Shame Sandwich

Today’s post is by Kimberly Borin

Every once in a while, we find ourselves making a Shame Sandwich. You know the kind. Usually it starts out with a layer of “bad.” Something we feel badly about like being late, or forgetting a birthday, or leaving that cup of coffee in the microwave for three days. Then, the next thing you know, we add a layer of shame, guilt, worry, and sometimes fear. Of course, we load up on the mayonnaise and maybe even add some old, familiar stale story bread. Then, we get to serve ourselves, a good old Shame Sandwich.

I have used this analogy with my students. It helps to see how we pile up feelings like layers of meat on an Italian hoagie. First the anger, then the shame. First the sadness, then the shame. First the fear, then the shame, and on it goes. I always encourage them by saying, “No sense making a Shame Sandwich.” I want them to know that all of their feelings are normal and natural and part of our humanity. I want to free them from a whole pile of feelings that make them feel terrible! I want to help them accept their feelings, no matter what they are and to be kind to themselves in the process. I often want to free myself from some of these feelings, too!

As I was thinking about this, and I wondered what kind of recipe I could create for a different sandwich, maybe a Self-Love Sandwich or even a No-Shame Sandwich. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be offered a sandwich filled with hope, forgiveness, kindness and love just when you need it? I imagine that this is just the kind of recipe that God would love and want us to have. So, here it is…

Recipe for a Compassion Sandwich

Ingredients:

Fresh Bread

Kindness

Empathy

Compassion

Love

Forgiveness

Trust in God’s Grace

Healing

Lettuce

Tomatoes

Directions:

  1. Start with some fresh bread; any kind will do. Be sure to choose something healthy, interesting and worthy of you.
  2. Spread forgiveness and healing on the insides of both pieces of bread. Be generous; you can never have enough!
  3. Layer your sandwich with lettuce, tomatoes, and love. Don’t be afraid to put on extra love just in case. Then, place compassion, empathy towards yourself, and kindness on top of the love. You may want to add some laughter as this kind of nourishment is miraculous and you can’t have too much!
  4. Gently place both halves of the sandwich together and serve on a beautiful plate. You may even want to light a candle to celebrate your beautiful self and your sandwich, too.
  5. Enjoy with grace, love and trust that you will receive all of the acceptance and healing you need. God would have it no other way.
  6. Believe in your most amazing self and give yourself permission to feel and express your feelings. You are perfect just as you are.

Repeat directions for tomorrow if needed.


kimberlyborin

Dr. Kimberly Borin is a School Counselor, Retreat Leader, and in training to be a Spiritual Director in Nurturing the Call: the Spiritual Guidance Program of the Shalem Institute.  She believes that we can find peace and grace in simple ways, each moment. She has been a teacher and counselor since 1989 and holds a doctorate in Education, a master degree in Educational Leadership and one in School Counseling.  She is an Ananda Yoga Teacher for adults and children and the author of the Laughter Salad series of books. You can learn more about Kimberly at: www.TheEncouragingWorks.com.

Going Deeper

Today’s post is by Patience Robbins

“Holiness is not in what you do, but what you allow to be done to you by the circumstances of your life.” -Richard Rohr

At a recent retreat, we were pondering the phrase: going deeper. This phrase emerged in conversations about our desire for God and growing in our relationship with God. These are some of my reflections on this theme.

When I hear “going deeper,” my first response is to think of some profound mystical experience – something dramatic, extraordinary, a striking revelation of God in my life. I usually associate this with something special that I do: a retreat, time of prayer, visit to a sacred place, attending a church service. But as I listen to others and reflect on my experience, I realize that going deeper into God happens in the very ordinary, nitty-gritty of my life. It is usually an ongoing process and does not occur with flashing lights or strong winds.

A symbol that emerges is a tree. A tree is solid, steady, rooted and true to its being. A tree lives through various seasons and time. Occasionally there are some spectacular happenings like a storm with heavy winds, lightning and hail, but usually, life is flowing: light, darkness, rain, sun, wind, snow – the ongoing, ordinary passage of time and seasons. The tree continues to grow, fed and nourished through its roots, true to its being and bearing fruit.

And so it is with us. Life is usually very mundane. But as we seek God and allow ourselves to be rooted in God, we grow and expand in the very ordinary circumstances of life. This rootedness in God is hidden and imperceptible – we are not necessarily aware of all that happens in the dark. As we continue to seek God, we too bear fruit and become more of our true self.

