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.
As I was reading the story of Moses and the burning bush recently, I thought about how Moses saw something that caught his attention and then paused to stop and be curious about it. As a result, he encountered and heard from God. I wondered if there had been other burning bushes prior to that day but Moses had been too distracted or preoccupied to notice. Or perhaps God had tried to get Moses’ attention in other ways on other days. We don’t know. What we do know is that on this day, Moses was paying attention, and that opened him to hear God’s invitation to embrace and participate in the vision of freeing God’s people.
As I continued to reflect on the story, I heard in my spirit: “Today is a day to remember one of your own burning bush moments.”
I sat with that perplexing thought for a moment, and then suddenly I knew what it was. About eight years ago during a group activity at a work retreat, God very unexpectedly but unmistakably planted the seed of a vision within me—to be in ministry with my husband, Neil, who is a counselor. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, and it would take several years of discernment and then several years of training as a spiritual director before we would begin to have a hint of “shared ministry” as we led a few small groups together. Now, on this day, we would have our first ministry session together with a couple preparing for marriage—each of us bringing our unique training and insights as well as our shared experience of leading others through the resource “How We Love.” I recognized the significance of this day—of having eyes to see God’s vision taking shape—and I was filled with overwhelming gratitude. Gratitude for that “burning bush” moment at the retreat all those years ago, gratitude for the journey of discernment that led to the path of spiritual direction, and gratitude for all that God has done and is doing. It seemed important not only to remember my burning bush moment but also to share it, giving God all the glory.
There are potential "burning bush" moments every day. All we have to do is pay attention, be curious, and listen.
Perhaps you will be encouraged, as I have been, by the realization that there are potential “burning bush” moments every day. All we have to do is pay attention, be curious, and listen. They’re usually not “spectacular” or miraculous events but ordinary moments when God breaks through the mundane. In fact, that’s God’s specialty—communicating to us through everyday moments we might be tempted to overlook or dismiss.
God wants to speak to you through your “burning bush.” Just be attentive, curious, and ready to listen.*
*If you're uncertain how God is communicating with you, meeting with a spiritual director can help you to become more aware of and attentive to God's presence and activity in your life. Talking with a trusted spiritual companion about what you sense God is saying and doing—as well as your doubts, fears, and questions—helps to bring clarity and facilitates the process of discernment. Spiritual direction creates a safe space where you can be seen, known, and loved as your authentic self and deepen your relationship with God—the one who knows you best and loves you most.
If you’re online, you’ve probably seen at least one of the Holderness family’s funny music parody videos (theholdernessfamily.com). They’ve been especially relatable and entertaining this past year as we’ve all been walking through this unprecedented pandemic wilderness experience together. Believe it or not, Kim Holderness is an introvert, and recently she wrote about needing to ease back into social activity after this long season of isolation. (She admits extroverts will feel very differently about that!) Kim says when it comes to all sorts of relationships, she approaches them the way she gets into a pool—slowly and deliberately. She writes, “I take my time, but once I’m in, I’m loyal for life” ("To My Friends Who Keep Showing Up").
I can relate to that. I’ve always been one to ease into the pool—both literally and figuratively. But once I’ve waded into a relationship, I’m “in.” Even if I haven’t seen or talked to someone in a while, I carry them in my heart, always ready and eager to reconnect without skipping a beat. For those who have the desire to maintain an active, reciprocal friendship, I’m like a Collie—as loyal as they come. But one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is that others approach relationships differently. Some of us are more like Labradors, always eager to make new friends and embrace change. Others of us might be more similar to a Bloodhound by being drawn to our work or callings and seeing friendships more as bonuses than necessities. None of these approaches is necessarily “right” or “wrong,” only different. And it's important to understand and accept our differences while learning to navigate them in a way that leads to health rather than harm.
It's important to understand and accept our differences while learning to navigate them in a way that leads to health rather than harm.
Regardless of our approach to relationships, there is one thing that is vital for all of us, and that is to recognize that every relationship has incredible value and sacred worth. For many of us, this pandemic has heightened our awareness of this truth. We were created to live in relationship, to need one another. And those whom God has brought into our lives—especially those we call family or friends—are precious gifts, each one meant to offer us something valuable. We can lose sight of this if we’re focused on always wanting others to conform to our needs and desires rather than considering theirs.
Every relationship has incredible value and sacred worth.
The truth is, we all are works in progress and have areas where we need to grow. In fact, each of us should seek to be self-aware and keep moving toward health and wholeness, because we’re all on a healing journey in this life. None of us has arrived yet. Each of us—even that person who seems to have it all together—has more healing and growing to do. (If you doubt that, just have coffee with them and really listen.) Simply recognizing this fact goes a long way toward helping us to appreciate and value every person, giving them the grace to be where they are on the journey. Of course, there will be some people who are unsafe—who repeatedly hurt us, whether physically, emotionally, or mentally—and we must learn to set appropriate, healthy boundaries in those cases. (Sometimes we can establish boundaries and remain in relationship, while other times it's wise to remove ourselves from relationship. A counselor, spiritual director, or pastor can help with discernment.) Yet even in situations involving unsafe people, there are lessons for us to receive, such as wisdom and self-love.
