Coming Out of the Woods

Beautiful sky.

The morning after the most amazing day I have ever spent with Jesus was the last morning of my silent retreat. I woke up, showered, tidied up the spaces I had used in the house, and then packed my bags and car for the long drive home.

Next, I drove to the Starbucks parking lot.

I planned to get a coffee before driving off the island and heading home, but before I officially re-entered civilization -- starting with something as simple as ordering a tall hazelnut latte from a Starbucks barista! -- I wanted to have my final session with my retreat director by phone. So I sat in the Starbucks parking lot for that next hour and filled her in on what had happened the previous day.

We were both pretty amazed at the story of what had happened between me and Jesus the previous day, especially because I'd had such an experience of struggle getting there. So for a while, we both just sat in silence with our minds collectively blown. :-)

It was so meaningful to me to have walked through those five days with her, to have in her someone who listened to my experience of the retreat as it progressed each day, who let it be whatever it needed to be, and then to sit with me in amazement at what God had done.

This is one reason I love soul friendships and also why I love having a spiritual director back here at home with whom I meet with on a regular basis: over time, these individuals learn the length and breadth of your story. They walk with you through your story and are with you in it and can then speak into future conversations because of what they've learned about the landscape of your heart and soul from having witnessed it.

Having a retreat director in Barb was kind of like that, too, but in miniature form. This dear friend of mine traveled the length and breadth and depth and height of that 5-day silent retreat with me, and it felt so meaningful to have her witness it and be amazed right along with me at what happened. She could be amazed at the heights because she had been with me there in the depths.

You know what I mean? 

Pretty leaf.

Toward the end of my time on the phone with Barb that day, I asked if she would mind my taking a few minutes to sit with the image of the woods again. I sensed that Jesus and I had returned to the woods at the end of our incredible day together on the low beige wall in the sunshine, and I wanted to see if that was true.

When I closed my eyes, I saw that yes, Jesus and I had, in fact, returned to the woods. We were walking hand in hand now, back on the path, and right in front of us was the final edge of the forest.

I didn't realize this retreat would land me at the end of the woods journey, but there it was.

Jesus and I came to the edge of the woods and stood looking out over a vast expanse of fields and hills covered in grasses for miles and miles. The sun was shining, and it was peaceful out there. I had no idea what lay ahead of us next, but I felt okay with that as I considered it. I knew Jesus and I would go wherever we were going together.

Mossy trees.

As we stood there, I noticed that I kept turning to look back at the woods . . . the woods that had become our woods over the course of the last few months, not just the woods. We had come so far in those months of walking and traveling together. From where I stood, looking back, I could see all the twists and turns we had taken, all the bends in the path. 

I could see the place where I first came upon the woods and recognized God's invitation to enter. I could see where the woods began and I learned I had to say goodbye to my cohort. I could see the places where Jesus and I stopped to face one another and talk. I could see where I'd held the white cue ball of my ego, and also where I'd discovered the three humiliations. I could see the spot where I bowed and wept at the feet of Jesus and then spent five days in the grave. I could see, not too far back from where we stood, the place where I had given Jesus as much as I could and then got stuck at the last three objects.

So much ground covered between us, just the two of us, through those woods.

I never expected to reach the end of the woods while on my silent retreat. When I first entered the silence, I noticed that I sensed the end of the woods to be nearby, perhaps not too much further along on the path, but I had no sense or expectation of how long it would take me and Jesus to get there. I had lingered in some places on the path quite a while before taking new steps forward prior to this point. It could still take months to reach the end, for all I knew.

And yet here we were. Such gift.

A view of where I live.

For several days following the retreat, I held that image of Jesus and I standing at the wood's edge, looking out over the grassy hills and the expansive terrain beyond the forest of trees. It was a new country of sorts we were about to enter, and Jesus allowed me the time I needed to reflect on all that the woods had held for us and then to prepare my heart for a new journey.

Then we started walking into the hilly, grassy terrain ahead.

We walked together, sometimes side by side and sometimes stopping to talk or sit on a bench and rest a while. There was no urgency to this walking we were doing, nor was there any strong sense of destination. I still had a sense that eventually, at some point, we would land upon that village he showed me way back at the beginning of this journey. But for now, we just walked and talked.

Each day, we talked quite a bit about the posts I began writing for my Still Forming site later that month. I had made a commitment at the end of May to write a contemplative, reflective post each weekday in that space, and it has been such a joy to enter into the practice of writing those posts each day. The process always begins by asking Jesus what he thinks needs to be said, and so much of our conversations on the grassy hills beyond the woods in the months that have followed my silent retreat have concerned that online space and what Jesus wants to say in that space each day.

Some surprising things have happened since Jesus and I left the woods in May, too. I plan to share those stories with you here, of course. I also plan to continue sharing with you the ongoing process of discovering my life's work and vocation, of taking new risks, and of doing life with Kirk, the kitties, and with God.

I'm so glad you're here for the journey with me.



PS: In other news, I'm launching an online course in October called "Look at Jesus" and could not be more excited about it. It will be offered through my Still Forming site, and I'd love for you to join us! I'm posting an intro video over there later today, so be sure to check back in and preview it. (Doing a little happy dance over here regarding this big step!)