This ‘being’ or rootedness in God implies a choice, however. It requires a deep acceptance of the circumstances of our lives, which are unique for each of us. It requires that we trust that God is present in our lives and companioning us in our reality. The surprise may be that the painful, difficult or unwanted circumstances of life could be the very ones that enable the roots to go deeper into God and let us stand more firmly in who we are.

A story that comes to mind is the one from the Gospel of Luke in which two disciples were walking with Jesus to Emmaus. As they were walking, they recounted their disappointment with all that had happened the past few days using the words: “we had hoped….” Everything seemed to have gone wrong. The man Jesus whom they followed had been crucified as a common criminal. Their hopes were dashed—now what? And as they walked and ate with Jesus, he revealed another way of looking at all of this so they saw it in a new way. What a twist—a surprise—to view these events in a different way so that God was there but not in the way they expected.

And so it with us. The way of deepening our relationship with God may not be what we had in mind or the way we had hoped. Instead, going deeper may be about our openness to God’s presence in all of the ordinary circumstances of life and saying yes to what is given – with joy.

On your own journey of discernment? Are you asking questions such as: Why am I here?  What is mine to do? Who am I called to be? And what can I contribute and offer to the world? This Lent, journey with Patience Robbins for a 6-session eCourse series: Open Hands, Willing Hearts, February 22 to March 29, 2015. Registration deadline is less than a week away! (Weds, Feb 18)

Click here to register.


Patience-RobbinsPatience Robbins has recently been directing Shalem’s Young Adult Life and Leadership Initiative, and is a graduate of Shalem’s Nurturing the Call: Spiritual Guidance Program. She has been a spiritual director for over 20 years. Patience was the Director of Shalem’s Living in God: Personal Spiritual Deepening Program from 2003-08 and is the author of the booklet, Parenting: A Sacred Path. She is excited about the launch of her new eCourse: Open Hands, Willing Hearts, next week.

Redwoods photo by Susan Robbins Etherton

God Only Knows

Today’s post is from the writings of the late Gerald May.

When I was six years old I prayed, “Dear God, let me do what you want me to do.” By the time I was a young adult the prayer had changed to “Dear God, let me know what you want me to do.” The two prayers may seem similar on the surface, but underneath they are very different. The childlike prayer is intimate and trusting, asking only to be led and leaving the leading to God. In the adult prayer I asked for knowledge of God’s desire, with the implied message that once I knew what God wanted, I would try to carry it out.

I don’t know how many years I spent with that adult prayer. I do know that the more I tried to discern God’s will so I could carry it out, the further away from God I felt. It got to the point where I sometimes acted as if all I needed from God was my marching orders; I’d handle the rest on my own. I thought I understood discernment, but what I had really done was substitute intermittent contact and willful activity for abiding intimacy and trust.

Then, thank God, a time came when my discernment abilities evaporated. In what I now call my “dark night of discernment” I lost all capacity for clarity or understanding of God’s desire for me. All the discernment methods I knew produced nothing, and it seemed somehow absurd to keep working at them. Further, I realized I no longer even understood the concept of discernment. The term seemed to have lost all meaning for me.

To say the least, this was disconcerting at the time. It felt like some kind of brain problem, as if whatever lobe does discernment had simply ceased to function. I talked to friends and colleagues about it. Some nodded wisely and smiled as if they understood. I hate when they do that. Others tried to help me recover my old ways or discover new ways of being discerning, but it was all to no avail.

The effect, as usually happens in dark night experiences, was to lead me to simplicity. In this case I found myself guided back to my childhood prayer: “Dear God, let me do what you want me to do,” under my breath adding, “even if I don’t have a clue what it is.” Since my own capacities had completely failed, I had no choice but to trust God again in each moment, like a little child.

I had been brought to my knees. In that position I felt relief, freedom and an intimacy I’d long forgotten. I still had to deal with certain self-image issues, like competence for example. It doesn’t sound very responsible to answer questions with “I have no idea,” or “God only knows.”

Recently however, I found some Scriptural support for my incompetence. In fact, Scripture says my childhood prayer is a very good prayer indeed; loving trust is a whole lot more important than understanding. There’s the passage about the lilies of the field where Jesus says not to worry about tomorrow because God knows what we need. And there’s Deuteronomy 30:14 that says the Word is already in our hearts so we don’t have to go searching for it.

More powerful for me is Jeremiah 29:11, where God is saying, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for your wellbeing… reserving for you a future full of hope.” In context, those words are a rebuke of false prophets who think they understand God’s thoughts. But they do not; only God does. Some translations even render it, “I alone know…” So maybe it’s true that God only knows.

