Dreams, Burning Bushes and the Voice of God

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In the Bible, people are always being told what to do in dreams and bushes that don’t burn and angelic visits. Not only that, half the time what they’re being told doesn’t make sense. Go sacrifice your only child, the one who’s supposed to grow up and give you descendants beyond count. You’re gonna have a baby even though you’ve never had sex. Go, thou stutter-er, and tell the king of Egypt to free his slaves.

And they always do it. And it works out because it was God talking.

We set these people up as examples to emulate. But in my life I’ve had to learn to stop twisting that into a totally wrongheaded view of my will versus God’s will. A view that says anything that makes sense to me must, because it seems rational, be contrary God’s will. And any whisper in the brain suggesting something I don’t want to do must, by definition, be God’s will.

(I said it was twisted.)

As I get older, this neurosis has less power over me, but it was the focus of my spiritual life for years, most notably when I was battling anxiety. I believe now that it stems from the faulty understanding of Scripture that causes Scripture itself to be a stumbling block for so many reason-minded people.

Being modern people, we tend to take words at face value. Being people of written history, people whose grandparents’ grandparents’ grandparents have been literate, we approach the Bible like a newspaper, rather than a compilation of tales and poetry passed down through oral tradition over the course of generations before it was written down. The book And God Said What? taught me a lot about literary forms of Biblical times. The author goes through the forms, most of which are no longer in use–hence our difficulty in making sense of them–and stresses that the point of Scripture is to communicate truths about God, not historical events.

People get really nervous about the idea that you can’t take every word of the Bible as literal, historical truth. We think if that’s the case, is any of it true? I struggle with this a bit myself, in all honesty. But again, that’s a sign that we’re imposing a modern sensibility, formed and steeped in the idea that you must be able to prove something scientifically in order for it to be true, upon people who just didn’t experience the world that way.

Photo by spratmackrel, via Flickr

I think we’ve all at one time or another wondered, “Why doesn’t God talk to people the way he did in Biblical times?” And although it feels like blasphemy to say it, I can’t help wondering if many of those stories about dreams and burning bushes were less historical events and more images people came up with to try to explain to others how they experienced God’s presence, voice, and guidance. I knew a girl once, angry, broken, seeking and resisting, who sat in an oak forest in the fall and threw a challenge to the skies: Prove it, then. At that moment, an autumn breeze swept a cascade of leaves down and one of them landed on her palm. That was how she encountered God.

Modern audiences recognize that God didn’t literally pick one leaf off a tree and place it in her hand. At the same time, we recognize her encounter as genuine. That’s the form our narratives take today–and we’ve all seen similar stories come through on email and Facebook.

Discerning the right course of action is hard enough without placing unreasonable expectations for clarity on God. We’d all like to have a billboard with our name on it, laying out in black and white the “right” decision. But putting those kinds of expectations on God throws roadblocks in the way of faith. It’s time to stop expecting God to behave the way He does in stories and start paying attention to the ways He does speak in real life.

(This post is updated from one I wrote on my personal blog several years ago. I woke up thinking of it and decided to pull it out and share it here.)

Praying for “enemies”

I woke up early this morning with this Scripture in my mind. I sort of wince at the words “enemies” and “persecute.” They seem like really extreme words. I’d like to think I don’t have any enemies. Opponents, yes, but not enemies. And persecute? There’s such a glut of persecution complex these days, where people see themselves as harassed and mistreated and use that as an excuse not to examine their own behavior and beliefs for places where they’re out of line. I feel a tremendous antipathy toward applying this Scripture to myself.

Still, this Lent I knew I needed to connect my spiritual practice to the examination of conscience I was already going through, and while I may quibble with the extremity of the labeling, the concept Jesus lays out here is exactly what I most need to do right now.

But it’s hard, and not just from the perspective of humility. HOW does one pray for one’s enemies? I mean, if you pray for them to be converted and changed, you’re assuming you are 100% right and they are 100% wrong, and we all know how Jesus felt about such self-righteousness. I can’t pray for them to find success in their endeavors, though, because the reason I feel such angst toward them is because I see their endeavors as deeply contrary to God’s will. And praying for God to bless them seems like a cop-out.