The Most Beautiful Day I Spent With Jesus

Tree branches and leaves.

When I think back on the 5-day silent retreat I took in early May, one day among them all stands out. It's the one that springs immediately to mind and invariably brings a secret smile to my lips because of what it held and what it means for me and Jesus.

That is the day I'm going to share with you today.

I'll begin by saying that over the last year or two, I have begun to experience contemplative prayer in small doses here and there. These are times when no words or images are shared between me and God at all, but where prayer becomes more like a pure and wordless offering of my heart and mind to connect with the vast, unexplainable reality of God. Thomas Merton and the anonymous writer of the Cloud of Unknowing wrote quite a bit about this sort of prayer, which they termed contemplation, and I've written previously about this shift toward pure contemplation in my prayer life as well.

That pure form of contemplation, when I began to move toward it, was a very different way for me to commune with God after many, many years of holding images and practicing imaginative prayer in my journey through life with God. For about ten solid years, in fact, images and imaginative prayer were a central feature of my prayer life, and God has used images and imaginative prayer over the years to heal so many broken pieces of my heart.

Although there has been a shift in the last year or two toward that more pure form of contemplative prayer, images began showing up again for me last October. First there was the image of the red glass that transformed into a communion cup over the course of a few months, and then came the image of the woods in February. And when I went away for my 5-day retreat in May, that image of the woods was still a very present reality in my prayer life with God.

Again, the mystics call that pure and wordless form of prayer contemplation. They also refer to it as a form of ecstatic union between the soul and God, and from the small amount of time I have spent practicing that wordless form of prayer in the last couple years, I can understand why they refer to it that way. In contemplative prayer, there is a sense in which the soul forgets itself and is caught up entirely into the unending reality of God that is perfection, wisdom, beauty, truth, and all that is real. The soul experiences a pure ecstasy of sorts when encountering this vast, unending perfection of God that cannot be explained or even contained by words.

But on that day during my silent retreat in May when I sat on the denim couch in the front room of the house for six straight hours, by no means experiencing the pure form of contemplative prayer because I held a very clear image in my mind of Jesus and I sitting on a low wall together, enjoying one another and talking deeply about the three objects I had yet to surrender to him . . . even though that day was not comprised of that pure and wordless form of contemplation the mystics talk about, the most fitting words I can ascribe to the experience of that day are the words ecstatic union.

Sun through the branches.

I shared in my last post that initially, when Jesus first presented that image of us sitting together on the low wall, all we did was sit and enjoy each other's presence. He smiled and laughed a lot, and I just let him smile over me. It made me feel a little shy, but it also made me feel incredibly loved and enjoyed. 

And then, shyly, I asked him if he'd like to spend some time talking about the three objects: the earrings . . . the ring . . . the slip. And he said yes.

So that's what we did the rest of the day.

First I talked with him about the earrings. I pulled them out of my ears and held them in the palm of my hand between us. As I began to talk with him about those beautiful earrings and all that they represented to me, I discovered that it wasn't just riches or a life of comfort that they represented. It was also all the hopes and dreams Kirk and I have carried about our future, all the ideas we've had about things we hope to do someday: live for months at a time in Europe, travel around the world to attend conferences or study in other parts of the world, own a home where people can come for spiritual retreat, travel to various parts of the country and perhaps live in some of those places, too.

Those earrings represented all of it -- any claim I/we might have on our future, on choosing to do what we want with our life, of pinning our hopes and dreams on certain things instead of being fully open and available to God and his plans for us.

As I sat there holding those earrings in my palm between us, I began to think about the way God has always worked in our life together, all the stones that have emerged out of the water without our expecting them to or ever even trying to make that happen, how often God has presented us with ideas and opportunities we would never have dreamed for ourselves or thought we were even ready to have. The way we found our home was that way. So was the way we discovered the opportunity for me to complete my master's degree at Full Sail. Several of the jobs we've secured over the years happened that way. And our relationship happened that way, too! Stones emerging from the water at just the right time, more perfect than we could ever have planned or imagined for ourselves, presented with such grace and ease that choosing to step upon them was obvious and natural.

Giving the earrings to Jesus was, I learned, ultimately about accepting that continued movement and direction of God in our lives continually: his plans, not our own. Could I trust him to continue showing us what to do, allowing stones to emerge out of the water at just the right time?

I gave him the earrings.

Sunlight on grass.

The wedding ring was so much easier to give Jesus than I expected it to be. I'm sure a big part of that had to do with the work that had already been done in my heart at the discovery of the three humiliations the previous month.

All it took was reminding myself that Kirk is a man after God's heart, a deeply spiritual, God-fearing, and God-honoring man who wants to live for and with God. Should God ask something of us that I fear will create friction between us, I have to trust that the God in him is also the God in me and that the two of us will recognize God between us and around us.

So I took off my wedding ring -- literally, in real life, as I sat there on the couch inside the house, I took it off and put it on the pillow next to me -- and gave it to God. Inside the image, I gave the ring to Jesus, too.

Then I watched as Jesus put the ring back on my finger. What a beautiful gift.

Birdhouse in the yard.

After a little more time had passed, I asked Jesus if he'd like to talk about the shame, which is what I knew the slip represented to me.

