Being Loved by God

My husband is a high school teacher, and for the first fifteen years of his career, he spent his summer break teaching summer school. Over the past few years, he has finally been able to recognize that the break is supposed to be exactly that, a break.  And so he gave up his summer teaching position to really take time in the summer to rest and restore. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how incredibly hard teachers work during the school year in increasingly challenging circumstances!

But what I’ve observed over the past few summers is that my husband has the hardest time taking a day off—and I mean taking it completely off. On summer afternoons he loves to go swimming at our town lake. Or maybe “swimming” isn’t exactly right: he doesn’t do laps or anything. Instead, he prefers to simply float on the water and relax—doing nothing, thinking about nothing in particular. 

But here’s the catch: he won’t go to the lake in the afternoon unless he feels he has “earned” it. He has to do something productive in the morning—planting flowers, moving the lawn, endlessly pulling out weeds—in order to feel right about his lake-lounging in the afternoon.

I’m sure this philosophy makes sense to a lot of people. The relaxation is the reward for the hard work. It’s easy to get swept up into this world of accomplishments and score-keeping. This sense that we have to justify our existence in the world and always be productive. But this way of thinking results in a transactional view of our own worth. To have good things, we must earn it. To feel loved and appreciated, we must deserve it. To be considered a good and worthy person, we must work for it.

If you truly believe that you are a child of God, then this view is terribly misguided! As William Reiser, S.J. writes in his book The Potter’s Touch

“We are alive, we exist on the earth for no other reason than this, that we have been loved.” 

You were created to be loved by God. Imagine the freedom in that realization! You weren’t created to produce, labor, contribute, sacrifice, or anything else but simply to receive love. Everything else you do in your life should stem from that fundamental belief.

God loves us unconditionally. That means without conditions! There’s no declaration that begins with the words: “God loves me because…”  Instead, we must only believe: “God loves me.”

We spend so much of our lives trying to prove things about ourselves.

  • I’m successful because I own this many things or I’ve received this many promotions. 
  • I’m well-liked because I have this many friends or social media followers.
  • I’m a good person because I’ve done this many good deeds.  

All of those things are a part of life, but they aren’t the “WHY” of life. Achieving success at work is great, but it’s not why you were put here on this earth. Having friends is important, but it’s not why you were created. Doing good deeds is wonderful, but it’s not your reason for being. 

Your reason for being is to be loved. God created us to love us. We are here to receive that love. What we do with that love is what comes next.

So it’s certainly a worthy effort to reflect on your calling and your purpose. After all…it’s not realistic to float on the lake forever! But the deeds you do should grow out of your existence as a child of God, not be a condition of it. In other words, we aren’t loved by God because we do good things; but rather, experiencing God’s unconditional love makes us want to share and spread that love through our words and deeds. 

So begin each day with this discovery—”I was created to be loved by God!” And see where the day takes you from there.

Survival Kits and Treasure Chests

Two years ago this month, I was busy making survival kits. My twin boys were in their sophomore year of college, and news of the Covid-19 virus was everywhere. It had fully arrived in the Northeast and cases were spreading like wildfire in nursing homes, hospitals, and other community settings. No one knew what would happen. (In early March of that year I never could have dreamed that most colleges would close their doors and send everyone home!) All I knew was that my boys were away at school and at risk of catching a dangerous virus. And so I put together boxes of everything they might need—if they got sick, if they were locked down in their dorm rooms, or if they were quarantined somewhere else on campus. I was determined that they would be ready to face any possible scenario. Cold medicine, digital thermometers, cough drops, snacks, and bottled water. I wanted them to be prepared for anything. It made me feel like I had control of a situation that was huge and scary and unprecedented. I truly believed that my proactive measures were the only thing that could hold back my panic.

Two years later, with many ups and downs throughout this pandemic, I still think about those survival kits. They essentially went unused.  My boys were lucky enough not to get Covid, and they never faced any kind of dorm lockdowns or quarantines. While it’s true that any of those things could have happened (and in fact did happen to many students), it made me stop and think: how much of my time do I spend “running the scenarios”—preparing for every possible negative outcome—when oftentimes, the worst case scenario never happens? 