Here’s what the passage says to me: “I alone know the desires I have for you; the prophets do not know my plans, and neither do you. Nor do you need to, because I have told you my desire is for your wellbeing.”

In this light, the following verses (12-14) become especially beautiful: “Then when you pray to me I will hear you; when you feel your desire for me you will find me; when you want me with all your heart, I will let you find me.” These words say to me that it’s not understanding God’s will that counts, but simple abiding love and trust.

By definition, a dark night experience always leads a person to greater freedom of life and deeper intimacy with God. I think that’s what has happened to me in my journey with discernment; I’m a lot less competent and a lot more grateful.

On your own journey of discernment? Are you asking questions such as: Why am I here?  What is mine to do? Who am I called to be? And what can I contribute and offer to the world? This Lent, journey with Patience Robbins for a 6-session eCourse series: Open Hands, Willing Hearts, February 22 to March 29, 2015.

Click here to register.


ME/May-obGerald May, M.D. (1940-2005), practiced medicine and psychiatry for twenty-five years before becoming a senior fellow in contemplative theology and psychology at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland. He was the author of many books and articles blending spirituality and psychology, including Addiction and GraceCare of Mind/Care of SpiritWill and Spirit, and The Dark Night of the Soul.

Header photo by Susan Robbins Etherton.

Draining the Pond

Today’s post is by Susan Robbins Etherton.

“As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.”

(Psalm 42:1-2)

For the past nine years, Shalem Society members have gathered together at Bon Secours Retreat Center in Marriottsville, MD, for an annual retreat. This past October was my third gathering and these are some of my reflections from that retreat.

When I arrived at Bon Secours and found my room, I was delighted to see it had a view of the pond. Through brightly colored leaves, I caught a glimpse of water shimmering below. Ah, the pond! Still water, reflecting clouds and sun, holding leaves aloft – oranges and yellows, sky blue, greyish white and dark green. I noticed the low, constant hum of machinery. I had come to expect the quiet, undercurrent of workers who care for this place. I was grateful for them; grateful for their attention and provision that allowed me and others to retreat without worry or care. Maintaining a beautiful, peaceful place like Bon Secours is always a work in progress.

As I made my way downstairs, I was excited to head outside – to greet the pond that always refreshes me. Yes, the pond was there – and yet, it was somehow different.

pond1On one side of the pond, I observed two large round tubs, bright blue plastic, like small swimming pools, full of water and leaves. On the other side of the pond, yellow caution tape festooned the walkway and a large black hose emerged from the pond, snaking over the walk and emptying out onto the grass. I looked across the pond to the footbridge – a beloved place to walk and reflect. Something like a ladder was suspended below the bridge across its entire length. More of the yellow caution tape was draped over either end of the bridge, barring entry.

I walked around to the far end of the pond. The cattails and other grasses had been leveled. The droning hum, now loud and its source clear, came from the engine of a pump. The scene began to make sense. They were draining the pond.

Confident the work would soon be over, I returned inside. The gathering room was full of loving faces and expectant energy. Greeting friends, I knew great joy and peace at this homecoming. Several days of quiet, in deeply contemplative community, awaited me and I was eager to settle into the now-familiar practice.

pond2As we moved into the second day of retreat and began the Great Silence, I headed outdoors to the pond determined to enjoy this sacred place. I found a bench facing the woods with my back to the pond and equipment. I tried to imagine the continuous, loud drone of the pump as a kind of white-noise. Only later when the pump ran out of fuel and stopped did I realize how much I missed the pure quiet of silence.

Draining the pond. Moving into a time of reflection, the image teased my spirit.

In draining the pond, the clouded water was being poured out. Fallen leaves that had clogged the pump were being cleared away. The underground systems could be viewed and checked for leaks or needed repairs. The bridge was being shored up so it could once again bear the weight of travelers.

Silent retreat is a form of draining the pond for me. I experience a clearing out of my heart space. All that has clouded, cluttered and clogged my spirit can be swept away leaving a spaciousness to consider my own underground systems. Where are the leaks that need tending? What are the broken places or areas needing reinforcement? I undergo a deep and cleansing emptying, exposing myself, broken and bare, safe and open to the tender care of Spirit and loving community.

fish_pondThe next day, the water in the pond was very low. Now attuned to the changes and process, I noticed there were fish in the pond. The large, easily seen ones had been moved but, with the pond almost empty, I could see baby fish – small orange treasures huddling together looking for safe waters. I appreciated that the workmen spent a great deal of time to safely gather these baby fish and move them to a holding pond while the base pond was repaired. I wondered what infant gifts were waiting to be noticed or discovered in me?