As things are beginning to open up and we’re emerging from this season of isolation into more connection and social activity, it’s healthy to spend some time talking with God about our relationships. Whether you’re an introvert who wants to ease back into social activity or an extrovert who’s ready to go full blazes; whether you’re more like a Collie, Labrador, or Bloodhound in your approach to relationships; whether you have a large circle of friends and acquaintances, a small circle of more intimate relationships, or something in-between—contemplating the purpose of relationships and the value of every person God has brought into your life can help you to be both intentional and open as you assess where you are now and where you’d like to be in these relationships.
It's healthy to spend some time talking with God about our relationships.
Is this a time to renew old relationships, pour into current relationships, or anticipate and cultivate new ones? Perhaps it’s a time for all three. Rather than making this determination on your own and jumping ahead to decisions about what you will and won’t do, I encourage you to pause for prayerful reflection and allow God to direct you. We can rest in knowing that God desires for us to live in community and have lifegiving relationships, and God promises to direct our path when we release control and trust in God’s wisdom and guidance (Proverbs 3:5-6). My prayer is that we all will have eyes to see every relationship in our lives as a gift from God and an opportunity to both receive and offer God’s love.
Reflective Exercise: Attending to My Relationships
You will need paper (or a journal) and pen for this exercise.
I just returned from a three-day personal retreat. Why on earth would I go away by myself for even more solitude when we’ve been isolated for so long in the pandemic? Because the noise, distractions, and challenges of daily life can dull our spiritual ears and hearts—even if we live alone or in relative quiet with just one other person, as I do. Add in some delayed grief and another recent loss, and I knew I was overdue. I longed to hear God’s voice within more clearly and reconnect with my spiritual heart, discovering my God-given desires in this season.
This time away brought rest, release, and renewal as I surrendered to the invitation to simply “be” and enjoy things that bring me joy. For me, that included things like taking walks, journaling, meditating on scripture, practicing yoga, coloring, painting, playing my flute (I realized how much I have missed that), savoring fresh juice, observing the beauty of spring, going barefoot, and simply sitting and listening to a thunderstorm. Besides talking with God in my usual ways, I allowed all of these activities to become prayer—moments of enjoying God’s company as we just hung out together. Despite some popular misconceptions, God is a really fun companion! And that’s good news, because God’s Spirit, who dwells within us, actually is our constant companion.
Despite some popular misconceptions, God is a really fun companion!
Throughout my three days of solitude, I sensed the invitation to simply receive and rest in God’s great love--for me. It was a beautiful time of allowing God to love me and allowing myself to love me, too. At times my inner critic and task manager whispered that something I was doing was “wasting time” or nonproductive. And I just gently responded that being with God and enjoying each other’s company is never a waste of time; it actually redeems time by restoring what so much of our “productive time” has stolen from us. God knew that this simple yet profoundly meaningful “resting and receiving” is just what my soul needed right now.
Being with God and enjoying each other’s company is never a waste of time; it actually redeems time by restoring what so much of our “productive time” has stolen from us.
Though I did receive some clarity about my heart’s desires, I realized with great clarity that my deepest desire is simply to be filled with love—to remain in what Ignatian spirituality (which, by the way, is incredibly practical spirituality) calls the “love loop”: God loving us (in a million different ways each day), and us loving God and others in response. Becoming more and more aware of this love loop each and every day is what helps us to remain in it—and then to get back in the loop when we fall out of it, as we all do (quite regularly, in fact).
When we’re attentive to how continually and overwhelmingly God loves us, just as we are, nothing is more natural than to love in response. Take in these beautiful words of Pedro Arrupe:
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 will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who 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.*
I encourage you to take time for solitude and silence, even if all you can think about right now is being with others and returning to some sense of normalcy. I long for that too. But unlike the solitude of the pandemic, the gift of intentional solitude—chosen for the purpose of connecting more deeply with ourselves and with God—refreshes our souls and spirits unlike anything else. And that's something we all need in this season.
“Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” —Anonymous
“Being solitary is being alone well: being alone luxuriously immersed in doings of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than of the absence of others.” —Alice Koller
“There is a difference between loneliness and solitude, one will empty you, and one will fill you. You have the power to choose.” —Anonymous
I’m writing this on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, which is the period of forty days preceding Easter. Traditionally, it is a season for reflection and repentance—turning toward God and away from whatever separates us from God—as we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Easter. The forty days of Lent represent the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, enduring temptation and suffering before he began his ministry. It’s an opportunity to identify with Christ and deepen our relationship with God. A common practice during this season is to fast or give up something so that we become more aware of our reliance on God and both increase and intensify our time in prayer.
In the past I’ve given up certain foods, social media, and unhelpful practices such as complaining—some with more “success” than others—though it’s really not about “success” at all but about the practice of focusing our minds on God. Yet, if we’re really honest, there are times when our self-denial may be less about deepening our relationship with God and more about losing weight, becoming healthier, or bettering ourselves in some way. Or we might tell ourselves that any self-improvement resulting from our self-denial is merely a nice “bonus.” I’ll admit I've told myself that before—just keeping it real.
