Category : Spirituality

Tent in Cayonlands
Book, Faith, Lent, Spirituality, Transformation
1

Pitching a Tent

I originally wrote this post three years ago, shortly after having lost a dear friend to breast cancer.  Of course, in the 3-year cycle of readings, Luke’s account of the Transfiguration is (once again) the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent. This reflection also makes its way into the first chapter of Continuing the Journey (which is now available in both English and Spanish, with a Leaders Guide–also in both English and Spanish… but I digress).

From February 2013…

My dear friend Amalour passed away last week.  And in my grief, I am still having a difficult time paying attention to almost everything.  So it  didn’t come as any surprise when I had a hard time following the homily today at mass.  The Gospel on the Second Sunday of Lent is the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28:-36).

Jesus took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.  And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.  Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep, but becoming fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.  As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good that we are here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  But he did not know what he was saying. While he was still speaking, a cloud came and cast a shadow over them, and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.  Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. They fell silent and did not at that time tell anyone what they had seen.

Years ago (before kids), I facilitated a faith sharing group at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Maryland, and one of the women explained how the story of the Transfiguration was one of her favorites because it offered a glimpse of Jesus Christ glorified.  I heard her words and felt moved by her passion, but that’s not how the story struck me.

Personally, I find myself identifying with Peter, James, and John.  Like them, I would have been happy to follow Jesus up a mountain.  Like them, I would have probably been overcome by sleep.  Even before kids.  And like them, I would probably been so awestruck, I would have been happy to  to pitch a tent.

Actually, I would have been happy to have my husband pitch the tent while I set up camp.

IMG_1690

At the Vigil service for Amalour’s funeral, her husband Brian offered one of the most moving eulogies I have ever heard.  Brian talked about Amalour’s unending quest for improvement.  In their marriage–in their lives–they’d do the work and come to a plateau.  It was a nice plateau, on which Brian was ready to pitch a tent and enjoy the view.  And Amalour would say no; we’re not there yet.  We can do better than this.  There’s more to see; there’s more to do.  Again, and again, and again in their lives, Amalour was always striving for something more… for something better… in all the ways that mattered.

I am a do-er.  I’d like to think of myself as someone who walked alongside Amalour on the path of growth.  In many ways, I know I have.  But I also know one of my weaknesses is doing too much. I have been guilty of distracting myself from the real, true, important things in life with busyness… filling my days with so much stuff that I don’t have time to think.  When I’m in this mindset, pitching a tent and enjoying the view sounds like a GREAT idea!  In fact, I’ll even busy myself with setting up camp.

Thing is, life is more of a journey than a sit-down and watch (or in my case, get everything ready to sit down and watch).  And sometimes that journey is hard.  Very hard.

I can imagine that witnessing the Transfiguration was to be a gift to inspire Peter, James, and John for the journey that lay before them.  It was not meant to be the end of the journey… or even a break from the journey.

So the challenge, I suppose, is to take those moments of grace, peace, hope, and light and allow them to inspire us along the path.  To avoid the temptation to pitch a tent as though that moment was the end-all-be-all.  To avoid the temptation to busy ourselves with setting up camp instead of doing the real work of journeying through life.


Tent in Canyonlands by [Rob Lee]https://www.flickr.com/photos/roblee) licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

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Leaders guide and 3 copies of Continuing the Journey
Book, Conversion, Evangelization, Faith, Friendship, Life, Small Faith Sharing Groups, Spirituality, Transformation
0

5 Keys for Effective Faith Sharing Groups

Adults crave quality connections with other adults, where we can have good conversations about the things in life that really matter.

For a variety of reasons, we don’t always have the opportunity to do this; to have these quality connections and conversations. Our schedules become busy with kids, work, commitments, activities, sports, responsibilities, and so on.  We often find ourselves socializing with the people who keep similar schedules in similar spaces. We talk about the things we do or the things we see, but not always what’s going on inside our hearts.

Sharing the yearnings of our hearts–our hopes and dreams, our joys and sorrows, our brokenness in pain and suffering–takes trust, vulnerability, and love.

Trust, vulnerability, and love aren’t characteristics easily found in today’s impersonal, fast paced, technology dependent world.

This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)

Yet trust, vulnerability, and love are at the heart of true spirituality, discipleship, and Christian community. Or at least, that’s what Jesus had intended, that’s what St. Paul wrote about, and that’s what Acts of the Apostles describes.

Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people. (Acts 2:46-47)

The experience of quality conversations and connections is invigorating; these moments fill our hearts with love, peace, and joy. When the topics touch upon spirituality, discipleship, and Christian living, these conversations are evangelizing–kindling our passion for God.

So when, and where, and how can we find quality connections and quality conversations with other adults?  In today’s Church, we can certainly find this within small faith sharing groups.

My last post explained what a small faith sharing group is.  This post begins with a vision for what kind of experience we want (quality conversations and connections) and will focus on How to implement small faith sharing groups.