How much time do you spend living in the future, in the land of “What if?” or “Just in case?” Always trying to figure out what’s coming next. Spending your time and energy trying to be prepared for it. We do this because we don’t want to be caught off guard. Sometimes this approach to life makes sense. When we know a hurricane is bearing down on us, we prepare for it by stocking up on groceries, batteries, and bottled water. But constantly living in this survival mode—even for the smaller, less perilous situations—begins to reveal a lack of trust. A need to control one’s environment is almost always linked with fear. Not just fear that bad things will happen, but fear that if they do, we won’t be able to handle it.

During this Lenten season, can we experiment with letting go of this “survival” attitude? What would it feel like to just live in the now? To experience what’s happening without analyzing the moment, trying to predict what will come next? This letting go may feel scary at first. It requires a level of trust that seems difficult. The ability to let go doesn’t come easy and takes practice. But it will quickly become incredibly freeing. 

Imagine leaning into God. Letting go and trusting that whatever comes, you will not be alone. You don’t need to go through life filling a metaphorical survival kit. Empty it out, and let it be filled with confidence. Confidence that God will provide what you need… in this moment… in every moment.  No matter how fierce the storm is, God will be there with you. You can relax and experience the present moment with a sense of peace.

My boys eventually admitted to me that when I dropped off their survival kits, the first thing they did was immediately eat all the snacks. What a funny and wonderful example of living in the now! 

I encourage you to follow this example, putting away your survival kit and replacing it with a treasure chest. Whereas a survival kit is filled with things you need to control all the bad things that may (or may not!) happen in your life, a treasure chest is full of life, hope, and possibility. It helps you do so much more than survive. It allows you to thrive!  This Lenten season, I invite you to accept the treasure chest that God has filled for you.  Discover the treasures inside: love, acts of kindness, gratitude, present moment awareness, hope, faith, and trust. Carry that treasure with you always.

God Is Good!

How easy it is, Lord, to focus on the chaos.
To drown in the evidence of darkness in our world.
To look around and say, “Yes, there! See?
Surely You are lost to Your people.”

I pray for the strength
To reject this view of the world.
To seek Your gentle and loving heart
In those that I meet on the journey.

Loving God, give me eyes to see
That You are working.
That You are HERE.
That Your people see and live in you.

Lord God, today and every day,
I proclaim that You are GOOD!
There is no darkness You cannot overcome.
No heart You cannot change.

I will lift my eyes to the heavens
And when I look back down on this world
I will see hope and beauty
And evidence of the LIGHT.

May I be a sign of Your presence in the world.
May I testify to Your goodness.
May my words and deeds shine with Your love.
May You work in me always.

AMEN.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The Bread of Life

It always gives me pause when I hear news stories of empty shelves and food shortages in American grocery stores. While it’s true that the pandemic continues to disrupt the process of getting food from warehouses, to trucks, to grocery store shelves, we are a long way from seeing completely empty stores. Even in the earliest days of the pandemic (the hunting for toilet paper days!) this was far from being true.

My extended family had a fun conversation over Christmas, trying to guess how long it would take one person to eat all the food in a typical grocery store. We started by imagining the bread aisle. Each loaf has about 15 slices. How many loaves? Now add in English muffins, tortillas, pita bread, and bagels. Then we moved on to pasta, rice, beans, and all the other grains. We spent some delightful moments picturing eating our way through the potato chip aisle. It was unfathomable to imagine consuming that much food. We hadn’t even gotten to dairy, meat, or produce, let alone the frozen food section. A poster on Reddit estimated that it would take one person over 300 years to eat everything!

But yet, we go to the grocery store and if one or two things that we like to eat are not on the shelves, we are dissatisfied. If on one particular day, we see one area of empty shelves, we begin to panic. We’re so used to the seemingly limitless supply of food, we’re not sure how to react when that view is challenged. 

