I’ve been savoring lately. It seems appropriate to the season. What am I savoring? God’s love!
To savor God’s love, we must experience it. My personal passion and the foundational message of my ministry has to do with experiencing the love of God, because I believe this is the key to the spiritual journey—the doorway to a deeper connection with God and to spiritual growth, healing, and transformation. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about God and God’s love and far less time experiencing it.
We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about God and God’s love and far less time experiencing it.
Brain science supports the idea that it is experience, not information, that transforms us. Truth must move from factual knowledge to experiential knowledge, which requires the integration of both sides of the brain—the left side, which houses logic and reason, and the right side, which houses experience, emotion, sensations, and belief. (Though talking about the "left" and "right" side of the brain is more of an analogy, it's a helpful one.) We might say that information or knowledge about God is the foundation of our faith, but experience is what builds upon that foundation to create a safe, secure, and enjoyable relationship with God. We stand upon the foundation, but we dwell in the everyday experiences of life. Experience, then, is how we get to know God personally and intimately and come to feel loved by God.
I love a little brain science. Recently I learned that it takes the amygdala 20 seconds to register a positive experience but only a fourth of a second to register a negative one. No wonder we get stuck in negative thought patterns, because our human tendency is to focus on what’s wrong in a situation while overlooking or downplaying what’s right or good. We’re more accustomed to "sitting in" negative moments than we are to savoring positive ones.
The good news is that with awareness of this tendency, we can choose to be more intentional about savoring God’s gifts of love, remembering that God is love (1 John 4:16) and the giver of every good gift (James 1:17). As we do this, we are experiencing God’s love—not a generic love but a very personal love expressed in the details of our everyday lives.
How do we savor God’s love? It’s really very simple. First, we become aware of an experience of love—a loving moment or gift of love—and then we take it in with all our senses for at least 20 seconds (or longer). This allows our brain to register and integrate it as part of our lived experience—which drives what we truly believe and live from, not what we say we believe. An experience of love might be a moment when we feel loved; experience joy, delight, or wonder; feel seen and known; sense God’s presence; or feel gratitude for something we’re experiencing or observing in the present moment. It might be as simple as delighting in a warm beverage or favorite food, appreciating something beautiful in nature, receiving a warm hug or encouraging text, cuddling your pet, enjoying a moment with friends or family, meditating on a scripture verse that touches your heart, being moved by a song or piece of art, or a million other ordinary things. The idea is to experience and savor these moments as personal love gifts from God—which they are.
Here’s the cool part: We can savor the moment not only as it’s happening but any time afterward by remembering and rehearsing it, which enables us to experience it all over again. Each time we rehearse God’s love gifts in this way, we’re creating new neural pathways in our brain, helping us to break free from negative thought patterns and false messages we’ve believed about God and ourselves. The more we experience God’s love and feel loved by God, the more we’re able to “live loved”—to love ourselves and others as we have been loved by God.
The more we experience God’s love and feel loved by God, the more we’re able to “live loved.”
That’s why I love the Daily Examen, which is a simple practice of reviewing our day and rehearsing the loving moments, letting them live again in us. (We also can allow the not-so-loving moments to surface, talking honestly with God about them. This helps us process unpleasant moments and experience God’s love as we feel seen, known, and loved just as we are.) The Examen is one of the spiritual practices I recommend most often because it’s a simple and effective way to open our eyes to the many ways God is actively loving us in the details of our lives. This, in turn, fuels our gratitude and our own loving responses—to God and others.
This month I’ve been doing a public “November Examen,” savoring and sharing one love gift each day. Even though it’s already the middle of the month, I encourage you to join me. You might even want to make this a practice you do through the end of the year, helping you keep your focus on the meaning of the season as you savor God’s love in every good gift. You just might find it so beneficial that you decide to make it an ongoing practice. I hope you will, because my heart’s desire for you is that you would come to experience God’s love more and more.
In the words of the apostle Paul, this is my prayer for you: “May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God” (Ephesians 3:19 NLT).
As I’ve sat with people over the last year, many have described a sense of being stuck emotionally. Because I’m human, I’m no stranger to that experience. What I’m learning is not to judge the stuck-ness but to accept it with self-compassion and patience, trusting that God is working in it and will help me through it if I simply allow myself to feel what I feel.
One morning I was on my way home from my chiropractor’s office, and I got turned around while taking the back way through a beautiful residential area. As I stopped at an intersection, I quickly activated my trusty navigator—the Waze app—to find the best route home. After turning right as directed, I drove a short distance before passing the beautiful, historic white church where my father served as pastor in his retirement years. It’s common for retired pastors in the Methodist tradition to be invited to serve a small local church in need of a shepherd, and I believe he was equally blessed by their love and care in those years after losing my mom. It was the last church where I heard him preach and knelt to receive Holy Communion by his hands, just as I had done countless times throughout my life.
Suddenly my eyes were filled with tears, and in that moment, it occurred to me that I’d had a similar tearful experience the previous week while driving by the long-term care facility where Dad passed away in December 2019—just a few months before the pandemic rocked our world. I knew this was evidence that physical places were evoking a grief response—something that hasn't always been the case since Dad's passing. Out of the blue I had an inner nudge, “Drive to the cemetery where Dad and Mom are buried.”