Five Keys For Small Faith Sharing Groups

Just because you get a group of people together and give them a topic does not mean you’ll get these fantastic evangelizing conversations and quality connections.  Have you ever been part of a never-ending meeting that goes nowhere?  Or one that devolves into either a therapy session or venting and complaining?

Beyond the logistics of who, where, when (and what to discuss), there needs to be a great deal of attention dedicated to how. I suggest Five Key C’s to cultivating evangelizing conversations and quality connections:

  1. Confidentiality – the atmosphere of the small faith sharing group needs to be one of trust, vulnerability, and love.  Whatever is shared in these conversations must not be repeated in any other context.  This is a confidentiality based in agapic-love, willing of another’s good… the only exception to confidentiality is if someone’s life is in danger.  Care and concern for the well-being of another always takes precedence when someone’s life is in danger.
  2. Conversation – participants enter into small faith sharing groups with the expectation of conversation.  Good conversations extend from mutual respect.  To get to a place of mutual respect, sometimes “ground rules” need to be made explicit, such as:
    • encourage laughter and joy… but never at the expense of another.
    • express concern for one another… but not by offering advice, criticism, or judgment of others.
    • recognize and validate emotions… but resist the temptation to counsel, advise, or solve problems (unless specifically asked for).
    • honor one another’s time with both brevity (when sharing) and patience (when listening).
  3. Coordination through Facilitators – a good facilitator is a good listener and servant/leader.  More than a host or a coordinator that plans the meetings, a good facilitator knows how to:
    • invite everyone’s participation in the conversation… but not force it; no one has an obligation to share.  Some folks are natural talkers who easily share; others are introverts that need time to think and process.  A facilitator’s job is to prevent “conversation ball-hogs” by making sure that everyone has a chance to speak and contribute.
    • be patient as participants share their stories… but also be attentive to staying focused on the discussion topic and keeping the discussion within the time allotted.
  4. Conversion and Application to Life – it is easier to talk critical analysis–what you think about a topic–than it is to consider how the material applies to your life.  It’s easier to talk about concepts or other people’s stories than it is to consider how the wisdom of Scripture and Tradition is personally calling you to conversion in your own life.  Faith sharing group discussions are concerned with:
    • How you currently experience [the topic] in your life – whether with success or struggles.
    • Ways in which you feel [the topic] is calling you to live your faith differently or better… a call to action of sorts.
  5. Centered on Prayer – Faith sharing groups always need to be centered on our Life-giving, Loving God.  We need to remember to:
    • begin by inviting the Holy Spirit into the discussion.
    • choose discussion material that helps us focus on how the wisdom of the Christian Tradition applies to our lives today.
    • pray over, for, with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are struggling through difficult times… even if it is in the middle of the discussion.
    • end with a prayer of thanksgiving and/or petition.

One last thing to keep in mind when working with adults in a faith sharing group setting: busy adults don’t always have the time to read and prepare.  Or sometimes they do read and prepare, but then time passes, life happens, and they forget.  In a classroom setting, it makes sense to emphasize coming to class prepared.  In a faith sharing group, the focus is on evangelization; quality connections and conversation about faith and life.

Catechesis is an essential “moment” in the process of evangelization (General Directory for Catechesis, 63).

To help adults focus their conversation, it’s always a good idea to offer a summary that reminds participants about the key points in the material before opening the discussion.

Faith Sharing with Continuing the Journey

You know what material easily lends itself to small faith sharing group discussion?  That’s right!  My book, Continuing the Journey: Cultivating Lived Faith.

Even more, you know what will help with the Five Key C’s of cultivating evangelizing conversations and quality connections?  My brand new Leader’s Guide.

LeadersGuide_BookCover
I believe so strongly in the value of small faith sharing groups that I am offering the Leader’s Guide as either a free PDF (click here), or a hard copy can be mailed to you for $5.99 with free Prime Shipping through Amazon.

Note: all Amazon links include my affiliate link, which means Amazon gives me a couple of extra pennies from your purchase.

Go forth and share your faith!  And let me know if I can be of any help in the process.  In addition to these resources, I am available to offer trainings and workshops for small faith sharing group facilitators.  Just email me!

Blessings and peace as you continue your journey!

Love Julie



Sign-up now and receive the 68-page PDF Leader’s Guide to Continuing the Journey.


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Barren tree in field
Calling, Faith, Spirituality, Suffering
0

Depression and Spirituality

I struggle with depression.

It’s hard to talk about this –this depression thing– because a lot of assumptions, judgments, silence, and well-meaning-but-misguided comments can be really damaging to a person who is already fragile and broken and overly-sensitive from fighting depression.

Right now, I’m doing really well.  Right now, the depression is under control and manageable.  So in some ways, right now is a good time for me to talk about it… because I’m not feeling so fragile.

More importantly, for the third time in the past year, I have been confidentially approached by a friend who struggles with this same life-sucking-beast… Each of these friends sheepishly ask if they are properly reading between the lines; do I struggle?  And each time, I cry with them as I say yes.  And I’m so sorry.  Because it sucks so bad.