I think this speaks to how we view abundance in our world. What does it mean to have enough? What do we really need to be satisfied? Where do we go for that satisfaction? Can we be creative in finding sustenance in our lives? I know the pandemic taught my family how to make do with some strange combinations of food. Back when it was hard to find eggs, flour, frozen vegetables, or soup, we figured out ways to make lunches and dinners with whatever we could find. Some of those meals ended up being our most enjoyable, because we were proud of our outside-the-box culinary creations. And maybe for the first time in our lives, we did not take for granted the fact that we had food on our table. 

Abundance began to take on new meaning.

All of our needs can be met with the abundance of God’s love. Overflowing, excessive, bountiful, crazy amounts of love. With God, there is no such thing as going hungry. 

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry,
and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” 
(John 6:35) 

I encourage you to reflect on moments when you’ve felt this abundance in your life; of how rich you felt in God’s love and grace. For me, that silly grocery store conversation on Christmas Eve was a perfect example. The love, laughter, and closeness filled my heart with joy.

If you’d like to become more aware of God’s abundance in your own life, I invite you to follow these steps:

  • Identify what it is you truly hunger for. For some it may be peace, or love, or inspiration. Lately I find myself hungering for evidence of goodness in the world.
  • Be on the lookout for the ways in which God is satisfying that hunger. Remember it may be in ways you don’t expect. Or it may come from places or people that surprise you. Be open to receiving this abundance, and you’ll begin to notice it everywhere!
  • Be grateful for God’s abundance. Best-selling author Melanie Beattie once wrote, “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more.” When your hunger has been satisfied, or a particular need has been met, take time to thank God for it.
  • Pay it forward. For just as God sends people into our lives to “feed” us along the way, surely we can be that food and sustenance for others.

As you spend time this week reflecting on God’s abundance, please share your thoughts in the comments section below. I would love to hear your stories of experiencing the Bread of Life in your everyday lives.

Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash

A Retreat Prayer

Dear Lord, as I enter into this sacred time,
may I feel surrounded by Your loving presence.
In the quiet stillness may I hear You speak to me.
In Your loving embrace, may I be restored.

Release me from all that pulls me away from You;
My doubts, my fears, and my need to control;
Noise, distraction, interruptions, and chaos;
The need to be constantly “doing” instead of “being”

Fill me with all that draws me closer to You;
Stillness, prayer, time to reflect;
Connection with my companions on the journey;
The simple wonder of knowing that You are here

Speak to me in the hushed quiet of prayer.
Open my heart to your stirrings in my life,
That I may let go of all that holds me back
From the life you are calling me to

As I move out of this time of retreat
Help me to carry this peace with me on the journey.
May I be reminded at all times of
Your presence, Your love, and Your goodness.

AMEN.

Background photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

To Retreat With the Lord

When a new year begins, I like to spend some time reflecting on the themes that filled the year (or years) I’m leaving behind. Last year held many moments of joy, family, friendship, and fun. But I would be lying if I said it wasn’t also marked by a lingering sense of isolation, withdrawal, and social distance. Many of us spent more time than we thought we would this year staying home. Avoiding crowds. Retreating from friends, family, and social gatherings. During the pandemic, the idea of “retreat” has taken on a new meaning, one which is a far cry from the kind of spiritual retreats that have defined my ministry over the past 13 years.  

The Omicron variant once again threatens to plunge us into isolation and quarantine. My husband and I have made the decision to hunker down as best we can for the next few weeks until this new (and hopefully final!) surge passes. But that doesn’t mean our time of retreat can’t also be a welcome sanctuary or a time of fruitful solitude. For today’s reflection, I would like to reclaim the idea of “retreat” as a spiritual practice—a way to grow closer to God, to deepen our faith, and to feel alive in the Spirit.

What does it mean to retreat with the Lord? Contrary to the effects of isolation and solitude, when you spiritually retreat, you aren’t bored and alone. You’re spending wondrous and meaningful time with your Creator. You aren’t hiding away from things that frighten you. You’re reaching out to a loving God who is waiting for you. You aren’t wasting precious time, longing for the day you can be free of this isolation. You’re spending precious moments with the One who chooses you, blesses you, and calls you to a life full of promise. When you retreat with the Lord, you are creating a spiritual practice that is rich and alive and full of hope. 

