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About angels in black tights…and signs…

This post is about signs. Looking for them. Spotting them. Trusting them.

‘Seems right to start things off with a sign that showed up for me recently.

Just over my computer monitor — smack in front of me — is a print by Brian Andrea of StoryPeople. Here’s what it says:

I used to wait for a sign, she said, before I did anything. Then one night I had a dream & an angel in black tights came to me & said, You can start any time now. & then I said is this a sign? & the angel started laughing & I woke up. Now, I think the whole world is filled with signs, but if there’s no laughter, I know they’re not for me.

When I sit down to write — whether my weekly newsletter, a Medium article, or a blog post, I have spent days in advance. I decide on the topic. In this case, “signs.” I gather things: quotes, definitions, thoughts that flit through my mind, a story that comes to me. Then, at a set time on my calendar each week, I begin developing form, structure, and hopefully something meaningful and relevant for you! This post was no different: five days of “collecting” on my chosen topic before I sat down to compose.

And then, then, I saw the print. The one I quoted. The one that sits smack in front of me — just over my computer monitor — every day and all the time.

That felt like a sign in and of itself!

Signs are everywhere. But that doesn’t mean I always see them. Even — and maybe especially — when they are right in front of me.

How many times do we miss the signs that are ours to see, listen to, and learn from?

I don’t want to miss them. I want to walk through my days certain that signs are everywhere, mine to discover and cherish:

  • 12:34 on the clock
  • The flower growing in the crack on the sidewalk
  • The clouds
  • The sun
  • The book that came in the mail
  • The podcast episode I can’t get out of my head
  • The limp houseplants asking to be watered
  • The dust on the TV
  • An empty water glass
  • Cold coffee
  • Unread emails
  • The bill that came in the mail
  • The lump in my throat
  • The tears in my eyes
  • The catch in my voice
  • The dream I just recalled
  • The chocolate I crave
  • The shoes I still haven’t put back in the closet
  • The text from a friend
  • The to-do I keep procrastinating over
  • The print on my wall — smack in front of me

I could go on. Clearly.

What’s on your list? Your whole world is filled with signs. You deserve to keep track!! I’m sure of it. It’s said that signs often appear as confirmation of the things we are interested in, what we’re pondering, what we’re questioning or wondering about. Sort of like when you decide you want a red Mini Cooper and then you start seeing them everywhere.

Yes, we can read meaning into pretty much anything (a la my long list above). And I suppose it’s possible we can take it too far. But I’d rather lean in that direction than worry about it. Here’s why:

When we trust that “the whole world is filled with signs” that long to be seen and are speaking to us, we walk through our days with heightened curiosity, a profound sense of openness, and a general spirit of receptivity. Doesn’t that sound far more lovely than the alternative?

We have opportunity and invitation to walk through our days as though we are in the middle of a cosmic game of hide-and-seek. What might be possible with that level of anticipation and joy?

It feels important to name that signs can be hard things — not always surprising and pleasant; sometimes difficult and painful. Maybe more often than not.

An example:

Fear is one of the most significant (and consistent) signs of all; an invitation to profound and powerful discernment!

Fear is a sign that says our worry or anxiety or obsessing matters and deserves to be paid attention to. Fear is a sign that helps us know we’re on track and moving in the right direction (or it wouldn’t have shown up in the first place). Fear is a sign that calls us to courage and levels of self-trust we would otherwise not know, make manifest, or rely upon!

Other significant (and hard) signs include: resistance, procrastination, frustration, rage, sarcasm, despair, consumption and, and, and . . . It’s not about getting rid of these things, purging them somehow from your life. No! It’s about coming to see them as signs in and of themselves, as invitations to meaning and understanding, as opportunities to discern what is calling you deeper into your own life.

Whatever you feel, whatever your emotions, whatever is showing up in your life is a sign that invites you to step more and more fully into the wisdom that is already and always yours — into discernment. I’m sure of it.

It’s true: the whole world IS filled with signs. Sometimes hanging on the wall right in front of you. Sometimes hidden and waiting to be found. Always taking you deeper, and then deeper still. And what you’ll find there is far more glorious than an angel in black tights. I’m sure of it.

*****

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What if your spirituality was easy?

Devotion instead of To-Do’s

If you grew up in a world anything like mine. Devotion(s) were something you did – religiously – if you were religious! They were a practice that usually included reading scripture, praying, and reflecting; a discipline that ostensibly kept you connected to your beliefs; an outward demonstration designed to strengthen your inner commitment, your faith, your spiritual life.

All good, yes?

Well, not so much. (You knew this was coming, didn’t you?)

For me, devotions were a required or at least highly-recommended component of my religious life. And though they were, at times deeply meaningful, I would not often have described them with words like dedication, sacrifice, promise, love, or loyalty. A more consistent description would be duty. And because of such, they had a dark side: if I didn’t do them, if I wasn’t devoted, then I felt insufficient, less valuable, uncommitted, wobbly, not faith-full. In effect, devotion(s) were a to-do; not devotion itself.