I began by saying that my body has always been a source of shame for me, that it never developed quite the way I expected it would and hoped it would as an adolescent, and that various experiences in my life had only served to reinforce that shame.

I also said that who I am, as a person, has always felt on the fringe of groups, that I've always felt a bit like an oddball, never quite fitting in with those around me.

Then I reached a stopping point.

I didn't know how to keep talking about the shame. In some ways, it felt too big and too deep to even know where to start. It was everywhere.

Then I looked at Jesus, and a new thought occurred to me. I asked him, "Do you have anything you want to say to me about the shame?"

And he did.

One of my favorite trees in Winter Park.

I want to stop and say that everything up to this point had been so beautiful. But this next part, my friends, is the most precious part of all. 

Jesus looked at me and said, "You're beautiful. You are beloved. Every single part of you was created by me and is celebrated." I sat and received those words, just letting them sink into me. I imagined what it was like for him to dream me up and spend time creating me. I closed my eyes and began to really feel those last words: that every part of me is celebrated. My body is cause for celebration in his eyes.

Then, concerning my feelings of being an oddball who never quite fit in, he said, "You are not an accident, an anecdote, or an afterthought." Wow. I let those words sink in, too. I'm not an accident, an anecdote, or an afterthought. I'm intended to be here. I mean something. I hold weight and value. I matter. I'm noticed. I'm wanted. I'm desired.

I just sat there for a while and let all these words he spoke to me sink into the depth of my being. And then I looked at him, sitting there with me on the wall, and just smiled at him, over and over and over. I couldn't stop smiling at Jesus, and I couldn't get over his beautiful smile, either. I could have sat there forever and been completely content never to move for the rest of my life. I didn't want to be anywhere else but where he was. I didn't want to move.

Even from him, I felt an elimination of time. He had nowhere else to be and all the time in the world to sit there with me.

Gorgeous tree.

I looked at Jesus and said what was in the fullness of my heart: "I was made to love you."

I had come to that retreat with every expectation that God and I would talk about my vocation and the possible next steps for my life. But where I landed was someplace altogether better: at the most fundamental truth of my being. I am made to love him. If that's all I do with my life, that is enough. Vocation, ministry, other work I might be given to do . . . it's secondary. Loving him is what I'm meant to do. It's all I need to do.

I felt myself on cloud nine the rest of the night, as you might imagine. Such peace pervaded my heart, soul, and mind. I took communion with a Ritz cracker and sip of Pepsi in a eucharistic goblet Kirk had packed in my bag before I left. And in that moment of eucharist, I asked God to consecrate my hands, my lips, my eyes, my ears, and my feet and for him to be with me as I went forward from that place so that I would return home changed.

Stay tuned for the last installment of this retreat series and what happened with the image of the woods . . . 

Jesus Rescues Me

Light on greens.

Sunlight on greens

One of the hardest things about getting down to those last three items on my body and being unable to give them over to Jesus was that it meant we just stood there and stared at each other, neither of us moving, for what seemed like forever. Occasionally, I would bend my elbows and lift my palms in an attempt to indicate my desire to surrender, but that was all I could do.

He just kept looking at me, and I just kept looking at him.

I never felt shame from his gaze. Rather, his gaze held truth. He looked at me and knew the full truth of me. He wasn't pushing or prodding me to do anything differently or be anything different, but he also wasn't hiding from the truth of who I was. We both knew the next step that was needed, but he was content to wait with me until I was fully ready to take it.

I loved that in his gaze, I never felt pressure or shame or disappointment, just truth and love and infinite patience. I had experienced that same reality about him in the woods earlier in the journey, such as when I didn't want to leave my cohort group to venture into the woods with God, or when I encountered the three humiliations that landed me on the ground and in the grave for five days. It wasn't just in the hard places that I experienced that infinite patience of his, either. It was also found in the moments I wanted to savor great joy and love inside me, such as when I stood up from the grave and basked in the sunlight and the fact of my love for him.

With Jesus, there is always time for whatever needs to happen. No rush or hurry, ever. I love that so much. 

Ivy on fence.

Ivy crawling the fence

So as I stood before Jesus in my eyelet slip dress that day, my wedding ring on my finger and the sapphire and diamond earrings in my ears, I saw him just continuing to hold the space and gaze at me with eyes of truth and patience and love.

I felt disappointed in myself, though. As I shared earlier in this story, I drove down to Captiva Beach with my love for Jesus overflowing and overwhelming my heart. I desired to give him everything. I thought nothing stood between me and that desire coming to life.

But that was clearly not true. And I didn't know what to do next because it seemed I could not move. I felt stuck and helpless.

A wandering vine.

I love that light green wandering vine, don't you? 

When I spoke to my retreat director on that Wednesday morning that I could not get out of bed, she helped me talk to Jesus a bit more about what was happening. I told him I felt helpless and didn't know what to do. I told him I was embarrassed. I told him I needed his help.

And I can't even explain how the next thing happened. All I know is that we were standing in the woods, facing each other, neither of us moving, and the next thing I knew, we were sitting next to each other on a low, beige brick wall in the sunshine. The woods were nowhere to be seen. Rather, it was like we were sitting on a wall outside the yellow house where I was staying that week.

