Love, the Riskiest of Bets

Today’s post is by Juliet Vedral

“We shall draw nearer to God, not by trying to avoid the sufferings inherent in all loves, but by accepting them and offering them to Him; throwing away all defensive armor. If our hearts need to be broken, and if He chooses this as the way in which they should break, so be it.” –C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

It has never been difficult for me to say “I love you.” Maybe this is just my personality—I’m an ENFJ so that’s kind of our stock-in-trade. Maybe this is just my cultural background—I’m half-Italian and in some ways all the stereotypes of being passionate, emotive people are true. I hug my friends when I see them. I hug new friends after we’ve first met. It’s not hard for me to show love. Except when it costs me.

I am now over four months into a relationship that has gone from a casual, “why not?” set-up to serious conversations about serious, life-altering matters. I’ve discovered that the rules of dating are primarily defensive strategies, the cousins of the job interview technique. You carefully edit out the bad to highlight the good. Weaknesses are re-cast to appear as strengths, making you appear wonderfully vulnerable (but not high-maintenance or a mess). Above all, you guard your heart and do not give it away to just anyone.

But the strategies that work in dating will kill a relationship. When you realize that the other person is not “just anyone” it’s terrifying to open your heart, revealing its cracks and broken ruins, the messiness, the clutter, and the strengths that really are weaknesses. It’s terrifying to love when the price tag is your supposed emotional safety and the coordinates of your secret hideout, located somewhere behind your baggage and to the left of our carefully constructed defenses.

And it’s most terrifying to love when you’re not sure you’ll be loved back.

Since I began my two-year residency with the Shalem Institute’s Young Adult Life and Leadership Initiative (YALLI), I’ve been on a journey to learn what it means to be Beloved by God. The question I’ve been asking myself nearly every day since November 2013 has been “what would my life look like if I truly embraced and knew (as far as it’s possible in this world) the love of God and lived out of that identity?”

The answer has never been one that makes me feel particularly “loved” in the sense of comfort or ease. Loving and being loved by God is a risky and unsafe endeavor. It usually involves self-denial and a choice to love and be vulnerable in situations in which I’d rather be defensive. You know, kind of exactly like Jesus, who was God’s Beloved Son. When considering love in the upside-down nature of God’s kingdom, I often feel like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: “I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

But it’s more likely that here in this confusing and broken world, I’m the one who needs a new definition. In God’s kingdom, love looks nothing like warm fuzziness or sentimentality, and most definitely nothing like our comfort. It looks like God descending to earth knowing exactly what it would cost and still not holding anything back. It looks like God keeping a standing appointment in the Garden, knowing full well that Adam and Eve chose knowledge of the world over knowledge of God’s love–and still calling to them. It looks like a bruised and bloodied man, taking up his cross, the very means of his own death, and carrying it while offering forgiveness and a prayer.

In God’s economy, the coffers of love are filled not through miserly saving and limited liabilities, but through spending and investing it even in places that are risky bets. Because in this world, everything is a risky bet.

And so I found myself recently wrestling with God over this issue of love, when it came to my relationship with this man. I didn’t want to love first—what if we didn’t work out? I didn’t even want to write about our relationship for fear of having any kind of record of our relationship should it end. As someone who has made a lot of unwise investments in love, I didn’t want to make another risky bet.

Which isn’t necessarily bad advice. Collective wisdom tells us to guard our hearts and to be careful in relationships, because we might get hurt. But we can get hurt in friendship. We can get hurt in our families. We can get hurt doing any small amount of living in this world. Avoiding pain is not having “life to the full.”

Yet the invitation to love kept coming. No assurances that my fears were unfounded or new reports that would show the soundness of my investment in loving this man fully. Just the invitation to trust. To experience what it is like to love in the way that God does and trust that God will not abandon me to my fears. God spends love the way that a drunk sailor whose ship has landed spends money—without any concern about running out of love. As God’s Beloved, we are called to do the same—to love extravagantly, knowing that God’s love will always be a direct deposit in our accounts. What would it look like to live a life of love every day, unconcerned with reciprocation or keeping a record of transactions, but in full obedience to the One we love?

Because isn’t that where we most encounter God? It’s not through self-protection, self-preservation, or less living. As the Beloved, Jesus didn’t hold back from loving this world because he drew from an endless source of love. The more we live and love freely, the more we can find God incarnate in the moments of joy and grief and pain and laughter.