Instantly I knew this was a prompting of the Holy Spirit because I’m not one who visits gravesites regularly. In fact, other than a few funerals, I’ve visited the cemetery where Mom and Dad are buried only a handful of times in the last twenty years since Mom’s passing. I prefer to hike or walk or journal to process my thoughts and emotions. But admittedly, I’ve needed something more of late. During the last year, after the loss of my job and the official end of a dear friendship I’d hoped might be restored, I’ve been sensing an invitation to go deeper and address some unprocessed grief. Intuitively, I knew that this prompting to visit the cemetery was a part of that invitation to grieve. With two similar experiences two weeks in a row, I knew it was time to say yes to the invitation.
So, I drove to the cemetery that I had not visited since our family stood huddled together under a small protective awning that, despite its best efforts, could not shield us from the bone-chilling wind as we laid my father to rest. I was struck by the contrast of that winter’s day to this one—a mild August morning with low humidity and a gentle breeze.
As I parked and walked slowly toward their resting place, the tears began to form. Then, as I stood gazing at their names and dates, the tears I had been unable—and perhaps reluctant—to access now began to flow freely. Simultaneously, memories began to surface as if a photo album had been opened, but rather than shut it quickly as I tend to do, I allowed the images to come, increasing the flow of my tears. With no one around to see or hear me, I sat on a nearby bench and cried freely as I shared vulnerably with God. After acknowledging authentic feelings that had lain dormant for some time, I gave thanks that God has been with me through every loss, every heartbreak, every disappointment, every time of loneliness. I acknowledged, with sincere gratitude, that only God’s presence can meet my deepest needs. Amazingly, in that moment the clouds parted and the sun shone down strongly on me. Overcome by the literal expression of the light and warmth of God’s love, tears of joy mingled with tears of grief, and I sat with my face upturned toward the sun, soaking in the love of God.
As I walked back to my car and prepared to drive away, I looked to my right and was struck by the beauty of a bed of purple petunias. Suddenly two yellow butterflies emerged—and then two more. As they flitted and danced among the flowers, I thought of Mom and Dad—and my mothers-in-law Miriam and Judy—who are now fully transformed and whole in God’s presence.
The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time for mourning and a time for dancing, but what the author doesn’t say is that they are not mutually exclusive. Contrary to popular belief, it’s possible to hold opposing emotions at the same time. Sadness and joy are not either/or but both/and. So, if we feel stuck in one emotion, we can get curious about what other emotions we haven’t acknowledged or allowed ourselves to feel and allow space and time to feel whatever surfaces.
Whatever you’re feeling today, I encourage you to be gentle with yourself as you pay attention to your inner movements and the invitations of the Holy Spirit. As I experienced today, sometimes going to an actual place—or holding a physical object of some significance—can help you to access emotions that need to be expressed and witnessed as you focus on God’s presence in the here and now through your surroundings and five senses. (Referring to a feelings chart or wheel is another helpful way to identify and express emotions when you're unsure what you're feeling.)
Most of all, here's what I want to leave you with: wherever you find yourself on any given day, God’s loving presence is always with you, even if you don’t recognize it. Even if you feel stuck. Even then—and especially then—God is laboring in love in your life. Feelings come and go, as do times of stuck-ness, but God's love for us is as constant as the sun. And God's loving presence is the safest place to allow ourselves to feel our feelings.
Are you tired of the conflict that has come to characterize our culture? Me, too. Some days I wish there was a failproof prayer or plan that would eliminate it for good. Other days I do my best to ignore it—and I’m able to do that for a while if I unplug or limit media intake. But try as I might, I cannot truly ignore, escape, or eliminate conflict—and neither can you. The only healthy way out of conflict is through it, addressing it patiently—person by person, moment by moment—with love, wisdom, and grace. And the only way to do that is to look inward at our own internal conflict, because all conflict begins within us.
That statement may make you want to stop reading right now! But I encourage you to stick with me and keep reading. Because when we deal with the conflict within us, it has a positive affect on how we handle the conflict around us. We must invite God to bring healing and harmony in us if we want God to work through us to bring healing and harmony in the world. If we will address our own internal conflict with love, wisdom, and grace, we will be equipped to do the same in our relationships with others.
In case you’re thinking, I don’t have any internal conflict, here’s a simple litmus test. Ask yourself if you’ve ever said something like this:
“Part of me thinks/feels…, but another part of me thinks/feels…”
We use this kind of language all the time, and when we do, we’re describing internal conflict. Dr. Richard Schwartz, founder of the therapeutic model IFS (Internal Family Systems), explains that each of us has different internal “parts” that hold various roles and points of view. You might say that each of us has an “internal family,” and the family members don’t always see eye to eye!
Understanding how our internal family works can help us to extend more compassion and grace to ourselves—and to others—in the face of conflict. That certainly has been true in my own life, which is why I'm so passionate about sharing IFS, or parts work, with others. (At the end of this article, I'll share some ways it has been transformative in my life and the lives of those I meet with for spiritual direction.)
Here’s a simple overview of the model.
A Snapshot of the IFS Model*
IFS divides our internal family members into three types of parts:
As in any family, some of these parts get along and others don’t. But unlike many dysfunctional families in which certain family members have ill intent, all our parts have our best interests at heart. Every part is trying to help us in its own way, even if the outcomes are not always desirable. Understanding this moves us from criticism and condemnation to curiosity and compassion.
In addition to these parts, there is the core of our being, our True Self or Spirit-led Self, which serves as the wise parent of the family. In union with God, the Spirit-led Self leads the internal family with love, wisdom, and grace. However, because our various parts have taken on burdens and false beliefs, they must learn to trust the Spirit-led Self and allow it to lead the family system toward internal harmony. This process is the work of IFS, which involves befriending and unburdening each part so that it may integrate harmoniously within the family system. From a Christian perspective, this is a beautiful picture of the process of sanctification, or becoming whole in Christ.