Our knees were turned toward each other, and Jesus was looking at me with the biggest smile on his face I'd ever seen. His eyes danced as he looked at me, and it was like perpetual laughter and enjoyment and playfulness emanated from his being continually toward me.

Again, there was no shame. Only enjoyment and welcome.



I could hardly believe this change of environment. It was like he knew I was stuck in the woods and needed a completely different scene to disarm all that was stuck. I was back in my outfit of a purple corduroy skirt and small blue jacket. My hair was back on my head, long and curly like it had been years ago.

I felt like I was seeing my true self, the way he sees me all the time, totally and completely loved and free.

I just wanted to savor that image for a long, long time, so when I hung up the phone with my retreat director, I got out of bed and went to sit on the couch in the front room of the house.

I sat there for six hours.

All that mattered to me the entire rest of the day was sitting and holding that image with Jesus. At first we just sat in pure enjoyment of the moment and each other, him laughing and smiling at me. I could feel there was no pressure to do anything or say anything at all. We could just be together. But I felt so comfortable with him on that wall in the sunshine that I shyly asked, pretty soon after that image emerged, if he wanted to talk about the earrings . . . and the ring . . . and the slip.

He stopped laughing and held my question with seriousness, knowing it was a big step for me to broach the subject. And then he said yes.

And so slowly, slowly, over the course of those next six hours, we talked about each one of those objects. And in the next installment, I'll tell you what was said . . .

I Just Couldn't Get There

Pink flowers.

I love these pink flowers. Don't you?

My 5-day silent retreat lasted from Sunday through Thursday. On the drive down to the beach house on Captiva Island on Sunday, I began to get in touch with my expectations for the week, and on Monday night, I kneeled on my bed and sought to offer Jesus everything I had

But on Tuesday, I faced the hardest of days.

I shared in my last post what all the items left on my person symbolized and why I couldn't give them up. When I talked with my spiritual director about my inability to give these items over, she sat with me in the quiet as I sought to talk to Jesus about my lack of trust in handing those items to him. I stood there on the path in the woods with Jesus, facing him, wearing only my cotton, knee-length, eyelet slip dress, my wedding ring, and those beautiful diamond earrings in my ears.

As I sank into that moment with him on the path, I told Jesus about my inability to give him all I had left. I guess I didn't know how to live that fully surrendered life in the end, but would he maybe show me how? He said of course, that it was his desire for me to live that way as it was, and so of course he would show me how.

By the end of that prayer, I thought I had moved forward in the image, thought I had reached a point of giving Jesus the last of what I wore -- or at least one of the items -- but after the call with my retreat director ended, I realized that I hadn't. Only then did I realize that I was no more near doing so than I had been before we talked.

The rest of that day -- Tuesday -- was so, so difficult for me. I watched Jesus and I stand there, facing each other, neither of us moving, with those three items still sitting on my body. As we just stood there, I couldn't stand it. So I avoided the image that day. A lot. I got up and made some lunch. Then I went back to the couch, and suddenly all the research books I had brought with me to work on my capstone thesis project for grad school were the most interesting books in the room. I picked one up and read most of the way through it. Then I picked up another and read deeply into it, too.

Books from my silent retreat in May -- some for study, some for contemplation.

The plethora of books

Over the course of that day and evening, I read most of several of the research books I had brought with me. I found it ironic, even before I left on retreat, that my chosen subject matter was the interplay between spirituality and digital connectivity. So there in the quiet and disconnection of that silent retreat, I read books and books about the "loudness" of the internet. Irony. But on that day when I could go no further in my journey into the woods or surrender with Jesus, it was the only thing I wanted to do. I threw myself into research that day.

Every once in a while, I would check in with Jesus in the woods to see if anything had changed. But, no. There I stood in my knee-length cotton slip dress, staring at him. And there he stood, staring back at me.

That was the only night I felt incredibly tempted to break the silence. I wanted to call several people in my life: Kirk, my friend Barb, or my friends Sara and Kate. I wanted to text message them, just to feel a connection. I also wanted so badly to access Netflix on my iPhone that night in order to watch an episode of Grey's Anatomy! Instead, I played an abacus word game on my phone, telling myself it wasn't cheating.

When I went to bed that night, I checked in with Jesus again. Nothing had changed. Still I stood there facing him, and still he stood there facing me. He said nothing. I said nothing. I willed myself to move, but willing myself to do it accomplished nothing. He stood there, looking at me with eyes of truth yet waiting, not making any movement to advance further along on the path with me. We were in a holding pattern.

I fell asleep defeated and sad. When I woke in the morning, I couldn't get out of bed. Every morning at 11 a.m., I would call my retreat director to connect for an hour by phone about the progress of my retreat, and every morning until then, I had woken early to make coffee and sit on the couch in the morning sunlight, just reading and praying in the quiet.

But not that Wednesday morning.

That morning, I stayed in bed until the clock on my phone turned over to 11 a.m., and then I called her, still in my pajamas and not moving from bed, barely able to move just to hold the phone up to my ear. It was the most difficult place I had been all week, and I didn't know what to do. I had zero energy and felt myself in a really bad place.

Stay tuned to hear what happens next . . . 