A retreat is an opportunity to come away to a safe, sacred space to reflect on your relationship with your Loving Creator. To listen for the still, small voice of God. To welcome the Lord into every moment of your life. Refreshed and renewed by God’s gentle grace, you will leave a time of retreat affirmed by God’s unconditional love, ready to continue your faith journey and to answer the call of God, wherever it may lead.

I usually recommend going away to attend a retreat—for a weekend, an afternoon, or even an hour-long program at your church or local retreat center. It makes such a difference to go away to another place, where you can open yourself to God’s whispers without the distractions of all that you leave behind. But we’ve learned from the pandemic that this isn’t always possible. And so I want you to know that it can be just as meaningful to engage in a spiritual retreat in the comfort (and safety!) of your own home. Watching a short YouTube video on a spiritual topic can be a retreat. Spending intentional time in prayer or reflection can be a retreat. Taking a walk in the woods can be a retreat. Even reading this blog post can be a retreat!

So I invite you to join me these next few weeks—whether you have chosen to stick close to home or not—to make January a time of retreating with the Lord. Let this be a time of searching and deep contemplation. Allow your soul to become a sanctuary where God’s love dwells and abides. Let your spirit respond to the spark of creation and mystery.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when doing this:

RETREAT WITH INTENTION

Set aside time for your retreat practice. Make it a sacred promise. Choose a regular day that you can devote to spending some much-needed time with the Lord. Be faithful to that time.

SET THE SCENE OR CREATE A RITUAL 

Make your retreat time different from your “usual” time of being home on your own. Use candles, music, or other sensory rich practices to bring you away from your daily activities into this rich and sacred time with God.

BEGIN WITH A PRAYER

Dear Lord, as I enter into this sacred time, may I feel surrounded by your loving presence. In the quiet stillness may I hear You speak to me. In Your loving embrace, may I be restored.

REFLECT ON YOUR POST-RETREAT INSIGHTS

Keep a journal to jot down any thoughts or inspirations that came to you during your retreat. Or call a friend or family member and share your insights with them. Look for patterns or recurring themes in your notes. That is what God most wants you to hear!

As your spiritual practice takes root in your heart, it’s my hope that you can reclaim the idea of “retreat” as a positive practice and not a lonely necessity. Let this first month of the New Year be filled with hope, possibility, and wonder.

​​Background photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

An Advent Prayer

Loving God, 
as we draw closer to that Holy Night 
The night of our Savior’s birth
We are filled with questions: 
Why did you come?
What did you come here to do? 
What does your coming mean for us today?

You came to serve. To feed the hungry. To heal the sick. 
To humble yourself to serve the very least of us.
Come, Lord Jesus! Help us remember that by serving 
Our brothers and sisters, we are serving you.
Teach us to use our talents and strengths 
To help those most in need
This season and all seasons

You came to comfort and to give rest to the weary.
To carry our burdens and give us peace from worry and fear.
Come, Lord Jesus! May our homes, our hearts
And our very presence offer comfort to those 
Who are worn out and stretched thin. 
May we offer them a kind word, a soft smile, 
And a warm heart.

You came to show mercy. To teach us to 
Forgive as we have been forgiven.
Come, Lord Jesus! May your radical mercy show us 
How to soften our hearts to those who have caused us hurt. 
Teach us by your example to forgive 
Even the deepest wounds
And to set ourselves free.

Above all, You came to love 
and to teach us how to love.
This Great Commandment gives us everything we could ever need.
Come, Lord Jesus! By your example, 
May we hold one another close this Christmas season.  
Close in our thoughts, in our hearts, in our words, and in our deeds. 
May we love by your example.
Come, Lord Jesus! AMEN.

Hearing God’s Whisper ministry wishes you a very Merry Christmas
and a Happy New Year!

Mary and the Advent Story

The Advent story is full of rich and dramatic events, culminating in the birth of our Savior. For me, one of the most powerful ones is the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary in Luke’s Gospel.

God chooses Mary and comes to her with an invitation—to bring Christ into the world. Mary’s response to this invitation is life-changing and world-changing. It’s impossible to overstate how huge this moment was. EVERYTHING, the very salvation of the world, hinged upon her response.