If we're really honest, there are times when our self-denial may be less about deepening our relationship with God and more about . . . bettering ourselves in some way.
Like many others, I’ve found that giving up something for Lent is not always the best way for me to draw closer to God. Sometimes taking on something—such as adding or recommitting to a spiritual practice or being intentional in the ways I love and serve others—helps me to experience God more fully. Just as God speaks to us in different ways, we can be drawn to different practices at different times, especially if we’re in a season of hardship or loss.
The last two years have brought some significant losses in my life—the loss of my mother-in-law to Alzheimer’s, my father to Parkinson’s, several family friends to Covid and other illnesses, both of our longtime pets to advanced age, and another loss I will share more about at another time. Though your losses may be very different than mine, the truth is that the last year has brought loss and difficulty to all of us. This continues to be an ongoing wilderness season, adding the weight of communal loss to what we are carrying personally. So, this Lent I’m sensing an invitation to journey through the season with gentleness and grace, giving myself permission to do the things that draw me nearer to God and help me to experience and rest in God’s extravagant love—which, after all, is the reason God sent Jesus in the first place (John 3:16). God’s message always has been and always will be, “You are so loved!” That’s a message I need every day, and I suspect you do too.
This Lent I’m sensing an invitation to journey through the season with gentleness and grace, giving myself permission to do the things that draw me nearer to God and help me to experience and rest in God’s extravagant love.
For the next forty days, I’m letting go of rigidity and choosing simply to “hang out” with God each day in whatever way I feel drawn. Some days I may spend time in Centering Prayer, which is sitting quietly with God without words. (If that appeals to you, see below.) Other days I may choose to journal, capturing my conversation with God on paper. (If that interests you, also see below.) Some days I may choose to spend time in imaginative prayer, entering the Scripture scene through the God-given gift of my imagination—one of the most experiential and powerful ways we can pray. No doubt there will be days when I simply take a walk or spend time on my yoga mat, meditating on God and God’s Word as I move my body. Whatever I do, I will allow the Spirit to lead me, asking myself questions such as these:
What will give me life today?
What will deepen my connection with God/Christ today?
What will increase my sense of faith/hope/love today?
What will give me joy in the Lord today?
Giving up something may be just what you need to draw you closer to God this Lent. If so, I encourage you to allow your self-denial to be a way of walking gently toward Easter, remembering that the objective is not to be “successful” but simply to focus on your relationship with God. Or perhaps, like me, you may decide that what will bring more spiritual growth in this season is to add rather than subtract something from your life. Maybe you will choose a combination of the two. Whatever you decide, I encourage you to discern what will deepen the life and love of God in you
Lent is not a one-size-fits-all season, and it’s okay for your practices to look different from those of others.
Lent is not a one-size-fits-all season, and it’s okay for your practices to look different from those of others. Listen to your deepest, truest self—the part of you where the Spirit of God dwells—and allow God’s Spirit in you to reveal what will be most nourishing to your spiritual heart right now. Then choose to do that, trusting that your journey will bring you closer to the heart of God!
Join us each Wednesday during Lent for 30 minutes of Centering Prayer and learn to rest in God's love as we sit in silence with no other agenda except letting go and trusting him. Click here to register.
Join us on Saturday, March 6 from 9:00 am - 12:00 pm CST for this introduction to journaling as a spiritual practice. Click here to register.
It’s the start of a new year, and everywhere I look I see suggestions for how to make improvements in my life, from physical fitness to organization to spiritual growth. I’m all for ongoing growth, especially spiritual growth; but so often we approach our spiritual formation as a to-do list, thinking that if we just read the Bible more, pray more, or serve more, then we will reap spiritual growth (become more like Christ). The emphasis in this mindset is on self-effort and striving, which lead to shame. These three life-taking S’s keep us trapped in a cycle of performance:
Actually, the path to spiritual growth is one of releasing, not doing. It’s a process of letting go of self-effort, striving, and shame so that we can allow God to transform us, making us who we are meant to be. Contemplative practices facilitate this process, enabling us to quiet our minds and connect deeply with God so that “God, who began the good work within [us], will continue his work until it is finally finished….” (Philippians 1:6 NLT). Our part in this process is letting go through three life-giving S’s that lead to transformation:
The path to spiritual growth is one of releasing, not doing.
There was a time when I resisted these three S’s. As a 2 on the Enneagram (which is one way of looking at personality types), I desire connection, which generally involves being with people and communicating. So, silence and solitude were not initially appealing to me. Similarly, my 3 wing likes to be valued for being productive, something that our culture not only encourages but actually demands of us—and something that is not possible in stillness. But as I have learned to embrace silence, solitude, and stillness, I have discovered that these contemplative practices actually deliver so much more than the motivations of my ego ever could. The same is true for you, whatever your Enneagram number or interior motivation might be. Silence, solitude, and stillness slow us down, allowing us to let go of mental clutter, connect deeply with God, and rest in God's healing presence and love. And that is what transforms us.