What the Three Items Symbolized



Spring 2011

On the second night of my silent retreat, when I knelt on my bed and offered Jesus as much as I could of what I wore, I got stuck. As I shared in my previous post, I got to a point where I'd given him everything but three items on my person: a lightweight white cotton tank slip, my wedding ring, and a pair of diamond and sapphire earrings that sparkled so brightly in my ears.

The next morning, when I met with my retreat spiritual director, she asked if there was any significance to those three items. Did they represent anything specific?

They did. I knew very clearly what each one meant.

The wedding ring represented my marriage . . . my way of being with Kirk, the way we relate, and how the specialness of what we share makes me scared sometimes to rock the boat and disrupt our idyllic union. I shared recently on my journey through the woods about the three humiliations I encountered rather early in the woods journey. One of those three humiliations was my relationship with Kirk and how I'd come to realize ways in which I'd been holding parts of the truth of myself back from him in order to preserve what I thought was our perfection.

That wedding ring on my finger was related to that. Would I give it to Jesus, allowing God and his truth-telling to become more important? Would I allow God to use me to not only make Kirk happy but also, perhaps, to make him more holy by being willing to be honest and say the hard things that might need to be said sometimes? Would I allow God to be more important to me than Kirk? Was I willing to make God my Lord?

I really hesitated with those questions, which is why I couldn't remove the ring.

The earrings came as a surprise to me. First of all, I don't own earrings like the one I wore in the image, but I saw that they were a perfect complement to my actual wedding ring, which is a large round diamond encircled by sapphires. The earrings in the image were the inverse of my ring -- they were large sapphires in the center, circled by diamonds -- and they were absolutely, stunningly beautiful.

But they were also a surprise to me because of what I knew they represented. I could tell very clearly that Kirk had given those earrings to me, and somehow they represented all the grand dreams and plans and hopes for the future we have shared. Over the years that we've shared our lives together, Kirk and I have voiced many dreams aloud to each other, and our hearts and our hopes and our desires are so much in line with each other. We often dream of the experiences and lifestyles and ministry opportunities and work we hope to enjoy over the course of our life.

Those earrings represented all those hopes and dreams, but they also represented more. They represented a desire for comfort. By wearing those earrings, I felt as if we'd made it -- we'd become financially secure and free to pursue the hopes and dreams we've always hoped to share. Was I willing to let go of those hopes and dreams? Was I also willing to let go of my hope for a financially secure future?

I wasn't sure I could. Those hopes and dreams were embedded so deep inside. I couldn't remove the earrings quite yet.

And lastly, there was the simple slip dress. It was plain cotton, made of eyelet material, and I liked its purity and simplicity. Just the thought of removing that slip sounded all kinds of warning bells inside of me. Just imagining myself removing it made me feel the need to cover myself.

Once I realized that reaction in me, I knew what the slip symbolized. It was covering my shame . . . I couldn't fathom removing the slip and exposing what felt like all the deep-rooted shame inside and outside of me.

So I was stuck. Stay tuned to read what happened next . . .

In Which I Attempt to Disrobe Before Jesus

Learning from a master.

Learning from a master

Most of the days of my silent retreat, I moved between two books by Thomas Merton that speak to the life of silence and contemplation. While the books, as a whole, said many helpful things that made me think, a couple quotes in particular made me put the books down and let them work on my insides to change me. 

The first quote to have this effect on me is here:

To be one with One Whom one cannot see is to be hidden, to be nowhere, to be no one: it is to be unknown as He is unknown, forgotten as He is forgotten, lost as He is lost to the world which nevertheless exists in Him. Yet to live in Him is to live by His power, to reach from end to end of the universe in the might of His wisdom, to rule and form all things in and with Him. It is to be the hidden instrument of His Divine action, the minister of His redemption, the channel of His mercy, and the messenger of His infinite Love. 

-- The Silent Life, p. 3

Hmmm. Sounds a bit like learning to be hidden, doesn't it? That's how it struck me, and it brought me back to that prayer for hiddenness that I had prayed in 2009 and which had eventually brought me to the journey through the woods with God.

The second quote I read in the Merton books that impacted me was this:

But if I am true to the concept that God utters in me, if I am true to the thought of Him I am meant to embody, I shall be full of His actuality and find Him everywhere in myself, and find myself nowhere. I shall be lost in Him; that is, I shall find myself.

-- New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 37

This, too, got me thinking on that original prayer for hiddenness, but it also got me thinking about surrender. If we are emptied so that God completely fills us up, that implies a full surrender of ourselves. But what does it mean to be fully surrendered? Do we even know when we've done it? How do we really know when we've surrendered everything to God? Can we ever really know?

Sky through trees.

View through trees

This brought me back to the woods. And this, my friends, is where the story gets pretty interesting.

I was laying in bed on the second night of my retreat, reading these words of Merton's and dwelling on the nature of surrender, and eventually felt moved to sit up in bed, face the wall, get on my two knees on the bed, and hold my palms up before me.

It was a sign of surrender to God, but it was also a posture of holding my hands open for whatever he might choose to place in them (if anything).

And there I was, in my mind's eye, standing in the woods with Jesus again. I could see that we had stopped on the path and had turned to face each other. In the image, I was holding my hands out before me in that same gesture, offering him my surrender.