Now, outside of any religious tradition, the word “devotion” still circles in my mind and heart. It’s like something I catch a glimpse of, just out of the corner of my eye, but when I turn to see it straight on and clearly, it’s disappeared or at least blurred.

What is clear and in undeniable focus is this: I do not want devotion that is dutiful. I want devotion that is desire-full. 

And this is what brings me to the distinction between devotion and to-do’s…

I do not claim to have any definitive answers, but I do wonder if perhaps the difference between devotion and to-do’s is its origin, the place from which it comes, what compels it. Duty or Desire? Responsibility or Grace? Expansive or Restrictive? Required or Chosen?

What I long for is an experience of devotion that is not something I “do,” but something I believe, trust, have faith in, hope for – all of which is profoundly sacred and spiritual.

Maybe, instead of pursuing spirituality or an experience of the sacred through discipline and to-do’s, it is devotion (unbidden and desired) that pursues us; that ushers in the spiritual and sacred itself. 

When I approach the sacred or spirituality from a perspective of attainment (as though I can somehow “arrive”), I am immediately aware of to-do’s. The practices, beliefs, and right ways of being. The rules, doctrine, and dogma – even in the very best of ways. Exactly what has been prescribed to help me get there, get that, be that.

But when I let the sacred approach me, when I trust that it is ever-present, omniscient really, and hold fast to my desire for such in the most tender and cherished of ways, devotion will *just* appear, stay, deepen, and reside. And as I named last week, none of this has to be is hard; instead, very, very easy…(which means no to-do’s are needed at all.)

“Devotion is a place where you do not exist; life just flows through you as a certain sweetness and beauty.”

These words my Jaggi Vasudev sound about a million times better than duty or responsibility. They sound infinitely closer to what it means to be connected to and impacted by the sacred. And they perfectly acknowledge that we are spiritual with nothing (not even to-do’s) required of us for this to be true.

What if devotion is like breathing? A natural and autonomic response to the sacred, to the spiritual, which is within us, around us, ever-present, and always in pursuit.

No effort required. No discipline needed. And certainly no to-do’s. Just desire. 

But…but…but…

  • What am I supposed to DO in order to experience devotion?
  • What kind of devotion is required in order to more deeply engage with the sacred?
  • How can I hope to strengthen my spiritual life through devotion if it’s something that pursues me?

These are the questions I begin asking at rapid speed in the face of uncertainty, to be sure! Inherent within them is my deeply-ingrained proclivity for to-do’s. They show how deeply committed I am to doing, mastering, taking the right actions, knowing exact ways to move forward, focusing all my energy on efforts that promise to help me grow and deepen.

To-do’s. They comfort me and plague me at the very same time.

But what I want, truly-deeply-madly is devotion. And that means that I need a different route, an undoing of what I’m familiar with, and yes, an allowing for uncertainty.

I know: deep breath.

At the start of this post I said this: we are far more clear about to-do’s, far less so about devotion. 

It seems to me that this is the point:

A devotion bound in certainty (and managed or attained through to-do’s) is not devotion at all. It’s the not-knowing, the mystery, the letting go, the wonder, the questions, and yes, the doubts that invite devotion (and the sacred) into our midst in the most intimate and personal and love-filled of ways.

May it be so.

*****

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Why I’ve Given Up on Prayer

*****

A number of years ago, when my daughters were still teenagers, my youngest stepped into a season of struggle (to put it mildly) that stretched me beyond capacity, hope, or reason. There were moments in which I couldn’t decide if I should call 911, her therapist, my therapist, or just hide under the covers and let her do the same. At its worst, I wrestled with what felt like the real possibility of losing her altogether. I won’t keep you in suspense: today she is an amazing young woman — aware, wise, hardly naive, clear about what it means to struggle, able to offer levels of empathy and compassion to others ; she continues to astound me. But before this “ending,” there was the beginning night of awareness of just how bad things were. No sleep. Only tears. And a memory that feels like it was yesterday:

I sat on the edge of my bed and sobbed, more deeply aware than ever before, just how alone I was as a single mom, more afraid than I’d ever felt, and more-than completely unequipped for what was happening in the mind and heart of my precious girl. Through tears and snot and not nearly enough Kleenex,  It would offer a panacea I no longer had at my disposal. How convenient and pleasant: to hand all this off somehow, to feel like in surrendering, in turning it over to God, that surely all things would work together for good.

Not believing this anymore left me feeling even more alone and more afraid. I wanted to pray, but knew that to do so would be little other than my desperate wish and a frantic grasping at anything that might ease my pain but do nothing to lessen hers. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t.

In the more than 10 years that have passed since that night, I have thought back on it many times. I have sussed out my cynicism, my anger, and certainly my angst. But still, my resistance to prayer has remained. It was a crossroads, to be sure: deeply longing for solace, but with seemingly nowhere to turn except within; to blow on some barely-lit fire inside me that somehow-but-barely enabled me to get up in the morning, fix her breakfast, send her to school, and hope and hope and hope.