If you're still not convinced, I get it. Few of us are inclined to enthusiastically embrace silence, solitude, or stillness—at least not in the beginning. From the time we rise in the morning to the time we go to sleep at night, we’re continually stimulated by a variety of screens and other "inputs" that keep our minds engaged and our hearts distracted. There is much within us that resists slowing down and quieting the noise. Quiet allows our fears, worries, regrets, disappointments, doubts, and resentments to surface—and who wants that, right? But here's the liberating truth: making space for these things to surface gives us the opportunity to practice noticing them and then letting them go as we acknowledge we are not in control and invite God to work within us. Silence, solitude, and stillness open us to this transformative work.
Centering prayer is a good way to begin practicing these postures that invite God’s deep work within. (See below for the guidelines and benefits of centering prayer.) In this practice of praying without words, God is accomplishing something we could never do for ourselves, something too deep for words. When I think of centering prayer, I think of Romans 8:26-27, which tells us that when we do not know what to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with “wordless groans” (NIV), searching our hearts. I love how The Message Bible expresses it:
“If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.”
We might say that centering prayer is the practice of completely trusting the Spirit of God to pray and work in us. Our part is simply to show up and "practice" letting go, noticing and releasing thoughts and emotions as they arise and then returning to resting in God. And, as with anything we “practice,” the fruit of our practice comes over time. The key is to stick with it and trust that, slowly but surely, noticeable changes will become evident—both within us and within our lives.
Centering prayer is the practice of completely trusting the Spirit of God to pray and work in us.
I admit that when I first started practicing centering prayer, it seemed that nothing was happening, and I was impatient with the process. But in time, I began to notice in my daily experience some of the benefits I had read about, such as being more present to God and others, more responsive (rather than reactive), and more at peace. Once I had this realization, I was hooked! Though purists suggest spending twenty minutes in prayer once or twice daily, I've found that to be unrealistic with my schedule. So, believing that something is better than nothing and that flexibility and customization are not only acceptable but also desirable when it comes to spiritual practices (after all, God works with each of us uniquely), I gave myself permission to develop a centering prayer practice that works for me. Though the duration of my silence varies, I notice benefits as long as I consistently make space for the practice.
During the past couple of years, which brought several significant losses, practicing silence, solitude, and stillness has been instrumental in helping me to "let go" and surrender to God’s work within me. This practice helped me through 2020, and I'm counting on it to see me through 2021. In fact, I have decided to make even more space in my life this year for this transformational practice. Phileena Heuertz says that "To the extent we are transformed, the world is transformed,"* and I agree that our our own transformation is necessary for the transformation of the world around us.
Our own transformation is necessary for the transformation of the world around us.
If you would like to join me in inviting God to do a deep work in you as you slow down and make space for more silence, solitude, and stillness this year, centering prayer is an excellent way to get started. For many people, sitting in silence with others can be more comfortable than doing it alone. Though a mystery, it's possible to experience solitude and community simultaneously. In fact, joining others in silence actually unites us as we rest in God’s love together.
During the season of Lent (the forty days preceding Easter), my friend and fellow spiritual director Scott Spradley and I will be offering an online centering prayer group designed as an introduction to the practice. We will meet on Zoom each Wednesday during the Lenten season. All are welcome, and we’d love to have you join us (see below for more info). Or if you’d like to try centering prayer on your own, I encourage you to download the centering prayer app from Contemplative Outreach (also see below), which allows you to select the duration of your silence and offers a variety of beginning/ending sounds and a selection of opening/closing prayers.
Of course, centering prayer is not the only way to slow down and connect more deeply with God. Observing regular Sabbath rest, meditating on Scripture (such as lectio divina), journaling, observing nature, taking walks or hikes, and practicing breath prayer are just a few examples of other contemplative practices. Choose one or two practices that appeal to you and commit to stick with them for several months, trusting that God is doing what you cannot do for yourself even if you do not yet see evidence of it. Be patient and remember that change comes over time. Whatever you choose, my prayer is that this year you will let go of striving and invite the deep work of God within you.
3 GUIDELINES OF CENTERING PRAYER
BENEFITS OF CENTERING PRAYER
CENTERING PRAYER APP
What: Introduction to Centering Prayer (Online Group)
When: Every Wednesday, February 17th - March 31, 2021, 5:30 - 6:00 p.m.
Sign Up Here: www.prov.church/sign-up (coming soon; or contact me at www.sallysharpe.net)
*Quoted in The Sacred Enneagram, Christopher L. Heuertz (Grand Rapids, MI: 2017), 172.
Years ago, when my girls were around the ages of five and eight, I had a myelogram to determine the cause of ongoing back pain. After the procedure, I developed a spinal fluid leak that caused a spinal headache, which is a debilitating headache that worsens when sitting or standing and improves when lying down. After being upright for just a little while, I would have to lie down again because the pain was so severe. It felt like my head was literally going to explode. Hands down it was the worst pain I’ve ever experienced in my life.