4 Principles to Help Us
Often simply having a basic understanding of the internal family model increases our ability to give ourselves grace and be patient with ourselves when different parts of us hold conflicting thoughts and feelings. I’d like to highlight four basic principles from the model that can help us take practical steps toward addressing the conflict within—which, in turn, can help us to navigate the conflict around us. (These principles are taken from the steps of IFS but are not the steps themselves.)
1. Pause and get curious.
Often we become irritated and frustrated quickly rather than pausing to wonder what’s going on within us. Simply taking a few deep breaths and getting curious about what’s happening inside us can help us move from a defensive or offensive posture to a more neutral one.
As we look inside with curiosity, we become aware of our feelings. Are we frustrated, irritated, angry, sad, afraid? Then we follow those feelings, eager to learn whatever they want us to know. We might ask ourselves, Why am I triggered? Why am I so angry? Why am I feeling sad right now? Pausing with curiosity enables us to ask questions that will lead us toward clarity.
2. Listen with genuine compassion.
Pausing and becoming curious helps us to listen to ourselves with compassion—not with a particular agenda or with feelings of self-pity, but with the genuine care and concern of our Spirit-led Self. This is a time to listen attentively to the stories, hurts, concerns, and fears held by some part of ourselves—often a younger part. It’s a time to “walk in another’s shoes,” so to speak, even though the “other” happens to be a part of ourselves.
Sometimes as we’re listening, an inner critic or another internal part will interrupt our thoughts, discounting or objecting to what is being said. When this happens, we can gently acknowledge the interrupting part and ask it to soften back so that we can continue listening to the one who was sharing. If it is willing, we can let it know that we will circle back to listen to it as well. When we make this promise, it’s important to keep it and check in with that part later, allowing it to be heard too. If the interrupting part will not soften back, then we should pause and listen compassionately to its concerns, acknowledging that they are important. Though sometimes we may want to silence a part of us, true healing comes from letting every part know it has a voice.
Listening with compassion enables us to show honor to every part of ourselves. Because we are image bearers of our Creator God, every part of us is worthy of honor and love.
3. Bear witness to concerns and pain.
To bear witness is to “be with” someone in their joy or pain. It is to be a safe, non-anxious, compassionate presence who allows another to share their experiences with vulnerability and authenticity without judging, shaming, or “fixing.” When we bear witness, we communicate our “with-ness” to another.
Just as we bear witness to others, we can bear witness to ourselves. Rather than trying to “fix” or get rid of a part of us, we can connect with that part from our Spirit-led Self and offer compassionate presence. As our Spirit-led Self assures the part that it’s not alone but is seen, known, and loved, the part comes to trust that there is someone who understands the burdens or pain it is carrying, as well as any ways it has been trying to help us. As trust builds, the part becomes willing to release its pain and burdens and take in the gifts or resources of God. This is the process of unburdening, when the Spirit of Christ draws near and does the work of healing and transformation that only God can do.
4. Express ongoing love and support.
Just as realizing we are not alone is necessary for unburdening, so receiving ongoing love and support is necessary for continued health. God designed us for community, and we need one another’s love and support throughout life’s journey to be healthy and whole. Likewise, when our internal family members love and support one another, we experience harmony and wholeness. Each time we express love and support to a part of ourselves, we are strengthening our connection and creating loving community within our internal family. The reason we address conflict is not simply to bring peace, though peace is a wonderful thing. We do it to foster loving community, which our Triune God both demonstrates and desires for us.
* * *
Personally, I have found IFS to be an incredibly effective tool in my own journey toward greater healing and wholeness. It has helped me to pay attention to parts of me that are skeptical, fearful, or guarded and learn from them about ways I've been hurt in the past so that I can allow God's healing in those places. It has enabled me to identify spiritual wounds, those experiences that gave me a false representation of God and caused parts of me to carry ideas about God that have created distance or doubt. I have seen IFS uncover lies that have dominated an individual's actions and feelings for years without explanation or understanding. I have watched someone find freedom from harmful labels that created overwhelming shame and begin to understand their resulting drive to be whatever others want or need them to be. I have witnessed another breaking free from the tyranny of having to perform constantly in order to feel worth and acceptance. I have walked with someone who had all but given up on God and is discovering the reality of an intimate and loving God by identifying the wounding representations of God that came through early caregivers. I have seen another recognize how conflict with a spouse has more to do with the ways they've both been wounded than with each other. This is why I believe these principles from the IFS model can help all of us to address our own internal conflict with love, wisdom, and grace. And as we do that, we will be equipped to do the same in our relationships with one another. My prayer is that we will not seek to avoid or eliminate conflict but will work through it together and grow in loving community.
Want to Learn More?
* This overview of IFS is expressed through a Christian lens (see Dr. Alison Cook's book Boundaries for Your Soul). If you'd like to learn more about IFS and how it can be helpful to you on your spiritual journey, I'd love to talk with you about it. I have completed a 16-week comprehensive IFS course and am an IFS informed spiritual director.
If that question sounds odd to you or you have trouble answering, you’re not alone. Many of us give little thought to our relationship with self because we’re so focused on our relationships with others. Yet according to Dr. Caroline Leaf, neuroscientist and author of the bestselling books Cleaning Up Your Mental Mess and Switch on Your Brain, “At the end of the day your relationship with yourself will determine the quality and longevity of all other relationships, and ultimately your mental health and well-being.” We can devote countless hours of time and energy to cultivating and improving relationships with others, but unless we’re cultivating a healthy relationship with self, our efforts will not bear long-lasting fruit.