So this is my Lenten discipline: seeking to find the words that can be prayed authentically, for people I disagree with profoundly, while remaining humble enough not to think I have all the answers.

Dorothy Day on prayer

My spiritual group has been slowly working through The Reckless Way of Love, a collection of reflections from Dorothy Day’s writings and journals. Yesterday’s chapter was pregnant with resonance. It was so affirming to see her reflect on a day she’d been in a bad mood and bitten someone’s head off. Saints always call themselves sinners, but we rarely see someone (even someone in the process) actually do something that makes us go, “Oh yeah, that’s a sin. I do that all the time.” But her reaction to it was really profound. It got her thinking about how awful it was that she’d bitten the head off someone who was totally dependent on her. It caused her to reflect on how humility before God is beautiful, but humility because your bread and butter depend on it strips a person of his or her dignity. This is a great book–bite sized excerpts saturated with profound insight.

Shaking up the Prayer routine

For years, my prayer routine has been consistent: audio daily readings from the USCCB, followed by the USCCB daily reflection video and usually a Robert Barron reflection email.

Throughout the pandemic shutdown and semi-shutdown, I’ve been coping with the extra togetherness by going for hikes and long bike rides, which give me greater time for prayer in solitude and (sort of) stillness. (Sort of, because my brain is a beehive constantly)

But as the weather got too cold for outdoor rest/restoration/prayer time, I realized I have to shake up my prayer routine to offset the lack of access to stillness and solitude. In December, I reached out to one of my choir members who has been involved in contemplative prayer outreach, and he generously put together a stack of books to get me started.

So this year I am devoting Monday, Wednesday, and Friday to contemplative prayer, and mixing up the other four days of the week with daily Scriptures, etc.

The first thing I realized is that I’ve already been doing this for years. But now I’m approaching it in a new way.

Contemplative prayer is hard work, but I can feel the difference. Yesterday the weather was unseasonably warm, and I carved out two hours for a hike/walk along a creek in a local nature area. I found an eroded bank to lean back against for about forty minutes of off-and-on bonus contemplative prayer. For the rest of the day and evening I basked in a glow of contentment. Despite it being the craziest day of the week; despite having thousands of things to do and all kinds of anxieties surrounding circumstances I can’t change. Despite it all: contentment.

It was an eye-opener. William A. Meninger says that contemplative prayer is the most effective one there is–not that rosaries and Lectio Divina and so on are not good, because they are, and will always be necessary–but this is where we most truly love God, because we are simply being with him, without agenda–and for that reason it is the most effective praying we can do. It has been a part of Christian prayer for millennia.

The way I felt last night certainly gave some weight to that assertion.

#seethegood: parenting, prayer, and virtual school

Taking video notes on a used manila envelope. I know. I’m a model of good academic skills.

I was dreading many things about this school year, but so far the one that’s been the most problematic was the one I didn’t really anticipate: workload management for my high schooler. He’s stressed, which makes me stressed. We all know how important high school is in shaping the man or woman you become. Plus, when you have to cram a year’s worth of work into a semester, the workload is heavy.

I internalize my children’s stress. (That’s a blog post for another blog.) So this week has been an exercise in creative, prayerful parenting. I woke at 3:50 a.m. yesterday and couldn’t get back to sleep. This is pretty common for me, but usually it’s because I’m thinking about my own work. Yesterday it was anxiety on behalf of my high schooler.

I ended up praying a rosary on his behalf as I laid awake, and then moved on and started the day. Checked in with the kids, then did my own work for a while.

But when he came up for lunch, I closed up shop and said, “Okay, bring the work here. I’m here to help from now until school pickup.”

By the time I had to leave an hour and a half later, we were both feeling better. I didn’t connect it with my morning prayer until late last night as I was lying in bed again. I feel like that prayer settled and grounded and oriented me for the day–and perhaps him as well.

Definitely a #seethegood moment.

Retreat

Today begins a week I look forward to all year–Liturgical Composers Forum. The reality of my rich, busy life as a work-from-home mom is that time is at a premium. Always. Concentrated time has to be planned for. And retreat time is VERY hard to come by.