As I continued each day to watch the water recede, I began to see the rocks and sediment – the bedrock of the pond. Yes, there were places that needed repair, some shoring up of weak spots, but I could also see the strength of a solid and well-built foundation.

pond3Refilled with fresh water, the pond would once again be refreshing, peaceful, a place of great beauty, reflecting all of creation around it, offering itself as a place of rest.

I imagine myself cleared, unclogged and repaired. I cherish the infant possibilities I will discover. I see myself filled again with new life, Living Water. Refreshed in body and Spirit, knowing the peace that surpasses understanding, I am once again a source of love and refreshment for the world. I resurface grateful — full and free to reflect God’s unending beauty.


rsz_susanethertonSusan Robbins Etherton is a graduate of Nurturing the Call: Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program.  A member of Spiritual Directors International, Susan has actively engaged in the ministry of spiritual direction since 2007. She is married and the mother of two children.  Susan says, “I love God, my family, singing and nature. For fun I play around with a camera.” She is a member of the board of Shalem Institute, and be sure to look for her photographic contributions to Shalem’s daily Facebook postings.

Above the Clouds

Today’s post is by Bryan Berghoef.

The red seatbelt sign combined with the sense of forward thrust told me we were about to take off. I briefly set down my Kindle—along with the drama of Russian intrigue, romance, and battle as depicted in Tolstoy’s War and Peace—to gaze out the window. A cold, clear day in Washington DC. I had just arrived only a week ago, and now I was taking off again.

A microcosm, perhaps of our recent experience of moving to DC from Michigan for twenty months, and then moving back much sooner than expected.

It was my first trip back to DC since we moved this past July. It was amazing how easy it was to get back into the rhythm of city life: taking the Metro, hitting favorite coffee shops and micro-brew serving establishments, going to work in the office at Shalem, and seeing old friends and neighbors. It was a delight to be back.

In between the fun there was certainly nostalgia as well. The saddest moment was walking in our old neighborhood, wandering into the quiet neighborhood park after dark, sitting on a cold bench, and envisioning all the fun our family had there—whether playing baseball with my oldest two boys, pushing my youngest two on the swings, or getting neighborhood kids involved in a game of wiffle ball.

This week was also a busy time at Shalem as we hosted the Contemplative Voices Award benefit on Sunday featuring Cynthia Bourgeault, had a board meeting on Monday, and a full day of training for our new website on Tuesday.

By the time I got on the plane I was pretty wiped out. My mind and heart were in various places all at once. I thought of all the work I had to do, the daily realities of life I was returning to. I reveled in the joy of reconnecting—gathering with friends at the pub to talk theology, celebrating a friend’s book release with an improvisational cooking session, enjoying an amazing house concert in my old neighborhood. This busyness and joy mixed with the bittersweet sensation of feeling so at home in a place where I no longer live, and once again feeling that I was leaving too soon.

The plane sped quickly down the runway, and we were flying. It was a full flight, and I wondered about what was happening with all the other individuals seated about me in the cabin. Were they coming, or going? Filled with hope about a new venture? Regretful about something that had already passed? We all sat strapped in, facing forward, regardless of our inner state.

After reading a few more pages of War and Peace, I again looked out the window: houses, roads, and cars had grown miniscule. A few wispy clouds soon turned to a peaceful and soft down blanket upon which we floated.

We passed several states in such fashion, and as we flew in that clear, tranquil space—the bright sun shining on us, the soft white canopy over the world below us—I felt a nudge to exhale. To trust. To rest in the ambiguity. To know that distance might shift relationships, but it does not need to end them. To know that there is a larger whole that I often forget. To remember there is One who invites me to trust that this floating sphere, with its ongoing drama, is loved.

In this liminal space we flew. And I was at peace.


Bryan Berghoef is a pastor and writer who helps curate Shalem’s social media content and provides technical support for Shalem’s online courses. He lives with his family in Holland, Michigan. You can follow Bryan on Facebook and Twitter.

Image via WikiMediaCommons

The Alchemy of Blessing

Today’s post is by Savannah Kate Coffey

Blessing is a beautiful Old English word that means to consecrate or to give thanks. We count our blessings and ask blessing upon our meals. Blessing has even deeper roots though in the proto-Germanic word for blood. To bless originally meant to mark or hallow with blood as one would sprinkle blood upon an altar. Blood has always been a symbol of the life-force within, that which must flow if we are to be truly alive. Blessing is more than just a nice word about a sunny day or a happy heart, more than gratitude for our daily bread. Blessing is the bloodstream of the universe, keeping us healthy, strong, and connected to the flow of life.