So last week I told this man in far too many words that I wanted to love him, because he was God’s Beloved and therefore worthy of being loved well. I don’t know what will come of this relationship, but I what I do know is that I am my Beloved’s and He is mine. It turns out that despite the risk to my own comfort, God’s steadfast, unfailing love has proven to be the safest bet I could ever make. May God’s unfailing love rest upon you, even as you hope in him today.

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

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.

Grounded in Gratitude

 Today’s post is by Savannah Kate Coffey

“Whatever comes, the great sacrament of life will remain faithful to us, blessing us always with visible signs of invisible grace.”

~John O’Donohue
The Bless the Space between Us

The days of 2014 are waning and I am venturing a guess that we all began this year somewhere else, whether in our inner lives or outer circumstances. Maybe we have physically relocated from one place to another. Maybe grief has changed us in its unwelcome and particular way. Maybe adventure has offered its hand for our enjoyment. Maybe the hours have called for quiet endurance, newfound courage, or a depth of trust we did not anticipate. Maybe love, belonging, welcome, and delicious satisfaction have surprised us as the full moon sometimes does at harvest, rising just above the horizon, golden and breathtaking. Maybe our initial resolutions for the year have been forgotten, but maybe we have pursued those intentions, evolving together through the long months.

Life has likely touched us in ways that have yet to reveal their true significance. Thanksgiving invites us to pause, consider our days, and offer a prayer of gratitude before the remaining weeks slip through our fingers in the headlong rush to January 1st–that shiny, symbolic day of beginning anew.

In my work as a hospital chaplain I see the full spectrum of human experience–birth and death, grief and celebration, days of waiting and moments of relief, heartbreak and healing. I recently had the tremendous privilege of being present with a young couple who brought their sick baby into the emergency room. What they assumed was a simple stomach virus revealed itself to be liver cancer. Their beloved son is not expected to live beyond his second birthday. Our moments together were filled with desolation, terror, and heartbreak. To my surprise they were also brimming with profound love. I will never forget the angelic boy with blonde curls sleeping peacefully upon his mother’s chest as she choked on her tears and grief. Buried beneath the pain was the pulsating presence of a mother’s indestructible love for her child, a love so real that her son could rest in her embrace. I found myself in a moment of strange and unexpected thanksgiving for the love that does not die.

What does it mean to be grateful in the midst of this untamed life? I wonder if practicing gratitude is a discipline of stability. Gratitude grounds us firmly wherever we find our feet at the moment, rooted in all the joy and disappointment of our very human lives. In expressing gratitude we say yes to life, choosing to accept again and again this gift of existence in all its beauty and terror. Gratitude is costly faithfulness, an offering of our commitment to both the gift and the Giver. In living gratefully we forgo our restless tendencies, choosing not to dissolve into our many distractions. In thanksgiving we offer ourselves as we truly are, taking our place once again at the table of life.

Gratitude leads us, through laughter and tears, to the solid ground beneath our shifting experience. May we rest there, embraced in the indestructible, pulsating heart of love.

Kate-CoffeySavannah 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.

Photo by Leah Rampy

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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

Traveling in the Fog

Today’s post is by Leah Rampy.

The fog rolls in softly, creeping over the hills and creating new folds of landscape as colors fade to black and white. No longer able to see clearly the road ahead, I slow my car. Sounds now muffled, I relish the shifting configuration of clouds, the new shapes of once familiar objects, and the quiet solitude of my journey. The fog intensifies and I slow again.

A term from a once-used drivers’ manual comes to mind: overdriving your headlights. Overdriving your headlights occurs when you go so fast that your stopping distance is further than the illumination of your headlights. This, the manuals tell us, is dangerous as you may crash into an object ahead. Indeed! And I note with chagrin that this is a good description of how I act all too often!

When I am blessed with a sliver of discernment and I can see just the next step I’m invited to take, I often have a moment of gratitude. Then curiosity – or could it be a need for control? – takes over; I want to know more. Where is my final destination? I could get “there” so much better/faster/more efficiently if I knew where “there” was! Indulging my thinking mind, I hypothesize the outcome: ah, that must be what God has in mind for me! Then, confident of my knowledge, I leap into action, running pell-mell ahead of the illumination of the Spirit. And I go astray – or I crash.