I realize that all of this sounds dark and dreary. And at the time, it was. Now I remember it with endless gratitude. Yes, because she made it through that particular season of crisis. But also because I did: not broken or desolate, but more aware than ever before of what it meant to walk through “the valley of the shadow of death,” completely present to everything I felt.

Not some whimsical temptation or luring sin. Not that kind of desire: tepid, temporary, lite. No.

This desire was blazing, intense, undaunted, and undying. It was (and is) a full and unrestrained expression of everything within me. And a far cry from anything I’d ever known in prayer.

The Upanishads capture this, at least in part:

“You are what your deepest desire is. As your desire is, so is your intention. As your intention is, so is your will. As your will is, so is your deed. As your deed is, so is your destiny.”

Desire takes courage. And faith. There is no promise of an outcome we long for. No guarantee. Just sheer determination, firm belief, and an endless acknowledgement of what thrums within us in the deepest and most persistent of ways. It persists. It perseveres. It burns.

There are days and times when I feel a lingering ache for prayer’s comfort and solace. But less and less. I don’t need to be soothed, but enflamed. I don’t need to surrender, but rise up. I don’t need to find answers, but to take action. And my desire is what compels all of this and then some. Endlessly burning… one might even say without ceasing.

On hope (via Emily Dickinson)

I have always loved these stanzas by Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops-at all

I’ve repeated them multiple times to myself. They speak to me. They make sense. They somehow “explain” the unexplainable nature of hope itself.

I’ve been asked, more than once, why I remain a hopeful person — often despite circumstances that would be more logically explained by desolation or despair. I never have a very good answer.

There was a time, decades ago, when I would have attributed it to my religious tradition — a fruit or quality or characteristic that was inherently mine to hold on to, to grip, to cling to no matter what. But that is not what I’d say today.

I’ve left religion, but hope has not left me.

Hope is a given, a truth, a “thing” that just is. Not a choice or some kind of mood that I fall into, hope is gritty and raw and fierce. Ever present. Mine to claim, stand in, and trust.

It is highly possible that you don’t see or experience hope this way at all, that it is far more often fleeting and distant than stable and felt. It is also highly possible that you have lived through (or do still) circumstances that have caused any hope you might have once known to dissipate and disappear — at least to wane. Believe me, I understand.

If either/both of these are the case, I’d invite you to consider the possibility that maybe hope is nothing you have to hold on to, or try to find again; maybe it was never lost in the first place. I’d love for you, like Emily Dickinson, to at least entertain the idea, even if just for a moment, that your hope has never stopped — at all — ever.

There are two more stanza’s to Dickinson’s poem…that I often forget about:

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet — never — in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.

Sometimes, a moment, a glimpse, a crumb, is all we need to return to hope — as our steadiest and most enduring companion along the way.

May it be so.

Belief: Then & Now

There was a time in which any question about what I believed merited a simple, obvious, and expected answer. After all, I grew up in the church, went to Christian summer camps and later, a Christian college, was a missionary (!!), married a pastor, led Bible studies for women, even went to Seminary and got my Master of Divinity degree. I had a definitive understanding of who God was – and wasn’t. Until I didn’t. 

In the midst of all this, I divorced the pastor and left the church. I stopped teaching bible studies (though I do still tell its not-honored-enough-stories of women). And hardly definitive, I have an ever-shifting understanding/perception of the Divine. Which is exactly the way I like it! 

Distance from past beliefs, even from religion itself, does not mean disconnection from belief.

I still need and want to believe. NOT because I’m ailing or unmoored without such. NOT because I need something or Someone to rely on. But because what I believe in, how I believe, belief in-and-of-itself is what compels and shapes my story, my life, my world.

What has changed, of course, is the what and who – subject and object. 

Now, what and who I believe in is me. 

In many ways, the world in which I was raised taught me just the opposite. I learned to place my full reliance in the God that dwelled outside of me (at best, in my heart). I learned that I couldn’t trust myself or my desires. I learned that my body/feelings/thoughts were unreliable. I learned that I needed to be forgiven in order to be worthy of God’s saving. Until I un-learned all of these things. 

There is no need to choose between belief in the Divine and belief in self. 

Here is what I believe today: 

  • I believe in the Divine that dwells within me
  • I believe in (and trust) my desires. 
  • I believe in the wisdom, knowledge, and intuition present in my body, my feelings, my thoughts.
  • I believe I am worthy; I don’t need saving. 

None of these are at the expense of belief in the Divine, in the Sacred, in every-and-all things spiritual. These beliefs, when in place and practiced, are the Divine, the Sacred, the most spiritual presence and expression possible. Said another way, this: 

We see, know, and experience the Divine, the Sacred, every-and-all-things spiritual when we are truly and fully ourselves. 

And that? You and me living truly, boldly, out loud, full of desire and fully ourselves? Well, that might be enough to start a revival…or at least encourage a couple conversions!

May it be so.