Our days are often filled with the usual tasks, the mundane, and commonplace. In the words of poet Mary Oliver, our experience is rarely marked by “the exceptional, the fearful, the dreadful, the very extravagant–but [by] the ordinary, the common, the very drab, the daily presentations” (“Mindful”). The raw material of our lives is often just that– basic, unimpressive, and sometimes quite painful. Our humanity is a beautiful thing–deeply rooted in both the fertility and humility of the humus, the good earth from which we originate and to which we return. We live a soiled existence, planted in an earthiness from which we can grow strong, fruitful, and compassionate. This same fecund humanity, though, is also the smudgy reminder of our very real limitations and the gravity we daily experience. Being “born to fly” is a popular notion, but I’ve never actually met anyone with wings.

In medieval times, alchemy was the art and science of taking a base metal such as lead and transmuting it into the precious metals of silver or gold. The fiery crucible was the place of transformation. Although alchemy long ago lost it’s popularity as a method for creating wealth, it remains a compelling symbol for the work of life: creating meaning, beauty, and spiritual riches from the clay underneath our feet.

We are all alchemists to the extent that we allow our raw experience to be transformed by the inner flame of the spirit. So often we see blessing only in those rare moments when we think we have it all figured out, when our emotions soar high, when we have met our quarterly sales goals, or when we finally feel needed, wanted, and loved. No. Blessing results when we allow the ordinary material of life to be filtered through the dignity and care of our spirit. The process is often messy, strange and uncomfortable. Perhaps we can learn to trust that the spirit within knows the way. Spirit is a very real and powerful force with wisdom and vision all it’s own, despite being so intangible and unwieldy.

Never doubt, please, no matter how leaden your life may seem, that you have something to offer. Your work becomes part of the forever-good of this universe, the blessing and bloodstream upholding life, in the moment you apply intentional presence and the flame of your spirit to the raw material resting in your hands. Spreadsheets, meetings, bath-time, research, treatment plans, phone calls and the evening meal become holy and blessed, not because they are somehow inherently exceptional, but because your spirit is.


Kate-CoffeyKate Coffey is a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and Shalem’s Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program for which she now serves as adjunct staff. She lives and writes in South Carolina.

Reclaiming Happiness

Today’s post is by Savannah Kate Coffey.

Happiness may be one of the most misunderstood and maligned virtues of our time.

Happiness is, on one hand, exalted as the supreme goal of existence. There is great pressure to be happy. If you are not happy, your life is not worth living and you must be doing something wrong. Shopping, traveling, and self-help are popular solutions to this problem. There are many paths to happiness and though every path is not right for every person there is certainly one for you and you should keep searching until you find it. If you find yourself still unhappy after about– oh, say, 50 years, or maybe just 50 minutes, you probably need professional help. Of course, sex, drugs, and rock and roll are always available to you. Whichever path you choose, your happiness depends on you, is fully within your control, and it is your responsibility to procure it.

On the other hand, our churches rarely have much to say about happiness because happiness completely misses the point. Life is about faithfulness, maturity, service, and perhaps “joy” (the more respectable cousin of happiness). Happiness is simply a fleeting distraction that holds no lasting value. Life is a test requiring great perseverance. God certainly isn’t interested in our happiness because God is much too serious for that. God wants us to grow up and if we aren’t happy, well, so be it. We are at least wise, mature, and orthodox. We have inherited our Puritan ancestors’ fear that if we encourage happiness we tacitly promote the licentious sex, drugs, and rock and roll mentioned earlier.

The pendulum swings back and forth causing so much confusion that even a sweet, Southern girl may resort to swearing in sheer frustration. Both perspectives are distortions of something inherently good. As distortions they are unlivable. Happiness is either pie in the sky, always just out of reach, or it is the dangerous enemy of mature faith, and as such, is illegitimate. We live either as slaves to the seduction of happiness, or as martyrs in the rejection of it.