But as I stood there facing him, I still wasn't sure how I would know I had really surrendered everything to him. Sure, the intent and gesture might be there, but would that surrender really get down deep inside me and be true?

Water droplets on a small branch.

And so I began to give him everything I had on my person.

That's right. I took off my shoes and gave them to him. I was wearing a watch around my wrist; I took it off and handed it to him. I had some kind of leather band around my waist with a pocketwatch attached to it; I unbuckled the leather band and handed it to him. I gave him the necklace I was wearing, too.

Then I reached up and felt my hair. Suddenly, I knew that I would allow it to be completely shorn off for him, so out came the scissors. I dropped all the sheared tendrils and masses of hair down at his feet and stood before him, shorn.

In the image, I was wearing a purple corduroy skirt, and I pulled that off, too, and handed it to him. I was also wearing a small blue jacket, and I shrugged it off and handed it over. This disrobing of my clothing wasn't sexual at all, of course . . . just an attempt for me to get at the root of my surrender, to see that I had given Jesus everything I had.

There I stood, nearly bare, wearing only a knee-length cotton slip in the shape of a light tank dress. At least, that's all I thought I was wearing. But as I looked closer at the image, I saw that I was also still wearing my beloved wedding ring. And shining in my ears were a pair of sapphire and diamond earrings.

I simply couldn't take them off. These three items -- the slip, the wedding ring, and the earrings -- stayed fast on my person, and I couldn't seem to lift a hand to remove them. Not one single finger. My body seemed immobilized.

So there I stood before Jesus, attempting to disrobe and disown all that was mine in order to make myself fully his . . . and I simply couldn't bring myself to go any further. I couldn't give him these final parts of myself. I just couldn't. I knew I was still wearing those three items, and he knew I was still wearing them, too. I just stood there in silence, staring at him, and he kept staring back at me.

Stay tuned to hear what happened next . . .

Walking and Talking with Jesus

An image of the woods

New Hampshire, October 2008

After I stood up from the ground and basked in the brilliance of the sun with Jesus by my side, I knew what Jesus and I were going to start doing together. We were going to walk and talk. I was going to share my heart with him, and he was going to talk with me and share his own heart, too, especially as it relates to the heart of himself that he has placed inside me. I sensed there would be an ease of conversation, an honesty, a care, and a mutual understanding of partnership as he prepared me to offer himself to others through my life.

I didn't expect that the humiliations were over. We weren't yet out of the woods, and I didn't know what else our time in the woods would hold. I only knew that something about this walking and talking was different than it was before. It held a subtly different quality to it than the ways I had walked and talked with Jesus before. This walking and talking was more about learning to bring each area and decision of life before him, making him my primary object in view. It was going to be about real hiddenness in Christ -- that initial prayer I prayed in July 2009 that took me on an almost-two-year journey of twists and turns to arrive here in this exact moment, learning how to truly live in him and make him my life's essence and source in each moment.

On the first day of walking and talking with Jesus in this new place, I noticed that it was like a floodgate of thoughts and concerns had opened up in my mind and I could not get my mouth to stop telling Jesus all about it. I talked to him about the way he made me and how the current pace of my life runs counter to that native way of being in the world. I talked to him about my graduate research project, as I was in the midst of choosing a subject and saw that there were many different directions I could go in the selection of my topic. I talked with him about my upcoming silent retreat and the questions I'd considered holding before him during that time. I talked to him about all the many questions I had about how various aspects of my work life and home life fit together in his mind.

It felt a bit like talking to a best friend who wants to know every single thing you're thinking and feeling and carrying around in life with you. He just listened and listened and listened. And I found it interesting that so many words tumbled out of my mouth in a jumble of energy on that first day of walking and talking after having kneeled in silence before him for so many days on the ground. There was a sweetness to this walking and talking for me, knowing that through it, I was going to be learning more and more how to make him my whole existence.

I had such a strong sense as the walking and talking started that he was the place to bring all my decisions now. And when I was initially presented with some concrete opportunities and decisions to make, I noticed an awareness in me to stop, slow down, and take the decision to him. However, I wasn't faithful to this each time as it began. On two separate occasions, I can remember saying yes to specific projects with a full awareness that I needed to first take the time to talk to Jesus about them but moved forward with saying yes before having done that.

That was hard. I'm still on a learning curve.

I've been encouraged as we continue to walk and talk on this path in the woods together, though. I've noticed how much stillness is a necessary component to living a hidden life in Christ. I've noticed, too, how much living from this place that makes Christ my focal point of direction and decision removes all the difficulties and obstacles I used to face when holding those directions and decisions on my own.

I'll share more about these two discoveries -- the helpful quality of stillness and the relief from the burden of carrying decisions on my own -- in my next posts in this series.

PS: I'm leaving Sunday for a 5-day silent retreat and will not be accessing the internet while I'm away. I look forward to returning here to share more of this story and what emerges in my time away. Until then, take care. xoxo

Five Days in the Grave

Back when I entered the woods and encountered almost immediately the first humiliation about myself in relation to community, I saw two realities at work within me. There was a secure place inside me that had learned and come to believe with joy that all I have is from God and belongs to God. This place inside me knew at that time -- and still does -- that I am a mere instrument who has been given gifts that God uses in the lives of others.