“At the end of the day your relationship with yourself will determine the quality and longevity of all other relationships, and ultimately your mental health and well-being.”
—Dr. Caroline Leaf
The truth is, we cannot have healthy relationships with others without a healthy relationship with self. Scripture supports this idea. Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39), which implies that a loving relationship with self enables us to love others well.
Some say that self-love is selfish and self-centered, and it can be when self is understood apart from our relationship with God. But healthy self-love, which flows from our identity as one who is deeply loved by God, is good and desirable and necessary for abundant living. Healthy self-love is knowing that we are a beloved child of God—one who is unconditionally and completely loved because of who we are, not what we do. In our performance-driven culture, accepting this can be more challenging than we may realize.
Healthy self-love is knowing that we are a beloved child of God—one who is unconditionally and completely loved because of who we are, not what we do.
Even if you are quick to affirm that you are a beloved child of God, perhaps you sometimes struggle to fully believe it. It may not always feel true in your daily life.
At a recent retreat for women called Beloved, I invited each woman to complete this sentence anonymously: “I know God loves me, but…” They connected on common ground with honest and vulnerable responses such as these:
Do any of these statements resonate with you?
Often, we give lip service to our identity as God’s beloved child without fully embracing and living from that identity. We know in our heads that God loves us, but we struggle to believe it in our hearts, especially in those moments when we feel we’re not “measuring up.” At the retreat we explored why head knowledge alone is never sufficient when it comes to knowing and believing God loves us. We must experience the love of God if it is to change the way we interact with ourselves and the world.
We must experience the love of God if it is to change the way we interact with ourselves and the world.
Scripture affirms it is our experience of God’s love, not our knowledge of it, that changes us:
“May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God”
This verse speaks of the transformation that occurs when we receive God’s love—when it becomes lived experience rather than merely head knowledge. Experiential knowledge of God’s love is what heals us, making us complete or whole within. This transformation, first and foremost, is for our own good, because only when we love ourselves as God loves us can we love others the same way. Yet, how often do we wear ourselves out trying to love others without experiencing God’s love ourselves?
How often do we wear ourselves out trying to love others without experiencing God's love ourselves?
Simply put, self-love is allowing ourselves to be loved by God and then loving ourselves as God loves us. This brings us to an important question: How does God love us?
Just as we are.
This is how God loves us, and this is how we are to love ourselves. If we’re struggling to love ourselves this way, it’s likely we’re not experiencing and receiving the unconditional love of God.
If that’s true of you, what can you do? Here are a few ideas. Perhaps you might need to…
There are many other possibilities. The idea is to slow down, bring your authentic self to God, and let God love you however you need to be loved. As you become more aware of God’s love in the present moment, it will become easier to receive God’s love. And as it becomes easier to receive God’s love, it will become easier to love yourself. Loving yourself includes things such as...
So, let me ask you again: How’s your relationship with yourself? Rather than judging yourself, let this question be a gentle reminder to let God love you so you can love yourself as God does, with compassion and grace. Only then will you be able to “love others as yourself”—and cultivate healthy, long-lasting relationships.
 Dr. Caroline Leaf, Instagram post, May 18, 2022.
Longing for connection. Does that description fit you these days? It does me, and I know I’m not alone. Recently I returned from a retreat of about seventy women, and I’d say that “longing for connection” aptly describes the common sentiment of the group after a couple of years of isolation, uncertainty, and so many disruptions in our lives—including all kinds of losses. It was beautiful to see their hunger to connect and to share their stories with one another in small groups, at meals, and during other activities of the retreat.
Of course, this renewed longing for authentic connection is not limited to women. Our church recently started an early morning men’s prayer group, and between fifty and sixty-five men are showing up each week to pray together at 6:30 am. Let that sink in. I’ve heard of men getting up before the sun rises to go the gym, go for a run, or beat the traffic and get a jumpstart on the workday, but only a spiritual longing for relationship with God and one another could motivate that many men to gather weekly at 6:30 am to pray!
Though I’ve been gathering with small groups for decades, the depth of openness and vulnerability I’ve witnessed lately seems to be indicative of an acute desire to be witnessed—to be seen, heard, known, and loved just as we are. Perhaps the isolation of the pandemic has contributed to this phenomenon. Perhaps the struggles and losses we’ve experienced have increased our awareness of our need for deep and meaningful connections. The truth is, we always need deep connection, but often our awareness of this need is dulled by activity and distractions. As a result, we become lulled to “sleep” and accustomed to more superficial relationships and experiences, avoiding the authentic sharing that leads to healing and wholeness.
We always need deep connection, but often our awareness of this need is dulled by activity and distractions.
A significant positive outcome of the last two years is a communal reawakening to the importance of deeper connections—with one another and with God. So often it is a heart-to-heart connection with others that facilitates a deeper connection with God, helping us to experience God’s presence and love in real and tangible ways as we are witnessed, accepted, and loved by others.
Deep down, we all desire to be known as we truly are—to take off the masks we wear and allow others to witness our most authentic selves. This is what drives our longing for connection, and I believe it is our deepest longing as human beings created in the image of God. Being seen and known as we are—loved unconditionally and completely—is how God loves us. So, when we experience this kind of acceptance and love from one another, we are experiencing the love of God. This is why I believe all healing happens in relationship. As we bear witness to one another and accept one another unconditionally, the healing love of God is at work.
