Headaches, Hawks, and the Holy Spirit

Headaches Hawks and the Holy SpiritLast Friday, I woke up with a bad headache, so going to the fitness center with my 80’s mix soundtrack blaring in my headphones while pounding the elliptical machine or the treadmill just wasn’t going to cut it. But I do find that exercise really helps my headaches, especially when I wake up with one and it's not a true migraine. Movement to get the blood pumping a little bit, deep breathing, and the subsequent endorphin-release can ease the pain or eliminate a headache altogether. In fact, I often use exercise as the first treatment for a headache, which means I can often avoid taking any pain-killers. 

I was in enough pain that day, however, that I wondered if exercise would help at all. But fresh air almost always makes a difference. There is a walking path that goes by a small lake in our subdivision; I had been wanting to try it, so I decided it was a good day to check it out. They sky was clear and sunny, and I had the trail to myself.

As I took in the view with slow, deep breaths, I asked God what I needed to learn, to know, or to hear today. What message or blessing was contained in this pain, so I could receive it and let it go? A hawk, with wings spread wide, floated on the air above me. I imagined her view from up high and wondered if I needed to take a wider look at the whole of my life with more distance and detachment. What does the hawk see that I do not?

As I pondered this, I noticed how relaxed the bird’s wings and body were—she simply floated on the air and let it push her up and down and around with a sense of ease and abandon—like there was no other reason for her to exist except to be held up, carried, and content. I thought about my own tangled and anxious efforts to cross things off my to-do lists, the constant mental criticism in my head about what I’m not accomplishing and should be, often forcing myself forward when my body and mind ask for rest. What would it feel like for me to just float on the breath of the Spirit? Could I allow myself to be held, supported, and gently moved forward without all my anxious toiling? What would it feel like to open my heart, spirit, and body with wings stretched wide, trusting that I can stop flapping and instead, glide, relying on God’s presence and energy beneath and through me?

As I walked, I tried relaxing my whole body with my breath, releasing tension and tightness. I turned around and headed back to toward the car. The hawk came into view again and I watched her glide across the sky, the wind taking her in a new direction. Just then, a second hawk came into view and flew across the path of the first hawk. If they were planes with sky-writing smoke billowing out behind them, their flight paths would have formed a cross.

Oh, yeah: the essential work of salvation is already done. I’m simply called to open myself and lean on the presence and power of Christ’s Spirit, bearing witness to the grace that lifts me up.

Photograph: Maureen Sullivan

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Female Spirituality: The Tension Between Desires & Self-Sacrifice

Female Spirituality The TensionIf you are a woman like me, you probably heard subtle and not-so-subtle messages growing up that your desires and interests were unimportant at best, and bad and wrong at worst. On the contrary, helping and serving others while you denied yourself, was not only expected as a female in this culture, it was faithful. We learned that God wants us to sacrifice ourself, our needs, and our desires in order to follow Jesus. If we ever did let our desires and wants slip out, we might have been told that we are selfish, pushy, bossy, or God-forbid, a “bitch.” At the Enneagram conference I attended two weeks ago, we learned that girls today as young as second grade are being labeled a “bitch” when they express their desires and demonstrate leadership skills so often admired in boys the same age (they are probably just an 8 on the Enneagram with a particular set of strengths, skills and weaknesses, like the rest of us).

I had been a pastor for over twenty years when a therapist said to me, “God works through your desires.” I was both surprised and comforted since for so much of my adult life, I have had an on-going internal battle with feeling selfish for having desires and aspirations. I don’t believe anyone intended to give me this message, but I received it, loud and clear. In the book, Holy Listening; The Art of Spiritual Direction, the late Episcopal priest, Margaret Guenther wrote, “women’s distinctive sin is self-contempt, a self-hatred often centered on the body. A lack of healthy self-love means that women can neglect their own inner growth because they are so busy serving others—as culture, society, and religion demand” (128-129). Does that strike a chord in your soul? It sure did in mine. Author Susan Rakoczy, writing in Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, adds, “Self-sacrifice freely chosen leads to self-transcendence; serving others because of cultural and religious norms leads to self-naughting” (Vol. 20.2, June 2014, 50).

How much time and energy have we, as women put into “self-naughting”—shutting down our inner aspirations and hopes because others’ needs (whoever that ‘other’ might include) are more important than ours? I would agree that mature spirituality leads us to self-denial and transcendence of the ego-self as we deepen our life and identity in God. But many of our spiritual and religious traditions have encouraged our self-denial before we have achieved “self-possession” (Rokoczy, 50) or ego-strength and identity. Fr. Richard Rohr identifies building this ego-self as the task of the first half of life (see his book, Falling Upward).

Despite it feeling selfish or myopic, our first spiritual task is to achieve self-possession. We might ask, “How is God working through our desires, our passions, our aspirations, and our hopes? What kind of contribution to the world do our skills and strengths lead us to offer? How is God calling us through our desires and skills?” We need to walk through this conscious self-development before we have anything to sacrifice or transcend in service of the reign of God.

I have felt this tension in the process of writing and publishing, Motherhood Calling: Experiencing God in Everyday Family Life. I felt a deep desire to write and communicate about God’s daily presence; yet it felt selfish to seek a publisher, and it still feels self-serving and “braggy” to tell others about it. But, if I don’t share it, how can it be used to help others see God in their daily lives--the whole purpose of the book? Even using this as an example feels uncomfortable! Aaaargh!

I don’t think this internal battle is what God hopes for in any of us! Today, I live in the tension while praying for how God desires me to resolve it, and trying to practice healthy self-love in the mean time.