After spending a couple of weeks flat on my back, it was recommended that I have a blood patch in an attempt to block the leak; but the procedure seemed to create even more of an opening, and I wound up worse than before.
I remember lying flat on the couch on Christmas morning as the girls opened their presents, bringing them over to me one at a time for me to see what Santa had brought. Then their grandparents took them to eat Christmas brunch and visit with extended family while Neil stayed with me, watching one Christmas movie after another as we lay in the bed. (And that was quite a sacrifice because several of them were on the Lifetime channel!)
Months went by, and I was able to be up for one and then two and then three hours at a time before having to lie down again. But I had to plan my activity strategically and be prepared to lie down again when the debilitating pain returned, which caused a great deal of anxiety. I didn’t know if I would ever recover and be “normal” again. Not being able to care for my family and seeing the toll it was taking on Neil was as bad as the physical pain itself.
During this time, I struggled to hope. I memorized and meditated on Romans 12:12 continuously: “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” Though I was managing the last two as best I could, I simply could not be joyful in hope. Hope seemed like empty, wishful thinking to me.
Hope seemed like empty, wishful thinking to me.
One day Neil came home with a gift—an angel holding a banner that says “Hope.” He knew I was struggling and thought that this visual reminder might help me to set my mind on hope and, in time, allow it to take hold of my heart as well. I remember staring at that angel each day, asking God to give me hope while feeling mostly anxiety, fear, and deep sadness.
Six months later I was still struggling physically and emotionally, but we made plans to go out for dinner to celebrate our anniversary. I rested all day so that I might be able to be upright for several hours. We chose a new restaurant and arranged for a babysitter for the girls. It felt so good to be out doing something so “normal”—something I realized I had taken for granted, like so many other things. It was a very nice evening—until about halfway through the meal. The familiar tightness and throbbing pain began in my lower neck and slowly made its way up the back of my head, increasing in intensity as it progressed. Tears began to stream down my face as I told Neil another headache had begun and we would have to leave. He knew my greatest fear was that I would never get better, but he didn’t know that the underlying fear was that the strain of it all eventually would tear us apart. So I was overcome when he looked me in the eyes and said, “If you never get better, I will always be here. I’m not going anywhere. I love you.”
Although the pain continued to increase that evening, I sensed that something significant was happening within me. You see, from that moment on, I knew that whatever happened, we would face it together. I was loved, and I wasn’t alone. Though I had known this before, I needed the reassurance. Neil’s declaration of love and faithfulness assuaged my fear and gave me hope.
In the coming weeks, I began to realize that Neil’s words were much more than a personal declaration. They also were God's loving message to me, communicated through Neil: “I love you, and I am with you. I will never leave you or forsake you.” God used someone with skin on to communicate a message I desperately needed to hear. Now when I starred at the angel with the banner of hope, I realized that hope is not tied to external circumstances but to internal assurances. Hope flows from knowing that whatever might happen, we are loved and never alone. The greatest hope of all is found in God’s faithful love and presence.
I realized that hope is not tied to external circumstances but to internal assurances. Hope flows from knowing that whatever might happen, we are loved and never alone.
As that hope began to take hold of me, my physical healing slowly accelerated. Within two months—praise God—I was pain free.
Of course, physical healing is not a guaranteed outcome of hope or faith. And every relationship does not survive difficult circumstances. Those are not the points I am making. What I want to remind us of, to reassure us of, is that regardless of our circumstances—when the suffering continues, the relationship ends, the outcome looks bleak—our loving, faithful God promises to walk through it with us. We are never alone, and we are always loved—even when we despair and lose all hope. God comes to be with us in our pain and, in time, to restore our hope. And God often sends messengers with skin on to help us know and remember God's faithful love for us. In fact, that is why God came to earth as Emmanuel, which means “God with us”—so that we might know God understands our plight, loves us completely, and enters into our suffering with us. God not only enters our suffering but also redeems it.
I believe this is something we all need to be reassured of this Christmas in particular. Whatever 2020 has brought for you and yours, whatever you have suffered, whatever pain you are now carrying, whatever hopes have been crushed or lost—remember this: you are dearly loved, and you are never alone. Emmanuel knows your circumstances and promises to be with you through them. God can even redeem your suffering. Hold onto that hope. I pray it will take hold of you and bring whatever healing you need this season. May you recognize God’s loving and faithful presence, and may it fill you with the gift of hope!
“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (Matthew 1:23 NIV)
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. (Romans 12:12 NIV)
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13 NIV)
This has been one of the most beautiful falls we’ve had in several years—and we’ve certainly needed it, haven’t we? The leaves have been spectacular, displaying their vivid colors against the bright blue autumn sky. One reason it has been especially beautiful to me is that the red-leafed maple trees have seemed more prevalent this year, accenting the mix of yellow- and orange-leafed trees that are more common here in Middle Tennessee. Perhaps there aren’t actually more maple trees than last year, but it’s just their year to show off. And they’re certainly doing a good job of that! In any case, I have truly enjoyed the diversity of colors.