We all desire to be known as we truly are—to take off the masks we wear and allow others to witness our most authentic selves.
Who loves you in this way, encouraging you to be yourself, to grow, and to become more and more integrated and whole as you allow God to continue working in you? These individuals welcome you even as you let go of behavior patterns that may be outwardly “pleasant” but are inwardly unhealthy, such as people pleasing, co-dependency, avoidance, or peacekeeping (which is different from peacemaking). With whom do you feel the freedom to share your hopes and dreams, fears and struggles, hurts and disappointments—even when this requires discussing needs or unhealthy issues in the relationship? And to whom are you this kind of friend? Cultivating intimate, authentic relationships requires time and patience and sometimes involves heartbreak—because authenticity requires vulnerability, which can open us to hurt or even rejection. But it’s worth the risk because we cannot have abundant lives without deep connections.
Cultivating intimate, authentic relationships requires time and patience and sometimes involves heartbreak…but it’s worth the risk because we cannot have abundant lives without deep connections.
So, how do we begin? Here are six simple suggestions.
In and through all these suggestions, we can pray, inviting God to help us cultivate deeper connections with others. Then we wait and watch and respond to God's activity—because God is always at work. Because God is the One who has given us the desire for connection—the longing to be seen, known, and loved just as we are—God will be faithful to fulfill this desire as we let go of our own agendas and expectations and join God where God is working. We also can ask God to open our eyes to those people in our lives who are already offering safe, authentic connection and express our gratitude—to God and to them. Best of all, as we seek and cultivate intimate relationships with others, we will come to experience God’s deep and unfailing love for us!
“They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.” I grew up singing this song based on Jesus’ words in John 13:35, and I still believe the truth of these words. Sadly, a quick look at the news or social media reveals a desperate need for more love these days, including among those of us who follow Jesus.
I’ll be the first to admit that love isn’t always the thing that unquestionably signals I’m a follower of Christ. The events of the last two years seem to have had a cumulative effect on all of us, making it more challenging for us to love at times because of our sense of overwhelm. That’s not an excuse but simply an observation. My intent is not to criticize, blame, or discourage. We’ve had enough of that! Rather, my hope is to offer some encouragement based on a simple concept that has been invaluable to me in my own journey to love more consistently—and to stay connected to God when the warm and fuzzy feelings aren't there and disappointment and doubt have rolled in like a fog. It’s called the Love Loop.
We see the Love Loop in 1 John 4:19 (CEB): “We love because God first loved us.” God initiates a cycle of love by loving us, and we respond by loving God and others. This beautiful cycle of love begins with God, who scripture tells us is love (1 John 4:8). Scripture also tells us that our loving God is a giver of good gifts:
"Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from...the creator of the heavenly lights." (James 1:17 CEB)
What's more, God's love is generous and extravagant:
"See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!" (1 John 3:1 NIV)
Saint Ignatius, who lived in the sixteenth century, put it this way:
"God's love is poured forth lavishly like a fountain spilling forth its waters
into an unending stream."
God’s lavish love comes to us in many ways—through other people, God’s continuing work in the world, the promises of scripture, God’s self-giving gift of Jesus, every aspect and creature of creation, and countless blessings that are evident every day if we have eyes to see them. All are loving gifts inviting us to love in return. Especially on those days when we don't feel very loving—toward God or toward others—simply noticing these gifts allows love to seep back in to our depleted souls, softening our hearts. Sometimes the most ordinary gifts can flood our hearts with love and gratitude: a beautiful sunrise or sunset, a word of encouragement, a smile from a stranger, a phone call from a friend, a hug, a delicious meal, a simple answer to prayer, the singing of birds, the comfort of a pet, a word of scripture, or a million other everyday things. Even our very breath, which sounds like God's name—YaHWeH—reminds us that we live and move and have our being in God (Acts 17:28). These gifts enable us not only to know God loves us in our heads but to actually experience it in our hearts. Even when we're struggling to believe God loves us or feeling disappointed or angry with God, simply noticing these love gifts can be like a lifeline, keeping us tethered to God.
As is true of all gifts, the real impact comes when we not only notice the gifts but actually receive them as personal expressions of God's love. Getting there can be a process, and that's okay. It may take time for us to view God's gifts and graces as expressions of God’s love for us personally. Perhaps God seems more distant to us, or we may feel we have to do something in order to receive God's love. The beautiful thing is that as we continue to notice and appreciate God's loving gifts, slowly but surely we will begin to receive them in a more personal way, which will fuel a response of love. The more we take in God’s good gifts of love, the more we are able to love as we have been loved.
The more we take in God's good gifts of love, the more we are able to love
as we have been loved.
The Love Loop, then, is noticing God's loving gifts and responding in love. Whenever we realize we’re not being very loving, that can be a signal that we’ve fallen out of the Love Loop and need to get back in it. There's no shame in this realization but simply the recognition that we're human and imperfect and in need of grace, which God freely gives. This awareness prompts us to make an adjustment—an intentional choice—that positions us to receive God's love once again, which results in our own response of love.
So, how do we get back in the flow of God's love? It’s different for each of us. For me, getting outside and enjoying God's creation—especially hiking in the woods—helps me to get back in the flow, as does meditating on scripture, journaling, and sharing from the heart with a good friend. Worshiping in community is another powerful conduit of God's love for me. Since the pandemic began, simply being present and noticing the simple gifts of the moment have been extremely powerful, as well. I’m offering some steps below that I hope will help you to make your own list so that you can implement the Love Loop in your life.