Listening is one of those gifts. I could see that God had placed listening into my open hands and that he could even decide one day to take it out of my hands and replace it with something else. This place inside of me was secure in that possibility, knowing that the gift of listening is simply given to me by God for his use as long as he deems it useful. He gets to decide that, and I simply receive and respond.

But there was another place in me that I saw at that time. It was the false-self place, the part of me that wanted to be the savior for others and to have everything they needed securely locked inside of me. It was a yucky place, but it was there. And this was a part of me that focused on the gifts themselves and on myself and would get caught up in other people's estimation of me and need of me.

When that first humiliation happened, I could see myself standing in the woods with God. We had just entered the woods, and my cohort group was just back beyond the bend where we had just come from. I turned to God and said, "This is one reason we're here. This is perhaps why you've called me apart from them."

I could see God and I standing on the path, turned toward each other there at the beginning of that path around that first bend in the road, and I had pulled something out of my pocket. It was a small white sphere, like the cue ball used in billiard games. I had pulled it out of my pocket and held it in my open palm between us.

This was my ego.

I knew we were going to look at this cue ball of my ego here in the woods, that we were going to talk about it and that, eventually, God was going to ask me to give it to him, to place it in his hands to do with what he wanted.

This was hiddenness. This was dying to self. This was what I had been praying for God to teach me.

At the time, I didn't feel any pressure from God to hand over that white cue ball of ego right then. I felt only his presence with me as we looked at it together, as I came to realize it had been in my pocket and was now sitting there between us in the palm of my hand. I knew I wasn't ready to give it over to him, and I didn't feel any impatience or disappointment from him for that. He knew I wasn't ready. That was why we were here: to create in me the conditions that would make me ready to give it over to him.

So we kept walking and talking, and I slipped the cue ball back inside my pocket.

And the humiliations continued to happen as we went. It was so hard and difficult to discover this false self of ego almost everywhere I turned in those days.

And then finally, as I mentioned in my last post about the three humiliations, I reached a point of ultimate defeat and surrender. It began in my kitchen on a particularly pressure-filled day, where with hands raised and tears streaming down my face, I called out to God, "I give up. I can't do this anymore."

That led to five days in the grave. Five days of kneeling down on the ground in the woods at God's feet, turned away in remorse at the reality of my superhuman ego self. I couldn't move. I saw God standing next to me on the path, quietly receiving my surrender and waiting for my next move. At one point I tried to listen to what he might say to me as I knelt in this posture at his feet. I heard the words, "Peace. Be still. You are utterly loved."

It was such a grace to receive those words, but still I seemed to need to remain in that posture of contrition and surrender for however long it took. I didn't know exactly what I was waiting for, only that I couldn't yet move. Contrition and repentance were happening in this place.

I slowly realized this was the place of my handing to God the white cue ball of myself. To be continued . . . 

The Three Humiliations

An image of the woods

New Hampshire, October 2008

I've been struggling to write this post, not because I don't want to share what it's about but because I'm not really sure how to put all that it contains into words. So please bear with me as I try.

First I'll say that when I use the word "humiliation" in this post, I mean it in a classical sense. Think of it as "a means God used to humble me." I don't mean that I endured an embarrassing, shame-giving moment from God, but rather that God used a series of three very visceral experiences to turn a mirror upon my soul and let me see what's really there.

He humbled me, and he did it for my good.

That being said, the first of the three humiliations happened almost immediately upon my entering the woods, and it had to do with myself in relation to community. Because of the emotional break with the community of my cohort that came from saying yes to God's invitation into the woods, I felt myself on the periphery of the group as we continued learning in our coursework together. I completed the assignments and interacted in the forums as required, but mostly I watched the conversations happen around me rather than feeling myself a part of them. I think that was as it should be, since I had been invited to a measure of solitude by entering the woods with God.

But I noticed something through this experience of emotional distance. My cohort friends taught each other new things. They helped each other along. They encouraged one another. They challenged each other's thinking. They ministered to one another's hearts.

All without me.

And I realized: they didn't need me in order to grow. I have to say, that humbled me. I realized over the course of watching this happen how tightly I cling to the need to be necessary, how much I want to be the one who is wanted and essential, how much I want to be a part of everything major happening in another person's life. It's not pretty to say this, but I was a bit dismayed to see how fluidly the group kept moving along and learning together without me.

So, that was the first humiliation, the first means God used to humble me when I entered the woods.

The second humiliation happened in my most intimate relationship: that of my marriage. One evening, Kirk and I were having a conversation that started out normal enough, only to discover several minutes into it that there was a big chunk of my heart I'd been withholding from him for quite some time. It was a big, confusing mess for both of us to stumble upon together in that moment, and it led to many big conversations and sifting moments over the course of the next several weeks.

Through that process of sifting, I realized some things about myself. I realized how much of this happened because I'd allowed an image of perfection to become more real than we were. In a big way, this all came down to a matter of allowing Kirk and myself to be human to each other, to make mistakes, to let each other down, and for that to happen and everything still be okay. I have been learning through this process that intimacy lives and grows in truth-telling moments, when two people don't have to be perfect for each other but are willing and invited to simply be who they are.