In one sense, it’s funny to use this quote in this context. After all, I’ll be spending this week with a whole lot of people I really like hanging out with. Not a “deserted” place at all. But it is a restful one. One where we get to do morning and evening prayer in community every day.

And let’s be honest: as any parent knows, four or five days spent away from direct, hands-on responsibility for kids is, by definition, a retreat. This is a week in which I get to spend several of each day’s breaks walking quietly outside or settling into the recliner in my room, being still in the presence of God.

So pray for me this week, and I will pray for you. I’ll be back next week.

Why I Don’t Doubt the Existence of God

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My freshman year in college, I landed (quite unintentionally) in an honors writing intensive class on Darwin which shook my faith right to the foundation. Sometime in college—not sure if it was that fall or later, when the fallout had time to settle—I remember sitting on the rough stoop outside the “back door,” so called even though it was on the front of the house because it was the work entrance with an iron bar to scrape manure off boots before coming inside, and saying to my mom, “Sometimes I wonder if I really believe any of this stuff at all.”

As a Catholic mother myself, that sounds like just about the worst thing a child can say to you, but my mom handled it with tremendous grace. She sighed. “Well, Thomas Aquinas said that you could prove the existence of God, but it would take so long to do it, it’s better to take it on faith. But everything in the universe is caused by something. And before that there’s another cause, and before that another one. And if you go back to the very beginning of all that, that’s God.”

It was a simple revelation but one that resonated deeply.

Twenty-some years later, I no longer doubt the existence of God. At all. Ever. I doubt many other things. I question many other things. I have a rocky relationship with the Gospel of John, for instance, because it seems to me that Jesus goes around picking fights and being deliberately obtuse. It’s hard for me to see through John’s advanced theology to who Jesus was and what he was like when he walked the earth.

So I pray often, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.”

But I don’t doubt God, because in the past twenty years, I’ve encountered him so many times.

When I was battling crippling anxiety that I was too scared to talk to anyone about, let alone find help for, I discovered that I could sit on the edge of a creek for an hour or two, doing absolutely nothing, simply praying and being still. Eventually, a cool quiet would descend, quieting (though not eliminating) the voices of panic.

I didn’t realize that was the Holy Spirit until years later, when I was married and on the core team for Life Teen and I went to an adoration event where people were laughing and whispering in tongues and being slain in the spirit. I remember this rawness in my soul that night, a desire to experience the Spirit utterly at war with the certainty that such expressions were Not Within My Comfort Zone. When it was over, I thought with both disappointment and relief (but not surprise) that I’d been passed over.

Hours later, I processed the quiet, cool peace that had replaced the raw pulsing in my chest, and I thought, “Oh. Um. Something did happen to me in there.” It was the first time I connected that feeling I experienced by the creek in northern Iowa to the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is my guy. We talk all the time. We talk about music, about kid problems, about the personal flaws I want to be rid of, even about my writing. (We talk a lot about my writing.) The Spirit never, ever fails. If I don’t get a solution to my problem in short order, I’ve learned to step around the problem and ask another question—like, for instance, “Am I barking up the wrong tree? Am I not supposed to be doing this at all? Is this why it’s so hard?” (Sometimes the answer is: Obviously! Other times, it is: No, it’s just hard.)

There’s been a meme going around Facebook lately, saying something like “I don’t believe in God because someone told me to, I believe in God because I’ve experienced him.” It’s no secret that I am deeply, deeply suspicious of memes. That one seems a little self-righteous to me. I don’t doubt the sincerity of the sentiment, but wouldn’t the witness be more effective to just, y’know, tell what your experience of God is, rather than send out some nonspecific meme crowing about your faith?

So that’s what I’m doing today—since I have little time and way too much to do, I decided to free write this little witness of why I believe in God. What is yours?

Happy All Saints Day!

A brief and very relevant thought from St. Teresa of Avila for All Saints Day. Because whenever we pray–really pray–we get closer to the mind of God, which sensitizes us to the ways we still fall short, and how much we need to change.

Pointing Scripture at others

The interesting thing is that the section of Evangelii Gaudium from which I drew both yesterday’s and today’s posts is addressed to preachers. Yet both days resonate really strongly with me as a lay person. I’m guilty of this… are you?