My prayer is that as we practice being aware of God’s gifts and learn to receive them as personal expressions of love for us, God’s love will flow more freely through us to a world in desperate need of love. May they know we are Christians by our love!
IMPLEMENTING THE LOVE LOOP
1. Ask yourself a few questions.
Go ahead and make a list. If you have trouble, reflect daily for a week or two on the ways you receive love, and then make your list.
2. Periodically check in with yourself, asking: Am I loving well? Become aware of "where you are"—whether you’re in or out of the Love Loop.
3. If you’ve fallen out of the Love Loop, as we so often do, offer yourself grace (the same grace God extends to you) and make an adjustment to get back in it. Look to your list and choose something that helps you to receive and experience God’s love—even if you don’t feel like it at first. Trust the process and be patient.
4. As you begin to receive and experience God's love once again, respond with gratitude and love. Perhaps your loving response will be to others before you're ready to respond in love to God, or vice versa. Wherever you are in the journey is okay. Just stay in the loop and let love flow. God will take care of the rest.
Traditionally the start of a new year is a time to focus on resolutions, goal setting, and action steps. But often what happens is we set off chasing what we think will make us happy and fulfilled—such as a lower number on the scale, a higher number on our bank statement, or a greater sense of organization or efficiency in our lives—without first considering our deepest desires. When we take time to prayerfully identify and reflect on our deepest desires, we discover what is most life-giving to us so that our plans, goals, and actions can flow from our truest longings.
Sometimes we talk about “desire” as if it’s a dirty word, as if having desires is wrong or all desires are dangerous. That’s simply not true. God created us to have desires! Jeremiah 17:9 is often quoted in reference to desires, warning us that “the heart is deceitful above things and beyond cure” (NIV). But this verse is talking about the heart when it is not connected to God and seeking God’s will. It describes a heart that is focused on the flesh or the ego—the feelings, will, and intellect apart from God.
A heart that is connected to God and seeking God’s will is not deceitful but discerning. Psalm 37:4 speaks to us about this kind of heart: “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (NIV). When we delight ourselves in God, God gives us the desires of our hearts—desires that God has planted within us. These desires, which I’m calling our deepest or truest desires, enable us to draw closer to God and live as our most authentic selves—the persons God has designed us to be.
When we delight ourselves in God, God gives us the desires of our hearts—desires that God has planted within us.
Saint Ignatius, who lived in the sixteenth century, wrote about the importance of our desires. He said, “God inflames the heart with holy desires and with attractions toward a life of greater divine praise and service.” In other words, our deep desires or soul yearnings grow our love of God and deepen our relationship with God and our relationships with others.
So, how do we go about discerning our deepest and truest desires? Here are a few questions to guide us:
When we recognize and do those things that help us draw closer to God, experience God’s love, and feel like our most authentic selves, we discover our deepest desires—those things planted within us that will enable us to live in the flow of God’s love. And as we live in that flow—receiving God’s love and responding in love according to our unique design—we fulfill the desires of our hearts.
When we recognize and do those things that help us draw closer to God, experience God’s love, and feel like our most authentic selves, we discover our deepest desires.
Eric Liddell of Chariots of Fire fame said that when he ran, he felt God’s pleasure. Perhaps the most basic starting point is to ask yourself, When do I feel God’s pleasure?
The answer is different for each of us. I feel God’s pleasure when I sit one-on-one with others, hearing them share their hearts and stories and listening together for how God is at work in their lives. I experience God’s pleasure and love when I’m connecting with someone deeply, from the heart, offering encouragement and companionship for the soul. Even during my long career in publishing, the times when I felt like my most authentic self were when I was encouraging and helping authors to discern God’s callings and lean into God’s invitations and giftings.
One of my deepest desires is to companion and encourage others on the spiritual journey so that they can experience, receive, and live in the flow of God’s love, which brings healing and wholeness. I can fulfill this longing in different ways, but the underlying desire remains the same. Knowing this enables me to focus on those things that nurture and satisfy this desire, rather than allowing myself to be distracted by other things that may be good but do not connect in some way to this desire. Of course, balance is important in all things. But the idea is to attend to our deepest desires so that everything else can flow naturally from a place of authenticity and love.
Focusing on your deepest desires is not selfish; it is the way to center your life in God—to fall in love with God.
I encourage you to spend some time reflecting, praying, and journaling about your deepest desires. Let 2022 be a year to discover, reclaim, or reaffirm those things that fuel your connection with God and your experience of God’s love. Focusing on your deepest desires is not selfish; it is the way to center your life in God—to fall in love with God. Then your actions and your very life will become a loving response to God’s love.
Nothing is more practical than
finding God, than
falling in Love
in a quite absolute, final way.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read, whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
Fall in Love, stay in love,
and it will decide everything.
—Attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe
Advent is a time of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Christ—and the second coming of Christ. In a sense, it is a season of intentional longing and waiting. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to waiting this Advent, perhaps because we’ve been in an extended season of waiting since the pandemic began. But the truth is, we do a lot of waiting on the regular…
Even when we’re sure that what we’re waiting for will come and will be good, it seems we rarely enjoy waiting. In general, our default in times of waiting is to become impatient and restless. And when waiting is prolonged, with no guaranteed ending, it often leads to frustration, sadness, and even despair. The truth is, whether it seems good or bad, happy or sad, waiting is just hard because it magnifies our longing. Every unmet desire creates a hollow place in the heart that longs to be filled.
Every unmet desire creates a hollow place
in the heart that longs to be filled.