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The Enneagram: Growing into Our Most Pure Self

The Enneagram Growing into our Pure SelfLast week I attended a conference sponsored by Revgalblogpals (a community of female ecumenical clergy bloggers!) on the Enneagram—a 4,000-year old spiritual system that describes nine ways of “seeing” the world and of responding to it. The gift of exploring the Enneagram is to learn how we can grow, change and heal our soul, becoming more fully who God made us to be. For more information, you can read The Enneagram: A Christian Perspective by Richard Rohr or visit Life in the Trinity Ministry, an organization founded by our conference speaker, Suzanne Stabile and her husband, the Rev. Joe Stabile (I am still new to the Enneagram, so please don’t learn about it from me; what follows is not instruction about it, just new information I am processing and sharing!).

One powerful insight from the conference addressed how we take in and process information. We have three centers of intelligence—Thinking, Feeling and Doing—and while we possess all three, most of us operate out of only two centers. We usually take in information out of one dominant center, process it with a second support center, and repress the third center. Between the ages of 8 and 12, we received messages that one center was less desirable, and we repressed that area. The Enneagram helps us discover our lost intelligence center and develop it. As adults, our repressed area shows up most dramatically in our home life.

  • Thinking-Repressed: some of us Do and Feel or Feel and Do without productive Thinking. For example, we have a hard time living on budget, analyzing long-term consequences of choices, planning, strategizing, setting boundaries, and tend to leap into action without asking if the task is ours to do.
  • Feeling-Repressed: some of us Do and Think or Think and Do without awareness of or processing our Feelings. For example, we dismiss or repress feelings until they erupt, channel emotional energy into activities, avoid feelings, cannot identify or name feelings, only allow positive feelings, and avoid of intimacy.
  • Doing-Repressed: some of us Think and Feel or Feel and Think without much productive Doing. For example, we procrastinate, do what’s in front of us instead of what’s important, miss deadlines, neglect to help others when we have the skills and resources to do so, feel powerless, and can be blind to possibilities.

Interestingly, most of us don’t believe any of these areas are repressed! It seems like we engage in our repressed function all the time, but the real question is, are we engaging it productively? I discovered last week that I am Thinking-repressed, which sounds strange to me because I am thinking all the time! But when I ask myself, “Is it productive thinking?” I am taken in new direction. It’s not productive thinking if it’s the steady barrage of self-criticism, judgment and comparison with others; it’s not productive thinking if it’s about re-doing more perfectly a task which is already completed; it’s not productive thinking if I’m planning how to take care of others while neglecting myself—you get the idea!

Similar questions can be asked if you are Feeling-repressed: Am I expressing feelings indirectly in a passive aggressive way? Can I name how I’m feeling? Where do I feel this emotion in my body? When did I first become aware of this feeling? What’s a healthy way to release it, if it’s a negative feeling? Those who are Doing-repressed can ask questions like this: Is what I’m doing the most important task for today or just what’s in front of me? Have I prioritized what needs doing today or this week? On what tasks am I procrastinating and why? Am I doing what I committed to complete?

These questions just scratch the surface. Deep, intentional soul work involves practicing and strengthening our repressed intelligence center, (usually with a therapist) so we can live balanced lives that allow us to bring our best to the world. It takes work and consistency, or we fall back into what’s most familiar. I was delighted to learn that 12-Step programs help us express all three intelligence centers, so if you’re thinking of working a 12-step program, go for it! (I attend Al-Anon). I have also decided to work with a new  Enneagram-trained spiritual director who can help me bring up my Thinking center. The conference speaker shared that when we operate out of our repressed center, we become our most pure self—and that’s beautiful soul work!

Image from: Aetherforce.com

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Offering Good News This Week

Offering Good News this WeekOne of my husband, Dan’s requests in accepting his new call to Legacy Presbyterian Church in Frisco, Texas, was to have a ministry coach to help guide him as he and the congregation seek to grow in mission and ministry. Last weekend his coach, Pastor Tim Roehl, came from Minnesota to Texas for a weekend visit. He spent time with Dan getting to know the community of Frisco, asking great questions, visiting Legacy’s worship service, and teaching an evangelism workshop with the congregation’s lay leaders. I was blessed to tag along and participate in much of Tim’s visit.

During the Evangelism training, Tim asked a question I just love, “Who can I ‘good news’ today?” We struggle with the word, “evangelism” because it has negative connotations of beating people over the head with the Bible, convincing them of their sin and the right way to believe, or kindling a fear of eternal damnation. But Biblically, evangelism means simply to bring “good news.” How can we bring good news to everyone we meet throughout our day? It may be with a smile, holding open a door, a word of affirmation or encouragement, offering unexpected help, or really listening to someone with all of our attention.

Tim’s evangelism training reminded us that communication is only 7% words, 35% tone, and 58% body language! We can always tell if someone is really interested in and listening to us, and vice versa! Do visitors to our worship service feel we listen to and are interested in them? Do we engage them and listen deeply? Many admit they don’t know what to say to people they don’t know, or how to engage them, even at church. Tim offered a simple, memorable way to “good news” visitors to our congregation, WIN:

W=Welcome - Let them know you’re glad they’re here, introduce yourself, ask their names, and about their family.
I=Interests - Ask about their work, activities of their children, or how they spend their free time. This enables you to introduce them to others in the congregation with whom they share a common interest.
N-Need: Ask how you or the congregation can serve them, and then, how you can pray for them.

When lay leaders make this kind of effort at connecting with visitors and praying for them, newcomers can begin to personally experience God’s love and care through your church on their first visit.

This formula offers a wonderful tool for getting to know a new person in any context. Listening and communicating interest, connection, care, and prayer is a great way to ‘good news’ anyone you meet. Who will God put in your path to WIN this week?

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linda anderson little
Linda Anderson-Little

Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.