What is it in me that resists the fog of life? Can I not slow my speed, enjoy the shifting shapes present in the now, rest in the softness and quiet of the moment, and trust that the path ahead will be illuminated in its time? I seem to have a tendency to make transitions more difficult than they need to be.

Roaming the internet while reflecting on this topic, I came across a blog on PsychCentral that seemed beautifully serendipitous. Maud Purcell, LCSW, wrote, “Our complex thought processes help us to survive challenging circumstances. Yet these very same processes preclude us from thriving during times of change.” We over analyze and over worry. Take one day at a time, the author encourages. Take care of yourself, allow your emotions, accept the situation, and give yourself time.   In other words, don’t overdrive your headlights!

The blog ends with an admonition to have faith. Have faith! The promise is there in the manual. “We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!” (The Message, 1 Corinthians 13:12)

Today I’m driving slowly in the fog, appreciating the journey though soft, shifting shapes, calm in the assurance that the Holy One who set me on this road will reveal what I need to see as I need to see it. How is your journey through the fog? I’d love to hear from you.

LRampyLeah Rampy, Shalem’s Executive Director, has a background in corporate management and leadership consulting as well as a deep passion for contemplative living and care of the Earth. She has a PhD in Curriculum from Indiana University and is a graduate of Shalem’s Living in God: Personal Spiritual Deepening; and Transforming Community: Leading Contemplative Prayer Groups & Retreats Programs.

Reference: Maud M. Purcell, LCSW, CEAP. “Don’t Think. Thrive Your Way through Transition.”

Photo by Christy Berghoef

Becoming Love

Today’s post is written by Kate Coffey.

I’ve been told there are only two states of being: fear and love. All the other inner landscapes that seem so real are simply shadows of one or the other.

Just as we are rarely aware of the air we breathe, we often consider it normal to live fearfully, barely noticing the weight we carry. We use seemingly benign pet names for our fear: anxiety, stress, concern.

There is plenty of evidence of course to justify our fear. Pain, loneliness, and loss are part of the human experience and no one escapes this reality. All our efforts to survive and to protect those we love will in fact, one day, end in death. And the journey from here to there is fraught with difficulty.


In his book Fate and Destiny: The Two Agreements of the Soul, Michael Meade recounts a story of a young seeker who finds a wise teacher and his students living in a forest. All good teachers ask good questions and this one is no different. The sage asks the pupils to answer one question, “What do you love most in the whole world?” Some students answer truth, wisdom, their families, or the teacher. The young seeker hesitates to answer when it is his turn. Finally realizing he must speak the truth of his heart no matter how absurd it may sound, he answers that he most loves his family’s cow, the companion of his childhood. “I love the sound of its lowing and the shape of its great back that I used to ride upon. I love the swelling of its belly, its great teats, and the sweet milk it would pour out so freely. I love the curving horns on its head and its deep dark eyes. Above all things, I love that cow.”

The sage instructs the students to return to their huts and meditate on the thing they love most. When the meditation time ends the young seeker cannot be found. When he is finally found, still in his hut, the teacher instructs him to end his meditation and rejoin the others. The seeker softly replies, “I would love to come and join you, however I’m afraid that the horns on my head are too big to fit through the doorway.” In his meditation he had become what he most loved.

Love is the only force strong enough to overcome fear. We must become what we love if we are to be equal to the challenges of our days. “Become what you love” could easily sound like a simplistic prescription that holds no practical value, written only for starry-eyed novices. How is this supposed to help when the cherished child of your heart may have cancer and you can only wait in terror for the diagnosis? What good is becoming what you love when your beloved is traveling to China and the plane never arrives, anywhere? How does love help make the decisions that are so murky with consequences so far-reaching? Becoming love in the face of rejection and the apparent loss of love sounds ludicrous.

Although the arts of surrender, acceptance, and radical trust in the face of fear are necessary disciplines, they are not enough on their own to awaken our intrinsic power and courage. Emptying ourselves of willfulness is only half the equation. Love will not keep us from feeling fear or experiencing pain, but love is the courage and delight of our souls, empowering our presence for every difficulty. In love we come to know the wisdom and beauty of our deepest selves and any response we then make to our outer circumstances will be empowered by our inner flame.

What does your heart love the most? Live from that love.