Like a Woman in Labor

God will say, “I have long been silent;

yes, I have restrained myself. But now,

like a woman in labor,

I will cry and groan and pant.

I will level the mountains and the hills

and blight all their greenery.

I will turn the rivers into dry land

and will dry up all the pools.

I will lead blind Israel down a new path,

guiding them along an unfamiliar way.

I will brighten the darkness before them

and smooth out the road ahead of them . . . 

Isaiah 42:14-16

 

For Lent 2017, my church focused on the Lord’s Prayer. When we explored the first line, “Our Father, Who are in Heaven / Hallowed Be Your Name,” we asked what it means to be invited to embrace God as Our Father, someone who is intimately close to us and yet unimaginably holy: someone infinitely other and set apart.

This passage in Isaiah, however, imagines God not as Father, but as a Mother who is by turns fearsome and tender. God is in labor, but giving birth to tremendous destruction. There’s an almost primal rage in his statement that he has restrained himself until this point, but now gives himself over to his world-unmaking cries and groans. He will raze the enemy’s land to the ground, leaving nothing behind but famine and desolation. No regrets and no mercy. (Note: Pronouns are tricky things. Even though I’m writing about God as Mother, I find myself defaulting to the “he” and “him” I grew up with and feel most comfortable with. But I don’t believe God can be contained or constrained by any one pronoun, or indeed, by any human category or experience.)

Yet in the very next line, this same God displays nothing but tenderness towards “blind” Israel. From his words, I picture a mother leading her child by the hand through a dark night, stopping periodically to clear the path of pebbles or dust, shining a flashlight ahead of her to light the way.

How to connect these two images of God, two very different sides of what is apparently the same coin? I’m not a theologian, but here’s how it makes sense in my head and heart: I imagine what God is offering his people in this passage is permission not to look back, not to remain hostage to the land in which they were held captive. He’s destroying the specter that could haunt them, that could keep them imprisoned in their minds and spirits even as their bodies are newly free. Maybe what God is birthing here – and let’s remember, birth is a violent, messy business! – is a way out of the trauma of the past. Look ahead, God is saying. I’ve made sure there’s nothing behind you that can harm you or keep you trapped in regret and shame. Walk with me into the new life I’m preparing for you. You don’t know what it is yet, but it’s welcoming and full of light . . . 

 

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Saying “No” to “More”

For Lent, our church is studying and meditating on The Lord’s Prayer. I wrote the following thoughts on the section of the prayer that asks, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

When we ask God to “Give us this day our daily bread,” we are asking him to provide “enough for the day” –  to meet all our emotional, physical, spiritual, and relational needs in the moment. The world we live in, by contrast, tells us we need to constantly seek and achieve more: more wealth, more success, more physical beauty, more feelings of affirmation and excitement.

But the problem with “more” is that it can never be achieved. No matter what you have or do, there could always be more – that’s what makes the very concept so seductive and so destructive. When we chase “more,” we are chasing smoke: a future that will never come to pass. All that lies in that direction is frustration, envy, self-condemnation, and despair.

We need God to give us the wisdom and trust to recognize that he has given us enough. When we are able to look around and realize that God has provided us with enough for this day, we can be at peace. Not later, at some future date, but right now, right here, with the gifts, abilities, and relationships that God has given us.

Reflect and Respond

Ask God to show you all the ways he has given you enough for today. It might help you to write everything down in a journal – that way you can go back later, when you need a reminder.

Thank God for giving you enough for today, and ask him to help you resist the siren call of “more.”

Awakening the Creative Spirit: Bringing the Arts to Spiritual Direction (Book Review)

Awakening the Creative Spirit: Bringing the Arts to Spiritual Direction

by Christine Valters Paintner and Betsy Beckman

The book’s premise is that “a primary way that we can experience God’s mystery is through the process of our own creative expression,” that the “arts are the language of the soul” and that “God has been inviting us into this sacred dialogue since the earliest awakenings of humanity.” Art is individual, but also collective, rooted in human memory (the authors are fans of Jungian dreamwork) as well as in the primal rhythms and movements of communication between mother and child. The authors link art with right-brain activity, and claim that art making can bring balance between the two hemispheres of the brain, with their different kinds of wisdom. They conclude that we all have divine creativity within us, meaning we are all in essence artists, and write from this same perspective of openness towards many religions and spiritual experiences.

The authors describe the expressive arts as similar to prayer in that the focus is the process, not the outcome. The art-making process is a kind of pilgrimage – a journey that risks the unknown as a way to encounter the sacred. It is also a way to create a tabernacle for the inner self – to create space and welcome for one of the many voices inside you clamoring for attention to emerge, and be heard.

In the context of spiritual direction, the spiritual director becomes an “artist for the soul,” and the artistic process is an invitation to listen to the self without judgment, and to be fully present in the moment.  The book includes guidelines for the direction experience – confidentiality, mindfulness, honoring limits, risk-taking, honoring wisdom, and expressing needs to the group – as well as initial guidelines for engaging the arts that are too many to list here, but would be useful for any practitioner.

The book is broken into three sections: Spiritual Direction and the Arts, Explorations of Different Art Modalities, and Working in Different Life Contexts. It’s a nice mix of background and underlying philosophy, examples of exercises, snippets of artistic products (poems, Psalms, photographs of artwork, descriptions of dances), and responses to exercises from a variety of people, both directors and workshop participants. Each exercise is keyed with a symbol so the reader can easily tell what modality is used, whether storytelling, imagination, movement, visual art, music, or poetry.

Paintner and Beckman have created a useful resource / toolkit for those interested in using art in spiritual direction, either with individual directees or with groups. I do think that experiential learning in addition to reading the book would be helpful, and perhaps necessary, for most people who wanted to use these modalities, especially if (like me in several of these areas) you lack expertise or comfort in the arts.