What would a livable and faithful pursuit of happiness look like? It might begin with knowing that God is happy. Maybe God even desires our happiness. The Biblical story bears witness to this time and again. God apparently creates from sheer delight, reveling in divine artistry and calling creation good. God sees that Adam is lonely and provides a partner, presumably for their mutual help and happiness. Even the law and 10 great rules are given in an effort to preserve happiness in community. The Beatitudes in Matthew 5 claim happiness and the dignity of human life without denying the pain and suffering we experience. What if we deeply trusted the goodness and extravagance of a God “who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment?” (I Timothy 6:17)

If true happiness is rooted in the very nature of God, and God is Love, then we also know happiness involves the giving and receiving of love. Have you noticed, when your heart is filled with love, the craving for “too much” of everything else relents? Or, when you share true presence with your children, their behavior improves? How different would our experience of sex be if the focus was less on seduction and need-gratification, and more about mutual, loving self-offering? Overeating might lose it’s appeal if we were satisfied with enough love every day. Can human love satisfy our every need? No. To seek sufficient love solely from human relationships only changes the focus of the addiction. God is the bottomless source of love. But we grossly underestimate our power to love and sow happiness.

My mom has cooked dinner for my dad repeatedly in their 40-year marriage. I have never once heard my dad complain that the corn is tough or the chicken bland. He simply sits down and relishes whatever she makes. My mother offers him happiness in the meal and he offers her happiness in his response. What if we each decide to cook-up love in the best way we can and then pull up a chair and relish the love-offering of others? I think we might find ourselves transformed into people of deep and abiding happiness.

An ancient hymn, thought to be one of the earliest songs of the Christian church, imagines Jesus as the Phos Hilaron—the “Happy Light.” Legend says it was composed by an old man on his way to being martyred. The executioner’s arm was paralyzed until the elderly bishop had finished his song. May this be true for all of us—may we be given as many days as we need to fully sing our song of love and may true happiness be the result.


Kate Coffey is a graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary and Shalem’s Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups and Retreats Program for which she now serves as adjunct staff. She lives and writes in South Carolina.

Children, Chaos, and Contemplation

Today’s post is by Bryan Berghoef

There is never a dull moment at our house. My wife and I have four children—amid the flurry of homework assignments, birthday parties, sibling spats, and dinnertime squabbles—there’s a lot of constant noise and movement.

beach-jumpingOne of the delightful things about having young children is their unbridled enthusiasm and overwhelming energy. They are fully present, without a sense that there is anything else to be. They are fully in the moment. This is a gift of being a child, not being weighed down by thoughts of the future, or by a sense of responsibility, or worry. They are right here, right now.

The downside is that everything is so important, and when something doesn’t go their way, right now, it’s reason for complaining, crying, sometimes even—panic. Spilling milk really is something to cry over. A favorite toy breaking feels like the apocalypse. Even as I write this there is fighting in the sandbox. (Don’t worry – we have plenty of moments of calm and laughter as well in our household!)

I long as a parent to be able to maintain an inner calm amid all this outer chaos and confusion. I find that I am very seldom able to cultivate that on the spot. It is something I need to consciously develop in other moments, so that when the chaos comes, I have a reserve of calm from which to draw. It might be a daily time of prayer and silence, a quiet walk outside, Scripture reading, or some other practice. Daily I drive our children to school, about 15 or so minutes through a beautiful, rural landscape. I find this to be a very calming time—at least, the quiet drive home after dropping them off! Soaking in the scenery, I give thanks for the children I have, I look forward to what the day brings, and I have time to connect, in quiet, with God.

Of course the chaos doesn’t wait for me to be contemplatively grounded to begin! As any parent knows—these scenes erupt without a moment’s notice. When this happens, there are times when I haven’t centered myself, and it is only too easy to be caught up in the noise, and even add to it.

“She ate my last French fry!”  

“He always gets to go first!”

“I never get to do anything fun.”

“But I’m not tired!”

At times I’ve given in to the chaos, or even added to it. This not only exacerbates the situation, but it models to the kids that such behavior is OK—not only for them, but even for adults. Here’s where being centered is so crucial. When I’m calm within—I can sense what is happening and allow myself to pull back a moment to seek clarity above the fray. In these moments, the one thing that helps me more than anything is perspective. I try to see the situation from outside it. When I’m able to seek that bit of detachment, things seem to quickly scale to their appropriate place in the scheme of things. Sometimes I just need to remember to breathe, or hold onto a phrase such as “they’re just kids, after all.” Or: “this too shall pass.” Other times I tap into contemplative moments I enjoyed earlier.

Naturally I try to help the child see the larger perspective I’m trying to hold on to. “No more French fries? Well, they’re not that healthy anyway, and maybe we can have a yummy snack later.” But this often only goes so far. “But Dad…!” I can’t remove my child’s sense of imminent frustration, disappointment, or anger. I can’t remove them from the situation. It is a natural desire to help the child see what I see. To help him ‘figure it out.’

