Paying Attention . . . to the Holy Spirit

(Note: Below is a reflection I offered recently at our church on Sunday. I was asked to share a personal faith story relating to Matthew 1:18-25.) 

In today’s gospel reading, we hear about the amazing ways God sometimes communicates: Mary has her angelic vision, and Joseph has his remarkable dream. These things are recorded in the bible because they were outstanding experiences –God knew they needed these angelic visions because of their extraordinary calling to become the parents of our Savior.

007-prophecies-birth-jesus--from freebibleimages dot org

I am given to thinking, though, that for most of the time, Mary and Joseph found their inner peace in ordinary ways: in paying attention to the Holy Scripture, in praying, in practicing Sabbath, in listening to their rabbi, in watching the seasons of nature and the experiences of ordinary family living.

I would like to share a time when my husband Terry and I felt that the Holy Spirit helped us in a way that felt extraordinary — and yet others might see as “ordinary”…

Capture--Ely Minnesota 2--from Google MapsWe were fairly new to Minnesota, having moved here from Arizona/New Mexico, and we were excited about camping up in the Northland.  On this particular trip, we were tenting near Ely (EE–lee–rhymes with “really”) in mid-summer, and things weren’t going so well. We came to the place for the quiet, and instead heard loud partying late into the night, just two spaces away. We came for hiking, but the generous use of bug repellent didn’t keep the mosquitoes from swarming around us (it was a cloudy, muggy day, and apparently they knew we were “green Minnesotans” and took special delight in annoying us). Yes, too buggy outside the tent and too humid inside the tent…

In the midst of all this, we had this one night of intense heat, humidity, and unusual stillness… How could this be the frigidly cold Minnesota I’d always heard about?

In the morning, we saw a gray cloud appear in the west (you will recall campers didn’t have “weather apps” in those days). We considered cutting the trip short and going home, but wondered if that would keep us from becoming “hardy Minnesotans”?

In the end, we hurriedly threw our tent in the car and headed home. We were only as far as the city of Virginia, when the darkness hit in midday and the wind and torrents of rain forced us to stop at a restaurant.  Inside, a crowd of people was huddled by the door, talking about how bad this storm was.

Eventually, we made it home okay. The next morning, the news reported that this was a gargantuan size storm– you may remember this storm! It happened on July 4, 1999, and you may recall it took a full week to rescue all the campers in the Boundary Waters due to the millions of trees downed (they couldn’t even hike around all those trees). [Note: You can read about this special, unique storm, called a “derecho”,  on the National Weather Service link: July 4, 1999 storm. ]

U.S. FOREST SERVICE PHOTO -- BWCAW blowdown on July 4, 1999.
U.S. FOREST SERVICE PHOTO — BWCAW blowdown on July 4, 1999.

When I think of this experience, I always think of the Holy Spirit. One could say it was a “coincidence” that we decided to go home, but I think it was more than that. We didn’t have some fancy spiritual experience with “special effects,” but I think the Holy Spirit was our “advocate” on that day, nudging us to pay attention to the signs around us, to pick up our tent and return home.

Holy Spirit--stained glass window--Julie McCarty--Spiritual Drawing BoardSo, yes, sometimes the Holy Spirit brings us peace through the “special effects” of holy visions and rarified dreams, but other times, I think the Spirit of God reveals things through ordinary, hidden ways, and waits to see what we will do with it. It is in responding to God’s invitation, with love in our hearts, that brings true inner peace.

Until next time, Amen! 

[Photo credits: 1) Image of Bethlehem from freebibleimages.org, 2)Ely, MN from Google Maps, 3)Boundary Waters Storm clean-up from US Forest Service, and 4) Stained glass window from St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Litchfield Park, AZ–taken by Julie McCarty in 2013, with permission from pastor.]

 

100th post: Pondering Advent and Spiritual Hypothermia

Post it note--100th blog postWordPress tells me that this is the 100th post on Spiritual Drawing Board blog.  Wow. I had no idea.

Numbers like 100 form a sort of milestone, giving one pause to ponder

  • how did the past blogging go (such as, did I forget to write Part 2 of the post defining “Christian contemplative”?)
  • where one is at present with blogging (I’ve been so busy I’m forgetting to post very often — yikes!)
  • where will one be in the future with blogging (Do I want to continue? — yes!)

This time of year, with its emphasis on new beginnings (Advent=new church year, Christmas=new life in baby Jesus, New Year of 2014), is a good time to ponder our own lives past, present, and future in similar fashion:

  • In the past, how has God invited me to live and how have I responded?
  • What is God trying to communicate to me today?
  • What would God like for me in the future?

[I think here of the brilliance of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol:  Scrooge was forced to ponder the effect of his actions on others in the past and present, and what might result in the future if he remained on that path.] 

If you try this spiritual reflection for yourself and find yourself regretting things of the past or frustrated with the present, please do not berate yourself or lose hope. Classic spiritual writers agree that self-knowledge is the beginning of wisdom. Use what you learn about yourself as an opportunity to make fresh choices for the future.