Diversity makes the world more interesting and beautiful. That’s the appeal of travel—visiting places where the scenery is unique, filling us with awe and wonder in our amazing God. We were made to appreciate, even long for, the creativity and beauty of our diverse world.
Here’s a question I’ve been pondering this fall as I’ve enjoyed the colorful trees in the midst of so much discord all around us: Why do we so easily embrace the diversity we see in the natural world yet often struggle to embrace the diversity we see in other people? This year, with all that has been going on in our nation and our world, “difference” has seemed to cause more distrust than appreciation, more division than celebration. And it has taken its toll on us—even among family members and friends. All of the arguing and name calling we’ve witnessed—and perhaps participated in at times—has caused many to draw sharp dividing lines, relegating people to camps or “boxes.” Yet the truth is that despite our differences and disagreements, we all are beautiful creations of our amazing God. Regardless of our views on COVID or masks or the election or race relations or any other issue we could name, we all are dearly loved by the creative God who made us.
Despite our differences and disagreements, we all are beautiful creations of our amazing God.
God doesn’t love us “if”—if we look or think or act a certain way. God simply loves us. We do nothing to earn God’s love. It is freely extended to us without condition. That is why God’s Son came to earth, so that we could know the extent of God’s love—"how wide, how long, how high, and how deep" it is (Ephesians 3:18 NLT). It is a love that rescues, liberates, and transforms—and it is meant for all. God’s unconditional love doesn’t excuse or overlook hurtful behavior, and there are consequences to our actions; but God never gives up on us. And that’s good news! Regardless of our differences, we have this in common: God never stops pursuing us and inviting us to be transformed and healed by God's love so that we can love each other with that same astonishing love.
Soon we will be gathering around our tables to give thanks. Though our numbers may be smaller this year and some of us may be joining loved ones via Zoom or FaceTime, we still will have the opportunity to bear witness to the beautiful diversity and creativity of God on display within our very own families and friends. So, here’s my Thanksgiving proposition. As we cook and eat and talk together, let’s redeem 2020 by making space for one another to be seen, known, and loved. Let’s allow each other to be who we are, extending an invitation to freely share our hurts and hopes with one another (if it feels safe to do so). Let’s listen to each other’s thoughts and viewpoints—truly listen—without judgment or ridicule, remembering that our differences do not have to separate us but actually can be like good seasoning, adding variety and spice to our lives. Just think how bland Thanksgiving dinner would be without sage, thyme, rosemary, or pumpkin spice! In the same way, our lives would be dull and boring without the differences of others—even the ones we may find irritating at times.
Our differences do not have to separate us but actually can be like good seasoning, adding variety and spice to our lives.
That child or teenager who is pushing our buttons? What if we took a breath and remembered that we were their age once too, giving them room to grow and discover who they are?
That spouse or roommate who is getting under our skin because we’ve been cooped up together for nine months? Just think how much we would miss them—and their idiosyncrasies—if they weren’t a part of our lives anymore.
That relative or friend who has different political or religious views and can be opinionated? Perhaps it will help to remember that “us” versus “them” constructs are rooted in fear (the fear of what we don’t know, don’t understand, or can’t control), and reacting defensively only closes us off, creating more barriers. But listening without defensiveness opens us to understanding, empathy, and connection (none of which, by the way, requires agreement or assent).
Here's an important caveat. If you have been abused (whether verbally or physically), deeply hurt, or repeatedly disrespected by someone, setting boundaries is necessary and important for your own well-being. Depending on the situation, that might mean not having contact for a period of time or even deciding that it’s not healthy for that person to be a part of your life. (Meeting with a counselor, pastor, or spiritual director can be helpful as you discern appropriate boundaries.) If you do spend time with an unsafe person who begins to speak or act disrespectfully or cause harm in any way, it’s always appropriate to set a boundary. Sometimes loving others with the love of Christ means saying, “It’s not OK for you to speak to me/treat me that way” and removing yourself from the situation or asking the other person to leave. Embracing differences does not mean allowing others to do harm to yourself or others.
Embracing differences does not mean allowing others to do harm to yourself or others.
My prayer for all of us this Thanksgiving, whether we gather in person or connect virtually with loved ones, is that we will keep our focus on the people we love, not the things that threaten to divide us. Let’s be thankful for the unique individuals God has made us to be and look for the things we can affirm in each other—even if it’s only that we recognize the other person’s individuality and passion. Then, as we begin to embrace the diversity of the people in our homes or on our screens, let’s invite God to continue healing and stretching our hearts so that we can appreciate and embrace even more people who are different from us. Whether they live across the street, across town, across the country, or across the globe, may we ask God to enable us to love them with the astonishing, inclusive love of Christ.
16 And I pray that [God] would unveil within you the unlimited riches of his glory and favor until supernatural strength floods your innermost being with his divine might and explosive power.
17 Then, by constantly using your faith, the life of Christ will be released deep inside you, and the resting place of his love will become the very source and root of your life.