Then, in the midst of all this, a third humiliation came in the context of my work. Besides my regular part-time gig that I do for a local publisher, I have a freelance writing and editing practice that kicked into high gear recently. It's been exciting to see this business of mine grow, and I've enjoyed working on a number of fun projects, but for a span of about three weeks last month, I took on quite a bit more work than was healthy for one solitary individual to complete.

It was so strange to see it happening, but it was as though I was physically unable to say no to each new project that came along. I wanted to do all of them, and so I kept saying yes. And I kept watching myself say yes, even after I realized I needed to start saying no.

This all culminated at the end of a three-week stint with me standing at my kitchen sink bawling my eyes out, raising my hands to the ceiling in a sign of surrender to God. "I give up," I told him. "I can't do it all. I give up. Please help me."

Through the course of these three humiliations, I've spotted a singular thread: my tendency toward the superhuman. Instead of being one part of the body of Christ in community, I wanted to be the entire body of Christ so that I could be everything to everyone. Instead of giving Kirk and myself the room to be human with each other, I held to an image of perfection that prevented our intimacy from growing in truth. Instead of preserving self-care and creating boundaries around my work life, I strove to do everything that came my way, even if it brought personal harm to my mind, body, and spirit.

When I came into the woods, I knew God would show me things about myself that I needed to see. But I didn't expect it would come in the form of three such visceral humiliations in three very core areas of life: community, intimacy, and work. Nor did I expect that it would happen so swiftly and so soon.

In my next installment, I'll share with you what happened on the heels of this revelation . . .

Kindnesses Nudge Me Forward

I've mentioned before that God speaks to me in images a lot. It started about 10 years ago and is such a helpful part of my life with God. When the images show up (I don't control whether they come or not), they often bring a greater awareness of the current growing edges of my life with God. They also provide an ease of language for my conversations with God in that place, too.

Perhaps at some point I'll share the story of how these images began and my thinking on how they integrate with a theologically grounded spirituality. But for today, I'll share that sometimes I get self-conscious about it. And in an image-rich time in my life with God like the one I am experiencing right now, I sometimes wonder: how do I share what God is doing without sounding insane? 

When the image of the woods emerged, and with it the awareness of departure from my cohort group, I met with my spiritual director. On that day, I was a bit of a mess. I'd only just realized this journey into the woods meant emotional departure from some of those I love, at least for a time, and I couldn't fathom saying goodbye.

There I sat, sharing these images and what they meant with Elaine, tears dripping down my face and cries catching in my throat. And instead of thinking me weird, Elaine invited me deeper. She asked, Do you know where the woods is leading, or what's on the other side? 

No, I didn't. I hadn't even considered that question. All I could see was the woods before me, God beside me, and my cohort group behind me.

Then she asked, Do you want to ask God what is on the other side? 

Hmmm . . . okay.

In prayer, then, I told God about my fear of saying goodbye. I told him that as much as I was honored by his invitation, I didn't know how to depart. Furthermore, I wasn't sure I wanted to.

I told him that he didn't owe me an explanation, that he didn't have to tell me what was going to happen inside the woods or how long we would stay there. He didn't have to tell me where we were going, either, or what would emerge on the other side.

But if he was willing, would he?

I sat there quietly for a while after speaking these things to him, waiting, not really sure what would happen.

Then yet another image emerged.

I could see a new land on the other side of the woods that I had never seen before. There was sunshine there, and it opened up to the wide expanse of a farming village. There were oxen pulling hay. There was a man shoeing horses. There was a blacksmith. There were children running around in peasant clothes. There were so many people, all living in community with one another in a simple village, and I saw that God was giving this village to me and Kirk. He was inviting us to live in this community with these people, to get to know them and let them get to know us, to give and to receive life with them.

But first, before I could get there, I saw that I must go through the woods. I must first experience this aloneness with God. I couldn't reach the village otherwise.

That night, over dinner, I shared all of this with Kirk and received from him several incredible gifts. First, Kirk just offered me his presence by listening to what I shared about the image of the village that had emerged in my time of prayer during my direction session that afternoon. Second, he reminded me of something I'd not remembered in quite some time: that an image of the woods had cropped up earlier in our life together -- an image of me and God in a church in the woods, which was a place Kirk had always said was my special place to be with God alone.

I hadn't thought about that church in the woods in a really long time. Kirk found the above image for me by doing a Google image search that night, and this image of the church in the woods has since become my desktop and phone wallpaper as I journey through this season.

Finally, Kirk brought his laptop into our bedroom that night and played for me the opening scene of the Fellowship of the Ring (from the Lord of the Rings trilogy). Have you ever seen it? In that opening scene, we get to know life in the Shire -- a farming village full of simple people doing life together. That scene looked exactly like the image of the farming village I'd seen in my prayer time earlier that day, and it was such a gift for Kirk to share it with me. (You can watch a mash-up version of the opening scenes of the film by clicking on the link; unfortunately, I was unable to embed the video here.)

These gifts of kindness -- two people close to me holding the image of the woods with me and inviting me deeper into it -- brought about my discovery of the village on the other side of the woods . . . a new image that gave me the courage to say yes to God.

More on what I've discovered since walking into the woods with God in upcoming posts . . .