In the following 2-minute Advent reflection video, Pastor Paul Harris explores what he calls “spiritual hypothermia,” a condition of feeling disoriented, lost, confused, guilty, or spiritually weak.  He reminds us we are not alone, and offers a way to cry out to God for help.

 

(If you don’t see the video, copy and paste this YouTube link into your browser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Snr2v8YrAQo )

When we feel we are having a case of “spiritual hypothermia,” we can cry out to God in the words of Psalm 80:

Restore us, O God of hosts;
let your face shine, that we may be saved.

          (Psalm 80:7, NRSV)

To paraphrase that, writing a similar prayer in my own words:

Bring us back to life, O Loving, Unseen God!
Let the radiant light and heat of your presence
Shine down on us, that we might not die in our sins
and mistakes of the past, but rather we might
live the compassionate, holy life Christ revealed

Until next time, Amen! 

Visual Meditation: Attending the Mystery of the Incarnation at Christmas

How do you picture the birth of Christ? Do you think of a little Nativity scene like the one sold in stores, Mary kneeling in adoration beside the Baby Jesus, with the protective Joseph standing with staff in hand? Are there angels, shepherds, and wise men? Who or what do they represent? A historical moment or an ongoing spiritual mystery?

For people of Eastern Christian heritage, Christ’s Nativity is recalled using a highly symbolic picture, called a sacred icon. (“Icon” is the Greek word for “image.”) This image is created in such a way to act as a sacramental window into deeper spiritual truths. The icon below is a modern example of a Nativity icon.

Image of The Nativity by Sr. Marie Paul, O.S.B.; © Monastère des Bénédictines du Mont des Oliviers and Editions CHOISIR, Genève. The Printery House, Conception, Missouri, exclusive U.S. agent. www.printeryhouse.org –Shown with permission.
Image of The Nativity by Sr. Marie Paul, O.S.B.; © Monastère des Bénédictines du Mont des Oliviers and Editions CHOISIR, Genève. The Printery House, Conception, Missouri, exclusive U.S. agent. http://www.printeryhouse.org –Shown with permission.

Religious icons are not only beautiful works of art, but more importantly, created as a instrument for pondering the mystery of God’s presence in our lives. One meditates on the works of God by beholding the various truths represented in the icon and “pondering all these things” in one’s heart.

In the icon above, the various bible stories surrounding the birth of the Messiah are portrayed around the central figure of Mary and the Christ Child. Many events are portrayed, but each little picture relates to what is at the center, the birth of Christ. In this manner, we are reminded that, as Christians, Christ is to be the center focus of our lives.

Most of us can readily pick out the three wise men, angels, and shepherds in this icon. But if you go a little deeper, you will see the wise men are of differing ages, proving that God’s wisdom can dwell in people of any age. Two angels have their hands in the ancient open position of prayer, their “job” being to glorify God (something we are also to do). The other angel is descending from the heavens, to bring the good news of Christ’s birth to shepherds on earth (bringing good news of Christ to others is something we are to do, too!).

Nativity icon from Printery House --M08 - Cropped Copy--MidwivesIn the lower righthand corner, midwives wash the newborn Babe, wrapping him in swaddling clothes, the strips of cloth used for ordinary newborns of the time. This story of the midwives, told ancient written sources, reminds us that Christ was not only divine, but also truly human. (The direct line from the star at the top reminds us of Christ’s divine nature, and that he came to dwell in Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit.)

Nativity icon from Printery House --M08 - Cropped Copy--JosephJoseph’s posture, with his back to Mary & the child, startles me.  Orthodox theologian Leonid Ouspensky explains that the figure next to Joseph is the devil disguised as a shepherd, who is tempting Joseph to doubt in the miracle of Virgin Birth. (Remember how Joseph doubted Mary’s word about the angel at first?) Despite this, his halo reminds us that he was a holy man, redeemed by Christ and loved by God.

Returning to the central focus of the icon, Mary gives birth to the Christ Child, placing him in a manger box that also symbolizes the church and tomb.  Christ is born in a dark cave–he enters into the “darkness” of this world in order to overcome sin, evil, and death. (The golden light in icons is a symbol for God, the unapproachable Light, who nevertheless choses to enter into our earthly reality.)

With so much suffering in the world, the Nativity icon reminds us that no matter who we are–wise scholars or simple shepherds, young virgins or doubting Josephs–Christ comes to free us from sin, to re-create us into adopted sons and daughters of God. No matter what we have done or failed to do in the past, God reaches out to us now, in this and every moment, with unfailing divine love.

Nativity icon from Printery House --M08 - Cropped Copy--Mother & Child

This is reason for Christmas joy.

Until next time, Amen!

Note: Many thanks to The Printery House for help with information and the image for this blog post. Read more or purchase this icon at www.printeryhouse.org (click here)