Yet what has the most impact, I think, is to simply be that presence of peace. Even if my children don’t understand it, they’ll experience it, and it will register somewhere for them, even if subconsciously. When I remain calm, the equation changes. There is now a presence of peace absorbing the cacophony. There’s a word of encouragement. A hand to hold. A hug to receive. A smile. Peace.

I’m a long, long ways from being a perfect parent, but I love it. I’m grateful for the daily gifts my children bring me—and my prayer is that my presence is also a gift to them.


Bryan Berghoef is a pastor and writer (and parent of four!) who helps curate Shalem’s social media content and provides technical support for Shalem’s online courses. You can see more of his writing at pubtheologian.com. You can follow Bryan on Twitter @bryberg.

What Does it Mean to Be Beloved of God?

Today’s post is by Juliet Vedral

It happened at the last day—the last hour really—of the 2013 Shalem YALLI kick-off retreat (Young Adult Life and Leadership Initiative). As our ragtag group of contemplatives wrote down on paper the blockages we sensed to living lives connected to the Spirit, we placed them in a bowl. We were then asked to come up, take a few of the slips of paper, hold them up to God, then return them to the bowl with a prayer: “I am the Beloved of God.”

This snarky, snide former Pastors’ Kid (yes, that’s two pastors) rolled the eyes of her heart. What did that prayer even mean? But then that question tugged at me: what does it mean to be the Beloved of God? It seemed to be the question I had always been asking. Could that really be true of me?

I’ve always loved John’s gospel the most, primarily because of his audacity to define himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” What a claim, right? Yet it seemed the journey that the Spirit was inviting me to take as we left the retreat was to be able to claim for myself, for my core identity, “the Beloved of God.”

2013-06-23 09.02.12Flash forward 10 months. I am on a work retreat with the messaging team and Anne Grizzle, my mentor through Shalem’s YALLI program. I had suggested that one of my projects to incorporate contemplative practices in the workplace was to have this team take some time to learn how best to listen to the Spirit and each other. As we did some listening and discernment, I shared about my life and how I felt as though I have been on a pilgrimage in the darkness and not sure to what end.

To my surprise, two of my colleagues said that they believed I was “blessed” and that perhaps the season I was in was less about me and more for others. It was not what I’d hoped to hear. Still, it struck a chord in me—as in, it caused all the notes that had been playing in my head and my heart for months to harmonize.

Henri Nouwen, in his book, Life of the Beloved, writes that being the Beloved of God means that we are taken, blessed, broken, and then given to others. As Jesus was blessed, broken, and given to us, so are we to the world. It is at once a beautiful and terrible thing to claim about oneself.

As I contemplate certain areas of my life that feel broken, I recognize that perhaps I’m missing the “slow work of God” because change isn’t happening fast enough. Perhaps the challenge of being the Beloved is having the eyes to see that this life is about God and God’s work in this world.

A co-worker recently referenced a sermon she’d heard a few years earlier, about being in the river of God. As we wade deeper into that river, we are carried to places we may not have willingly gone.

Right now I feel that I am at a place in my life where I would not have willingly gone. I am a single (off of a recent, perplexing break up), 33-year-old, childless woman with a great job, but not in her vocation, far from home. All of these aspects of my life make me feel as though I am not Beloved, as I would prefer to be married, with children, living into a vocational calling and near my family. There is a powerful temptation to feel purposeless and “cursed” by God when looking at my life through the lens of a self-centered world that tells me I am barren because I am alone and childless and not “living my dream.”

And yet the One whom God proclaimed a beloved child that pleased the Divine, was “like one from whom people hide their faces, he was despised and we held him in low esteem.” (Isaiah 53: 3b). In this upside-down kingdom, Belovedness looks broken. It looks low and impoverished, without “beauty or majesty.” That’s quite a depressing image, right? Who’d really want to sign up for that?

On my birthday I joked that this was my “Jesus year.” Well, here was another 33-year-old, alone, without any descendants, unrecognized for the work he was doing, far from home. So when my colleagues said back to me something I couldn’t hear—the voice of God saying “this is my Beloved Daughter in whom I am well pleased”— it was transformative. To be considered “blessed” despite feeling otherwise showed me how much farther I need to go in embracing all of God’s love towards me. Not just the warm, fuzzy parts. But the real life parts of being broken in front of people and letting them see God heal and restore.