18–19 Then you will be empowered to discover what every holy one experiences—the great magnitude of the astonishing love of Christ in all its dimensions. How deeply intimate and far-reaching is his love! How enduring and inclusive it is! Endless love beyond measurement that transcends our understanding—this extravagant love pours into you until you are filled to overflowing with the fullness of God! (Ephesians 3:16-19 The Passion Translation)
The Big three of spiritual discernment
Call me strange, but I actually like organizing my closet and transitioning from spring/summer clothes to fall/winter clothes, storing the off-season clothing in storage bags on a top shelf. I play music loudly (as I sing along) and take time weeding out items I haven’t worn in the last year. As I was putting away my summer dresses, I realized I did not wear a single one of them this year. Not one. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to; there simply had been nowhere for me to wear them. Suddenly, a wave of disappointment washed over me.
Now, I’m happy in shorts and jeans, which is what I lived in this summer, so it wasn’t the fact that I hadn’t worn the dresses that was causing my disappointment. It was what they represented—all of the social gatherings, worship experiences, special occasions (including a vacation with friends, which I had bought a new sundress for), and professional interactions and events that hadn't happened. The dresses reminded me of all the in-person connections I’ve missed—and dearly.
As I acknowledged the sadness I was feeling, tears began to form in my eyes. I knew it was time for “the big three.” This is the process at the heart of spiritual discernment that has been saving my life during this year of disappointments and challenges:
The Big Three
In a nutshell, the process of discernment helps us to live with our spiritual eyes open so we can become aware of, understand, and respond appropriately to what is happening within us. Discernment helps us to connect with God, listen, and choose what will lead to God’s deepening love and life in us. As we’re going about our everyday lives—working, cooking, eating, exercising, doing chores, having a conversation, or cleaning out a closet—we simply become aware, understand, and respond.
The process of discernment helps us to live with our spiritual eyes open so we can become aware of, understand, and respond appropriately to what is happening within us.
Here are a few helps for each step of the process:
1. Awareness. The first step is simply to notice what we are feeling and thinking. We might think of it as becoming aware of our interior experience with “open eyes.” In other words, we listen to our hearts and notice our thoughts. We become self-aware by taking time to slow down, notice, and listen to ourselves.
Ask yourself: What is happening within me?
2. Understanding. The second step is thinking about the feelings and thoughts we have named and considering where they are leading us. Every thought and feeling either moves us toward God or away from God; either fosters connection with God or disconnection with God; either increases love or diminishes love.
Ask yourself: Is this thought/feeling leading me toward God or away from God? Is it increasing or decreasing my sense of connection with God? Is it helping me to love God, others, and myself? What does God want me to understand about it?
3. Response. The final step is choosing to take action with spiritual wisdom. This involves prayerfully determining what will enable us to love God, others, and self (Matthew 22:37-39) and deepen the life of God within us. We consider what will bring benefit and not harm, choosing what helps and letting go of what does not. We intentionally respond in a way that will move us toward God and increase our experience of God's love.
Ask yourself: What will move me toward God rather than away from God? What will help me to love God, others, and myself? What will bring benefit rather than harm to myself and others?
The outcome of the discernment process is being able to choose what will lead us to a deepening experience of God and God’s love, which leads to healing and wholehearted living. It is built upon the foundation that God is love, God wants to be in relationship with us, and God is constantly communicating with us and showing us more of who God is and what God desires for us.
The outcome of the discernment process is being able to choose what will lead us to a deepening experience of God and God’s love.
As I stood in my closet, I became aware that I was incredibly sad—not only because of the loss of certain events and experiences, but also because of the missed connections with others. Feeling connected with others is both a basic need and a unique passion that God has given me. I feel most alive—knowing I’m living from my true self—when I connect deeply with others, heart to heart. As I named my sadness and the loss behind it, I had “open eyes” to notice an even deeper sadness related to a couple of other disappointments or losses, and I allowed myself to acknowledge, name, and feel each of those hurts as well. (Often the sadness we feel in a particular moment is connected with other hurts causing the same emotion. For deeper discernment, we can ask God to help us remember when we’ve felt that same emotion in the past, seeing what comes up.)
Next I asked God to show me what I needed to understand about these disappointments—where they were leading me. I realized that one hurt was moving me toward self-pity, and another was opening the door to resentment. Rather than feeling any guilt or condemnation for those admissions, I felt only the warmth of God’s compassion for me in that moment of authenticity with the One who knows me best and loves me most. The question now was how would I respond? What would help me let go of what was harmful and embrace what would be beneficial?
After some reflection, I sensed God inviting me to radically accept that all of God’s gifts are temporary, yet the love behind and within them continues. God uses all things, every gift, to grow us in love. This means that even our disappointments and losses can become gifts of love if we allow God to use them to deepen our life in God. Though this doesn’t eliminate the pain of the loss, it does lead to acceptance, healing, and wisdom (which usually is a process).
Now sitting on the floor, I knew the action I needed to take was to remember and celebrate the gifts of love that I’ve been given through the people and things and experiences I was grieving. I chose to give thanks and to remind myself of particular moments and specific gifts of love I had received. It was a healing experience in an ordinary moment surrounded by shoes and hangers and dresses.