Do you have any unmet desires? If you do, then you have hollow places. I do, too. Here’s the question I’ve been asking myself: What am I going to do with my hollow places?
One option is to ignore them, pretending they’re not there and everything is fine. I’ve done this so often that I’ve become very proficient at it, but I’ve discovered that it’s like driving a car low on gas—eventually the car will stop running, forcing me to acknowledge and address the situation.
Another option is to numb any pain, frustration, or disappointment I’m feeling. I do this far more often than I’d like to admit. It’s so much easier to turn on Netflix or reach for some chocolate than to attend to my longings and the emotions connected to them. But this, too, is only a temporary fix—and one that can lead to other problems.
A third option is to try to fill the hollow places with busyness. This actually can be a helpful coping mechanism in the short-term, when there is a known or projected end to the waiting. I have a friend who busies herself with sewing during temporary periods of waiting, and it not only occupies her mind and her hands but also provides beautiful gifts of love for others. Busyness, however, is not a permanent fix for the long haul. It can never fill the void caused by ongoing, indefinite waiting.
As I’ve considered what to do with my hollow places and how I can move more readily from impatience and frustration to perseverance and hope in times of waiting, I’ve realized that I can benefit from the rhythms of Advent—a season marked by waiting with expectancy and hope. In Advent we light candles to remind us that light has pierced the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. In Advent we give generously to others to remind us that Love expels all fear. In Advent, we sing songs of hope and praise to remind us that God sees us and comes to our aid. In Advent we lean into prayer to remind us that God is with us—always.
Light. Love. Praise. Prayer. These four rhythms fuel my hope and remind me that I’m not alone in my waiting. When I make them a regular part of my life—by doing things such as lighting candles, gazing at the stars, appreciating the sunrise and sunset, giving and receiving love in countless ways, listening to hope-filled music, singing songs of praise to God, and talking with God about my longings and feelings—these rhythms invite me to ache along with the rest of the world for the answer to every unmet desire. Whatever our longings may be, beneath them all is the desire for intimacy with our loving Creator—the One who made us, came to live among us in Jesus, sends his Spirit to dwell within us, and promises to come again to make all things new and right.
Whatever our longings may be, beneath them all is the desire for intimacy with our loving Creator.
In the meantime, as we wait, we have God’s loving presence through the gifts of creation, the Holy Spirit, and other people. God knows it’s not good for us to be alone and we need to experience love in tangible ways. So, just as God came to be with us in Jesus, God also comes to be with us through the loving presence of other people. In fact, when I asked friends how others have encouraged or supported them during extended times of waiting, they all mentioned the gift of presence. They said that whether others sat with them, checked on them, did things with them, texted or called them, or prayed with and for them, the gift of presence was an expression of love that communicated “I’m here with you” and “You’re not alone.” This is essentially the message of Advent: God loves us and has come to be with us.
Waiting is hard, but it can yield good things. Whatever you are waiting for in this season, I invite you to join me in making light, love, praise, and prayer regular rhythms so our hollow places can become hallowed ground where we welcome Christ to be born anew in us.
Our hollow places can become hallowed ground where we welcome Christ to be born anew in us.
Taste and see that the LORD is good. (Psalm 34:8 NLT)
Imagine you’ve been invited to Thanksgiving dinner, and you don’t have to cook or bring one thing. As you walk into the house, you’re greeted by the alluring aroma of turkey and dressing and all the trimmings, along with a variety of delicious desserts. Everything is spread on a beautifully decorated table. As your host ushers you to your place at the table, your mouth begins to water and your stomach rumbles uncontrollably. After a blessing is given, the dishes are passed around the table so that all can help themselves. But as each dish comes to you, you pass it on to the next person without taking any for yourself.
Your plate remains empty as you sit there, watching everyone else eat. When your host entreats you to fill your plate and enjoy the delicious foods, you reply that you are enjoying them—they look and smell wonderful, and that is enough. “Besides,” you say hesitantly, “I believe this food was prepared for everyone else but not for me personally. To think that would be presumptuous and self-centered.” With great sorrow, your host responds, “I made this meal for each of you, and I took care to include your favorite dishes. It was a labor of love for you, and it would fill me with great joy and delight if you would taste and see how delicious it is.” Still, you politely decline, convinced the meal is meant for others but not for your personal consumption. You tell yourself you are content just to sit at the table.
This scenario seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? Why would someone attend a Thanksgiving meal and refuse to eat anything, including his or her favorite foods? How could someone accept a personal invitation yet believe the meal was not intended for them? Yet, we do a similar thing when we fail to “taste and see” God’s goodness and love in the many gifts God so generously provides each day. We might notice them and, on some days, even feel gratitude for them; yet often we stop short of actually “tasting” them—receiving them as expressions of God’s very deep and personal love for us.
God, who is love, showers us with “love gifts” every day—gifts of creation, other people, and experiences—all so that we can know God’s love and respond in love. A delicious meal. A beautiful sunset. A bird’s song. A loved one’s embrace. An encouraging word. A moment of joy with a child. A needed talk with a friend. A kindness from a stranger. An answer to prayer. An unexpected opportunity. And a million other things. Saint Ignatius, who lived in the 16th century, said that "everything God has created [and is continually creating in the moment] is a gift presented to us so that we can know God more easily and return God’s love more readily."* So, failing to receive these gifts as expressions of God’s personal love for us means we’re missing out on the sweetness of an intimate love relationship with God. We’re essentially taking ourselves out of the reciprocal flow of God’s love. When this happens, God is displaced in our lives and we become attached to lesser things—things that can never fully satisfy, things that leave us wanting. We tell ourselves that this is enough—that we’re satisfied to just sit at the table—but God has so much more for us.
