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Archive for June, 2014

Who am I?

“Who are you?”

I was at a weekend workshop years ago, and my assigned partner sat across from me, asking me this question as part of a workshop exercise. We were to volley the question back and forth, answering in a new way each time.

I am a teacher.

I am a mom.

I am a university graduate.

I am a friend.

I am a Costco member.

I am a runner.

I am…

I remember we had to keep it going for longer than felt comfortable, and after a while, we were dredging up all kinds of identifiers, laughing at the silly answers. We were told that Tibetan monks do this exercise, and at each answer, they begin to belly laugh together at the absurdity of all the labels we think define us.

Over the last months, as I’ve stepped away from the classroom on a medical leave, I’ve thought back to this exercise. “I am a teacher” is something I always took some pride in when people asked that all important question, “And what do you do?”

Sits1Ask me that question today, and I don’t have much to say. I read. I write. I sit. I pray. I rest. Like the poster in my childhood home, “Sometimes I just sits and thinks, and sometimes I just sits.”

Stepping away from any identifier, especially the big ones, is not an easy task. Niggling thoughts began to scratch at the door of my mind. I realized I was in a desert of sorts, without the usual answers to give to people. Not only that, I wondered what people back at work were thinking of me. Did anyone miss me? Did my contribution matter? Did people still approve of me when I was no longer “useful”? My job had propped me up, giving me assurance of some kind that I was liked and affirmed and needed.

In noticing all these thoughts parading through my mind, I began to see that as long as I remember, I’ve had this aching yearning to be liked, to be affirmed and needed.  It’s an ache that truly can never be satisfied by any human being. It’s always been there, but without the background noise of a busy schedule, it has been more apparent to me and has prompted me to dig deeper into my true identity. Who am I indeed?

The helpful counterpoint to these vexing thoughts has been the meditative space I’ve been given. In the silence of days, verses from Psalm 139 came back to me. There it says that God has known me before I was born, before any human had ever even seen me or named me, before I was ever a “teacher”. “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Ps. 139:13

All these identifiers like careers, houses, what we wear, what we look like, are like the morning grass that another Psalm says withers by the day’s end. (Psalm 103:16) An old hymn says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.”

This lifelong, aching yearning to find acceptance and approval outside of myself is something I now see I need to give up. Like a line from my current favorite song says, “I’ve been trying way too hard.” The straining effort of it all has probably contributed at least somewhat to the headaches that led to my medical leave.

David Benner, an author I’ve been reading lately, helpfully writes that desiring money or a 51TWCFGQH4L._SL500_AA300_successful image or acceptance are misplaced, or disordered, desires. “Ordered—or purified—desires expand me and connect me to others and the world in life-enhancing ways. Disordered desires suck me into myself and rather than adding vitality to life, leach it away.”

It has bred only self-preoccupation and dissatisfaction to try to grab affirmation from the world. It has kept me from my deepest desire, which is to focus my gaze on God who loves me unconditionally in my weakness and imperfection, not when I have everything together, earning so-called love through self-effort and worldly accomplishments.

Who am I? No matter what identifiers come my way in this walk on earth, who I am most deeply is God’s beloved daughter.

God’s words have been a gift to me, the perfect antidote to my addictive way of living. They heal my heart. Like finding an oasis in the desert, my parched life has found the best resting place. No wonder the Buddhist monks were laughing.

Still, Small Voice

All my life I’ve been a seeker. I’ve always wondered about God and prayed, and hoped to follow in faith. But as anyone who is a seeker knows, the path is never straight, and many times we can seem to be more lost than found! It’s often this feeling of being lost that keeps us searching.

Indigo Bunting at the Assiniboine Park English Gardens - Photo by Lyle Penner

Indigo Bunting at the Assiniboine Park English Gardens – Photo by Lyle Penner

Maybe it’s the seeker in me that has made me into a birder. When Lyle and I go bird watching, Lyle carries the camera and I the binoculars, and our search is not usually in vain. When we get home and the camera lens helps us zoom in even more, we are always stunned at the gorgeous offerings nature has for us, just outside our door. God’s designs are exquisite!

There is something the camera lens does not

Searching - Photo by Lyle Penner

Searching – Photo by Lyle Penner

capture, however, and that is the long intervals between any bird sightings. Birders walk with their ears tilted and eyes constantly scanning for signs of a passing bird. When one is heard or even luckier, seen, the hunt begins in earnest, but much of birding is non-eventful.

One might think these uneventful intervals would make any birder dis-inclined to continue, but I find the opposite is true. The hope of finding treasure makes the walk worthwhile. Even when we have seen not much more than a Canada goose or the ubiquitous house sparrow, we go home undeterred, hopeful and a bit more alert than before. The quest keeps us happy and is one of those pursuits that gives us a focus beyond ourselves, something every relationship needs.

The interior life of faith can be much the same. Many times, the way is unclear and we wonder why God seems absent. My friend Paul talks about “mud days” – when we feel murky and prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling back down to us. We can become disheartened if we don’t see much beyond our own noses. These are the days we can become lost.

But, like in birding, seeing or hearing God can change everything. Even the memory of such a time can keep us on the path. I believe it happens to everyone, not just those who call themselves Christians. Sometimes it happens in prayer, during a conversation with a friend, or while reading. Sometimes it can happen in a dream, during a quiet walk in nature or when we see loving actions in the world. There are so many ways that God can become clear to us. Like we used to teach our son Joel when he was little, “God is everywhere.”

The great challenge for us seekers is learning to figure out if it’s God we’re seeing and hearing, or our own desires. In my experience, it’s all about trust and being in community with like-minded folks who listen alongside me. We’re all listening together. We make mistakes, but listening through scripture, reading, prayer and talking to each other has proved to be more dependable than not.

I’m also learning that God is always revealed in a different way than I expect. There’s a story in the Old Testament of the prophet Elijah, who was running for his life and struggling to understand what God wanted. God didn’t speak to him in a great wind, or an earthquake or in a fire. Instead, God spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19:12)

Lately, I’d been hearing some prompting from God in answer to a question I’d been having in prayer. The “still, small voice” left me in fear, despite assurances from friends that all would be well. Driving home in the car, these lyrics from Needtobreathe’s song “Valley of Tomorrow” perked my ears:

“I never second-guessed the little voice I heard

It’s just a whisper, that sounded like a scream

I ain’t never felt so free.”

I remembered my friend Bev who had heard a quiet voice one morning this week. She had told us her story just that morning during our house church’s Sunday service. Wrapped up in worry, she was coming home from the gym when she heard a distinct Word within that told her, “You weren’t made for this.” She realized her worries were not the last word. She is made for love, for freedom, for her walk with God and God’s people, not for the worries that enslaved her. She was freed by what she heard. As I listened to the CD in the car, I was nudged to remember that I too could trust the quiet voice within. DSC_0090

It’s Words like these that are like bird sightings, quickening my step on the path. God is here, no doubt, infusing each experience, especially the difficult ones, with a way through that has meaning and hope.

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