There is a tendency to believe that Mary didn’t really have a choice in the matter. That Gabriel came—not to ask her a question—but to tell her what was to be. To tell her what her destiny was to be. The problem with this interpretation is that it takes away any agency from Mary and misreads the moment as a passive one, as if Mary were simply swept along into God’s plans, without the opportunity to make her own choice. Without the chance to say “yes.”  

And so it’s worth spending a little time exploring the other possibility: Could Mary have said “no” to God?  Did Mary have free will in this situation?

From the very beginning of God’s interaction with the human race, our free will has always been respected. From the moment we were created, we have been free to make our own choices. Why wouldn’t the same be true for Mary? Which means she wasn’t programmed to say yes, like a robot, or coerced into saying yes, like a soldier obeying an order from a commanding officer. This wasn’t like the scene from the Godfather: “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.” But instead, through the angel Gabriel, God was issuing Mary an invitation. How she responded was entirely up to her. Knowing that fact…doesn’t it make her answer that much more powerful?  In the words of poet and author Christine Valters Paintner:

“When the angel Gabriel visits Mary, she is given a choice rather than a demand. Mary is active in her “yes” to the angel’s invitation as well as in her surrender: “Let it be done to me.” God’s unfolding of salvation is dependent upon Mary’s full ‘yes.’”

So what characteristics did Mary possess that allowed her to say yes? Mary was open to God’s plans for her life. She was willing to trust God. As scary as the prospect of bearing a child under such circumstances might have been, Mary trusted that this was the path God had chosen for her. And she was willing to surrender her own plans to answer God’s call. 

How often do we do this? It is so easy to stubbornly cling to our own plans even when we feel God nudging us in a different direction. Remember…we were born with the same free will that Mary was. Our choices are ours to make. God can only invite us to follow. Can we trust enough to be open to the mystery of God’s plans for our lives? 

Our answer to God is always a choice. Mary was asked to bring Christ into the world, and she answered yes. As Christians, we are asked to do that very same thing. Not in the same way that Mary did, but in the way we live our lives. In the way we interact with others. In the words we speak. In the deeds we do. What will our answer be?

Background photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash

Let God Be Loud in Your Life

I spend a lot of time writing about God’s “whispers” and how it isn’t always easy to hear what God is speaking to our hearts. During this Advent season, I’d like to expand on that notion by looking at the ways we can let God be LOUD in our lives. 

I believe that God’s voice is a constant. Always there. Always speaking to us. Never fluctuating or changing. If that’s the case, why does God’s voice seem so quiet sometimes, and other times calls to us through a megaphone? Perhaps it’s the volume of everything else in our world that affects our ability to hear God. So if you would like God to be louder in your life, spend some time thinking about what is drowning God’s voice out.

We’re exposed to a lot of noise in our life, but we have some choice in the degree to which we tune in. Lots of things demand our attention, but we don’t always have to give in to those demands. Take some time this week to make a list of all the things that you are listening to these days. Some by choice, some by habit, some by non-choice. How do each of these things make you feel? Which of these things draw you closer to God, and which of them pull you further away? 

For example, you might listen to a certain person on the news or the radio, and they leave you feeling angry or hopeless. Or maybe you have an acquaintance who is always critical and leaves you feeling down. We were created to live in harmony with God’s loving plans for us. Might I encourage you to turn down the volume of anything that clashes with that harmony? 

Taking it one step further, there may be some “noise” in your life that you want to mute altogether—those things (or people) that make it almost impossible for you to focus on the voice of God. Picture yourself holding a remote control with a mute button. Do you have the ability to silence the voices that don’t serve you? I spend a lot of time on Twitter, and there are some accounts that are very bleak and fear-mongering. Once I figured out how to mute those accounts, my Twitter timeline became much more enjoyable. Would it help you to go on a news or social media diet—or even a blackout? Or maybe you need to take a long, hard look at some toxic relationships in your life.

As you begin to lower the volume of this noise in your life, an amazing thing will begin to happen. God’s voice will automatically become louder.  All the other “stuff” you’ve been focusing on will fade away, and the messages from God (through Scripture, through the Advent story, and through your daily encounters with Jesus) will increase, filling your ears and your heart.

