have been asking but it seems like more doors are closing than opening. In other words, I’ve done a lot of what one writer of Psalms calls striving. Psalms 46:10 (NASV) says, “Cease striving and know that I am God.” The words “cease striving” in Hebrew mean to let hang down; to be relaxed, slackened, especially the hands.
During the past two months, I have literally tried to rest in God’s provision by taking my “hands off” applying for jobs and imagining what our life might be like in those places. Conflating again my mind and body, I rest on my back at yoga (again) just lying there in the presence of God. Rising up, I have a renewed sense that Mitch, my husband, has incredible gifts that are being honed to lead him in a new direction. Our agreement was that after I finished my Ph.D. I would take the lead in finding a job and he would figure out what to do wherever that might be. Those were my plans, our plans. Last week I again heard, out loud, the words of my beloved Frederick Buechner in his piece about healing, “If God doesn’t seem to be giving you what you ask, maybe he’s giving you something else.”
Joy is resting in God’s provision.
Yoga is a relatively new practice for me. During Lent this year, I decided to take up, instead of give up, something that would be a little risky and scary with long-term benefits. When I go to the place where I have practiced since February, there is no talking. The few lights are low and candle-like against the darkly painted walls and black ceiling. I lie in stillness, opening to God’s presence physically as I settle on the mat with my heart at the highest point and mindfully as I meditate on a word or phrase that holds my intention in worship for that day. As I centered my mind to begin a “hot” yoga class yesterday, some of that old fear surfaced so the “meditative thoughts” were a bit different. “I can do this—I can endure this—God has given me an incredible body and mind and spirit.” I practice yoga regularly but not in a room with this high heat and humidity. So it is not only the practice, the actual doing that is challenging for me, but the salty sweat burning my eyes and running down my body that forces me to concentrate not on my outward circumstances but inwardly. I pay attention to my movement and breath and center my mind sometimes on a spot on the wall to make it.
That moment before class transformed my thinking to practically disrupt the dichotomy of mind/body and physical/intellectual work that I often struggle with. I enjoy thinking deeply about words and the world, part of my professional life as an academic, but the kind of thinking that often seems consciously selfish to me. The joy of that moment in yoga was the realization that my determination that merges my thinking, feeling and doing self was good. God made me so that my mind that I let roam and second-guess relentlessly can actually work in connection with my body and spirit to focus on good. My mindful concentration, determination, and physical body work together in God’s creative presence. God did wonderfully made my mind— my mind that is attentive and thankful for strength of mind and body.
Attentiveness. I have thought a lot lately about the importance of this practice. My noticing the “now” keeps me attentive to this moment so that my mind doesn’t wander; fantasizing about how wonderful and productive my life could or should be or engaging in imaginary conversations that would have or will in the future explicate my best intentions for me in the world. In other words, paying attention changes my perspective.
Joy is like that. You have to pay attention. Joy is about perspective. Frederick Buechner reminds us “happiness turns up more or less where you’d expect it to—a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the one who bequeaths it.” For me, one key to joy is another kind of attentiveness—the kind that comes when I pay attention to what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, anything worthy of praise. So that is my intention for a new blog, a space to record sightings, even those only in my mind.