Isn’t that the reason we claim “the Beloved of God” as our identity? I am my father and mother’s beloved daughter even when I don’t always feel it. When I was a child and they didn’t give me what I wanted all the time and they disciplined me to be a kind, thoughtful person, it was because they loved me. As the author of Hebrews writes, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?” (Hebrews 12:7). This discipline is not punishment but instead is teaching me to know my worth to God. I am Beloved even when it doesn’t feel like it and through this process being made more and more like Jesus. And like him, may I continue to be chosen, blessed, broken, and given to those who need to see the slow—yet powerful—work of God.


Juliet Vedral is a member of the YALLI class of 2015. She is the press secretary for Sojourners and the editor of a literary magazine called The Wheelhouse Review. You can follow her on Twitter.

Waiting for It to Clear

Today’s post is by Kathleen Moloney-Tarr

A couple of weeks ago I spent a week alone writing in the North Carolina mountains high on a ridge overlooking a wide valley and long mountain range beyond. The first day I settled in with my journal of the last few months and the intent to gather pieces of poems to my computer screen where I could work them over, print them, and revise until they became whole. I was looking forward to being in a creative flow and accomplishing a lot happily in one of my favorite places.

Mountain clouds Di BundyThe first evening a thick fog settled in. Tuesday morning I was sorry to see it remained and thought, “It’ll burn off by lunchtime.” At noon, I hoped the view would clear by late afternoon. When I went to bed, the lights in the valley were obscured by a dense white cloud. Wednesday morning I was disappointed to miss a second sunrise behind the fog. Even though all the doors and windows were closed, the tiny squares of every screen filled with water drops. I could not see the mountain range or the valley or even a poplar tree. Surrounded by a blanket of white moisture, I felt a little uneasy and claustrophobic. I don’t like being closed in. I sleep with my bedroom door open and choose not to have curtains or blinds in my kitchen, living room and dining room. I like light, and I like to be able to see what is outside.

When I write I love looking up from the page to see what Nature is up to—the dogwood changing through the seasons, a hawk soaring, the blond squirrel scurrying up the lavender oak trunk or the native grasses swaying in the breeze. The very presence of the natural world keeps me company and settles me into writing. Often I rely on the external world to jumpstart me on to the page.

But in the fog, the only external presence was the cloud wall pressing against the screen and glass. For more than four days in this white world, I tried to keep myself moving to the computer or my journal. A dozen poems and a couple of essays slowly made their way onto the page. I was forced to stay internal, to notice what was happening to me as I experienced living in a cocoon. I was uncomfortable. I wanted out. I walked from room to room, made tea and took time-outs to read a novel.

By Friday I woke up and took charge. I made a fire to keep me company. I kept a candle lit all day and let music quiet me down. I burned incense and breathed deeply. I wondered why it took me so long to remember to do these things to support myself as I wrote. I know what works with me, but for days these things never occurred to me.

I was waiting for it to clear. I was waiting for the external world to change. I took for granted that I was fogged in and that was that. I relinquished control and could not even imagine the view beyond.

Sometimes this is how the spiritual path is for me. I have a deep sense of knowing something is “out there.” I wait for it to come to me. I may sit in stillness or read wisdom writings, but I don’t really see or experience what I desire. I am in a fog, what the ancient mystic called the Cloud of Unknowing. I am in a world surrounded by the sacred presence, but I am unable to see past what is right in front of me. I smile now to realize that this white world was a gift. Opaque white fog blocked the valley and mountain range. The blank white page in front of me awaited my words.

I sat with it and let it be. It was uncomfortable and disconcerting. I wanted the mountain view to distract me, but I was given space and time to understand that the mountain, like Mystery, lies behind the fog both literally in the beautiful living world and figuratively in the ever present sacred. The view is always just behind the fog just like Spirit is present no matter my mood or disposition. My challenge is to do what I know works to keep me on the path of becoming as I keep relearning this truth.


This post appeared in the September 2012 Shalem eNews.

Kathleen Moloney-Tarr, a graduate of Shalem’s Spiritual Guidance Program, enjoys the privilege of offering spiritual companionship to those of all faiths who seek contemplative, prayerful space to notice and turn toward the sacred Presence in their lives. She holds membership and the ethical commitments of Spiritual Directors International, The Unitarian Universalist Society for Community Ministries, the Shalem Society for Contemplative Leadership and the Unitarian Universalist Spiritual Directors Network. Kathleen also writes poetry and personal essays, weaves and knits, and leads workshops such as Writing Your Spiritual Journey.

Photo by Dianne Sharma Winter