And if you want to crank up that volume even more? Incorporate some spiritual practices into your daily life that will continue to bring God’s voice to the forefront…loud and clear!

PRAYER: What better way to achieve this than to talk to God in prayer? Think of your day as an ongoing loving conversation with your Creator. Speak what is in your heart and be open to what you are hearing in response.

STILLNESS: 16th century mystic John of the Cross once wrote: “Silence is God’s first language.” Silence is our gift to God. A “sacred pause.” A time to stop what we’re doing and listen. To soak in God’s presence and allow ourselves to be filled up.

AWARENESS: We hear God with our hearts, through an unshakable awareness that Jesus walks with us through all that we see, and do, and experience. Focus on what matters most in your life. Feel gratitude and love dwelling in your heart. That’s where God lives. 

My prayer for you this Advent season is that you will open your heart to God’s voice and let that voice be LOUD, like the chorus of heavenly hosts singing with the angels: Glory to God in the Highest and peace to all people on earth!

Background photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash

Finding Jesus in the Present

A few months ago, when I was struggling with anxious feelings caused by our nasty and unwelcome friend – the Delta variant – a colleague recommended I start learning about mindfulness as a way to stay focused on the present, so I wouldn’t worry so much about the future. I embraced this idea. Being alive to the present moment wasn’t always easy, but as I got better at tuning into the small details of what surrounded me in each moment, I began to see beauty, calm, and the finer details of the world around me and within me. I began a daily practice of meditating, taking walks outside, and breathing deeply until my racing thoughts subsided.

As fall stretched toward winter, and we began to approach the season of Advent, I assumed I would have to put away my mindfulness practices for a while so I could turn my thoughts to the themes of Advent – hope, peace, love, and joy.  I would need to switch to new daily practices to really do justice to this beautiful season.

As you can probably guess, I was very wrong about this! Mindfulness—the practice of being alive to the present moment—is the perfect mindset for Advent.

Advent means “coming”—and during this season we anticipate the coming of Christ in three ways. First, we await his coming as the baby Jesus, born on Christmas Day. Next, we consider the time when Christ will come again at the end of the world. And finally, in between those two events, we have the coming of Jesus into our lives each day.  It is this third one that I find myself drawn to these days, and it often becomes the most hidden aspect of Advent. Jesus comes to us every moment of our lives, but do we always recognize His presence?

Each and every moment that we live is an opportunity to encounter God. Jesus is present in the smallest details. But we have to be aware, alert, and awake to notice.

Advent is a time for being awake, and we are called to reflect on the ways we may have been “sleeping” in our lives. When we get lost in regrets of the past or worries about the future, we are in many ways asleep to all that is happening around us. This is exactly how I had been behaving in late summer with all my fears about what the future would bring. I was missing a lot of very good and important things that were happening all around me!  

This is not to say that every moment in the present will be joyful. In the words of Henri Nouwen: “God is a God of the present. God is always in the moment, be that moment hard or easy, joyful and painful.” We may have troubles that exist in our present moment, but that doesn’t mean we need to pile on with potential troubles that “may” happen in the future. Fearing the future can lead us to doubt God’s love. Remaining firmly rooted in the present lets us feel God’s love—through joy or pain.

Every moment you spend with God, you are living in the Light. When we are present to that Light, we are ready to answer God’s call. We will see and hear what we are being called to do from moment to moment. We don’t have to worry about the future because the beauty of God’s love is evident in all that we see around us.  

So I don’t really need to set aside my daily mindful practices this Advent season. Instead, I will invite Jesus to meet me there. When I’m breathing deeply I will call forth my own moment of Divine creation when God breathed the breath of life into my nostrils. When I take a walk, I will imagine that Jesus is walking beside me, pointing out all the wonders of creation in my path. When I meditate, I will soak in God’s presence and allow myself to be filled up with the love that can only be found in the coming of Christ. 

Wishing you a blessed and holy Advent season. May your spirit be alive to each precious moment!

Background photo by KaLisa Veer on Unsplash