Everything God has created [and is continually creating in the moment] is a gift presented to us so that we can know God more easily and return God’s love more readily.
In this season of giving thanks, I invite you not only to notice and appreciate God’s many gifts but to actually “taste” them—to receive and savor them as love gifts meant just for you. Pay attention to how God is speaking to you personally through the ordinary gifts of your daily life, and then consider how you are being invited to respond in love. You can do this at the end of the day or in the morning, reflecting on the previous day. Simply take a few minutes to recall the gifts and loving moments of the day and then reflect, prayerfully listening and talking with God. This simple practice, called the Examen, will deepen not only your relationship with God but also your relationships with others as you become more and more aware of God’s loving activity in the details of your life and choose to respond with love. It cultivates a beautiful, ongoing “love loop”—God loving you, and you responding by loving God and others. I encourage you to give it a try for thirty days and see what happens. Remember, you’re invited not just to sit at the table but to feast on God’s never-ending gifts of love.
*Adapted from The First Principle and Foundation of the Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, paraphrased by David Fleming, S.J.
Have you ever seen people on social media ask, “What has been saving your life lately?” I’m always interested to read the responses. For me, the answer is two simple but powerful words: radical grace.
Growing up as a preacher’s kid, I’ve been “swimming” in the waters of grace all my life—learning about grace, singing about grace, receiving grace, extending grace—yet not always consistently and certainly not perfectly. Though I can say that God’s radical grace literally saves me every day, and I’m overwhelmingly grateful for that, it wasn’t until just a few years ago, when I began my journey through the nine-month Retreat in Daily Life (the Spiritual Exercises), that I truly began to extend this same radical grace to myself. And that has been a game changer for me.
What does it mean to offer ourselves radical grace? And what is grace anyway? It's one of those "church words" that is used so often it can get watered down and lose its impact. Grace can be defined as unmerited favor, and that means undeserved approval or kindness. In other words, radical grace is lovingkindness without judgment--freely given, not earned. And the source of this lovingkindness is God. In John’s Gospel we read, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.... For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:14, 16 ESV). In addition to God’s general grace, evident in so many gifts that are ours to enjoy every day, we have God’s specific and ultimate gift of grace through Jesus Christ. Because of Jesus, we have unlimited forgiveness, unconditional acceptance, and never-ending love.
Radical grace is lovingkindness without judgment—freely given, not earned.
Because God showers us with radical grace, we can extend to ourselves the same grace that we receive from God. Brennan Manning writes, “Genuine self-acceptance is not derived from the power of positive thinking, mind games or pop psychology. IT IS AN ACT OF FAITH in the God of grace.”1 To put it simply, because God accepts us as we are, we can do the same, trusting that our faithful God will do the work of refining and shaping us. This point is critical. God is the one who changes us, though we are involved in the process. So, if God accepts us completely as we are in every moment, continually showering us with lovingkindness, we can too. This kind of radical self-acceptance, made possible by God’s radical grace, is what opens us to true transformation.
I’ve found this to be true in my own life, especially during the last 18 months, which have been filled with so much loss, fear, change, transition, conflict, division, and uncertainty. I’ve discovered that offering myself radical grace in the midst of the highs and the lows, just as God does, opens me to God’s deeper work within. Radical grace helps to shine a light on those tricky and sometimes imperceptible obstacles within us such as unrelenting obligation, performance, comparison, criticism, false guilt, and shame so that I can talk honestly with God about them, leading to healing and freedom.
Offering myself radical grace in the midst of the highs and the lows, just as God does,
opens me to God’s deeper work within.
Of course, I am and always will be a work in progress. But it helps me to know that God’s love is continually at work in my life, regardless of what I may be thinking or feeling on any given day. Paradoxically, the more I accept myself as I am, the more I can let go and trust God to do the work that only God can do.
The more I accept myself as I am, the more I can let go and trust God to do the work that only God can do.
So, what does offering ourselves radical grace look like? Here are a few examples:
This isn't easy. Many of us find it much easier to give grace to others than to ourselves. As the saying goes, we are our own worst critics. We would never speak to a friend the way we sometimes speak to ourselves—with harsh, unkind, and even condemning words. The truth is that our inner critic is only a part of us, and this part needs radical grace, too! We can begin by speaking to our inner critic with compassion, love, and kindness, thanking it for trying to help us do better while affirming that it’s okay to be just as we are in this moment as we look to God for whatever help we need.
As with anything, it takes practice to get better at giving ourselves radical grace—which goes beyond “knowing” that God gives us grace. And "practicing" radical grace requires time and persistence. But here's the good news: the more we do it, the easier it becomes to…
I encourage you to give radical grace a try. Start small and be persistent. Then begin offering yourself more and more radical grace—just as God does—and watch God work. And remember, you don’t have to worry if you’re “going too far” with grace because you can’t out-grace God! God can be trusted to complete the work begun in you. My prayer is that you, too, will be able to say that grace has not only saved your life but is saving it each and every day.
You don't have to worry if you're "going too far" with grace because you can't out-grace God!
1. Excerpt from The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-Up, and Burnt Out, Brennan Manning (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2008), 32.
Hi, I'm Sally!
I'm passionate about connecting with God and connecting with people, offering spiritual encouragement and companionship. I'm so grateful to be on the journey with you as we walk with God together.