Earlier I had considered whether or not to bother getting out my fall and winter dresses. Would I even wear them this season? Suddenly, with a burst of energy and a smile on my face, I knew what I wanted to do: hang up every dress with hope and expectation. Even if I don’t have the opportunity to wear them, they will remind me that God has given me the gift of passion for connecting with others; and although the expression of that passion may look different in this season, it will continue to grow me in the love of God.
What are you missing this year? What disappointments or losses are causing you sadness, hurt, anger, or some other emotion? I encourage you to give “the big three” a try. It can be a quick process that takes only a few minutes, or it can be a longer period of reflection if you have the time. If desired, journaling can be a helpful aid in the process as you write your responses to the questions above and listen for God’s replies. Give yourself permission to go slowly and learn gradually. (You also might find the guidance of a spiritual director to be helpful.) Most of all, know that whatever arises as you pay attention to your inner experience, God looks upon you with great love. God’s desire is always to lead you into a deepening connection and experience of divine love—a love that heals and never fails.
I don’t have much of a green thumb. I never have. I do best with plants like philodendrons, peace lilies, and aloe plants. So, when my friend gave me an aloe plant on my birthday a year ago, I thought, Great! I should be able to keep this alive! I put it in just the right spot so that it would get some sun—but not too much—and I watered it about once every week or two as suggested. It did great for a long time, and then I began to notice that it seemed to be struggling. I tried watering it more often, but that didn’t help. Next, I trimmed back some of the places on its leaves where it was drying up and turning brown, but that did nothing except make it look even sadder. Then one day my daughter Brenna said matter-of-factly, “You need to transplant your aloe plant to a bigger pot.” (Both of my daughters have incredibly green thumbs, by the way.)
The truth is, I had briefly considered that, but I didn’t want to do it because, well, I liked the pot the plant was in. I thought it was cute and clever, having the phrase “Aloe-ha” written across the front. Whenever it caught my eye, it made me smile, and it also reminded me of the friend who had given it to me. So, I decided to keep the aloe plant in the cute pot, and it continued to dry up.
But now, every time I saw the plant, I heard these words in my mind: just replant it. Before long, I realized that I was thinking about it differently. Instead of focusing on the fact that the pot is cute and clever, I began to focus on the reality that my plant needed a larger pot so that its roots could grow. As much as I liked it, the pot it was in was no longer the right environment for the plant to grow and thrive.
So, I found an empty pot I already had and repotted my plant—a temporary move, I told myself, until I can find another cute pot for it. To my amazement, within just a few days the leaves went from thin and brown to thick and green; and within two weeks it had nearly doubled in size! That’s when I began to hear God speaking gently and lovingly to my heart: You know, you’re not so different than this aloe plant….
It’s true. How often have I resisted a needed change in my life because I didn’t want to let go of something? I thought of numerous times when, whether it was because of familiarity or my own short-sighted preference, I just couldn’t imagine giving up whatever I thought I needed in order to make a change—one that ultimately would bring a much greater benefit. And so, I resisted. Can you relate?
When it comes to our well-being—the heath of our bodies, minds, and souls—sometimes change is what we desperately need. In fact, sometimes the only way for us to thrive is to “replant ourselves,” moving out of the old environment into a new one that gives us the room we need to grow. For some of us, that might mean considering a literal change in our environment, such as moving, changing jobs, or taking a vacation, retreat, or sabbatical. A change in our physical surroundings or daily schedules and routines can play a major role in helping us to “reset” and find the space and soul nourishment we so desperately need. For others of us, a new environment might simply mean changing our habits, attitudes, or responses—such as the practices that help us find comfort and peace, the mental tapes we listen to on repeat, or the choices we make in response to our feelings.
Sometimes the only way for us to thrive is to "replant ourselves"...
This pandemic and all of the turmoil we’re experiencing this year has been hard, and many of us are struggling. Like my aloe plant, perhaps what we need is to replant ourselves. Often it’s during the dry, difficult seasons when we become aware that change is needed—that the old is no longer working for us and we need to be open to embracing something new. Here’s an important caveat: making a major life change during a time of grief or crisis is not recommended—unless, of course, it cannot be avoided. However, it’s always advisable to listen for and be open to God’s invitations, which lead us gently toward the changes that are needed in each season. (A spiritual director can be a helpful companion in that discernment process.)
So, what changes is God inviting you to embrace at this time? Are you willing to stretch beyond what is familiar in order to try something new that promises renewed life and growth? What kind of “replanting” might help you to find the nourishment you need for your body, mind, and soul? It’s my hope that you will join me in reflecting on these questions and listening attentively for how God is leading in this season. One thing we can be sure of: replanting always leads to health and growth!
They're like trees replanted in Eden, putting down roots near the rivers — Never a worry through the hottest of summers,
never dropping a leaf, Serene and calm through droughts,
bearing fresh fruit every season. (Jeremiah 17:8, The Message)
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.