I don’t want to be the poster child for depression, in part because everyone’s experience is so very different…  In part because declaring this to the nameless-faceless internet world makes me vulnerable in a way that I don’t particularly enjoy…

But my heart aches for those who suffer in silence and solitude.  I do want to share some “wisdom” I have gained along the way, and if it offers you hope, then it’s worth the risk.

For people that don’t understand depression, the first thing they want to know is why?  Why are you sad?  What’s wrong?  Clinical depression means that there is no good reason.

There are times in my life when a real crisis has prompted depression – sometimes there is a reason.  I’ve heard that called “situational depression.”  But the most confusing part for me was the time in my life when everything was beyond-my-wildest-dreams good, but I was not happy.  I had actually transitioned from a not-great situation into a phenomenal one.

I had two babies under two in an area with no family, little community, and hardly any close friends.  Then my husband got a new job with a great relocation package to an area that was a reasonable drive to my family.  We sold our home in 10 days for full asking price.  I landed a job working from home, writing for a textbook publisher.  After looking at 45 homes in 4 days, we chose one that was a perfect fit for our family and had a lot more space at a lot less cost than our last one.  A mere 6 weeks after we moved in, Hurricane Ike hit.  We were in the mandatory evacuation zone, but with my family in Austin, we had a free place to stay, and the 60 foot pine tree fell away from the house.  Upon returning from evacuation, I started writing and had the world’s greatest part-time nanny.  Instead of contributing a couple of features to the textbook series, I developed the prototype for the teacher’s editions and went on to be a primary author.  My husband was loving, supportive, and helpful in real, concrete ways.  I joined a MOMS Club and befriended a great group of women and their children.  My life was full of goodness.

And instead of being happy, the stress broke me.

You know that expression, “God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle?”  Well, I broke.  It was just too much stress, and I spiraled into the deep, dark negativity of depression.  In my depression, I believed every negative thought that crossed my mind.

  • No one likes you.  They’re just being “nice.” 
  • Every time you lose your temper and yell at these beautiful kids, you prove what a horrible mother you are.  
  • Your husband is going to get sick of your [stuff]. 
  • Pretty soon the textbook publisher is going to realize what a fraud you are.
  • Everything is out of control, and it’s all your fault because you can’t handle it.

That’s the thing about depression; it lies to you about what an awful, inadequate person you are.  And you believe it.

I was just empty – except all the frustration I felt at every little thing, especially myself.  My life was devoid of joy, while I was the mother to two loving, excited, exuberant, exhausting little boys, which made me feel even worse about myself.  My marriage suffered when I finally admitted how I felt and just lay on the couch.  After meeting deadlines and taking care of the kids’ basic needs, I didn’t even have the energy.  For anything.

The depression impacted my spirituality in ways that are hard to explain.  I used to feel connected to God, but in the midst of depression, nothing I did in prayer or worship helped… nothing was connecting for me.  It all felt like going through the motions.  When your job is to write about faith–when your profession is “religious educator”–and you’re not feeling connected to God at all, it’s kind of a problem.

In my book, Continuing the Journey, Chapter 11 is about “Spiritual Crisis.”  What constitutes a spiritual crisis –much like depression– is different for different people.  Essentially, a spiritual crisis is when you are going through a rough patch spiritually.  From “Why is this happening God?!” to “Where are you God!?” and everything in-between.  It’s the desert experiences in the landscape of spirituality… It’s when we earnestly pray, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (Psalm 22:1).   Not everyone who goes through a spiritual darkness is in a depression, but for me, there was definitely overlap.  In my book, I noted that several well-known and influential people in the Christian tradition have struggled with this spiritual darkness, or what is often called “the dark night of the soul.”

  • “St. John of the Cross is credited with the expression “dark night of the soul.”  In 1577, John was abducted, imprisoned, and tortured for his part in working on reforms to the Carmelite Order.  While in prison, John composed the poem Dark Night of the Soul.
  • St. Teresa of Ávila was a close friend and contemporary of St. John of the Cross.  After unexpectedly healing from a serious illness and professing great devotion to St. Joseph, Teresa began struggling so deeply with spiritual darkness that she stopped praying for nearly two years.
  • C.S. Lewis wrote about his spiritual darkness in A Grief Observed.  After years as an author, theologian, and expert in Christian apologetics, Lewis married his longtime friend Joy, who died of cancer only four years after they wed.
  • Mother Teresa experienced a spiritual darkness that lasted for decades, which began shortly after she founded the Missionaries of Charity and started her work with the poor.” (Continuing the Journey, 47)

Reflecting on the idea that saints and holy people alike have struggled with the dark night of the soul gave me tremendous hope.  If they struggled with this emptiness, maybe it wasn’t a sign of my inadequacy and weakness… but rather maybe it was just a part of my story.

So getting back to my story: with the help of a really good therapist, the right anti-depressant, spiritual direction… and a lot of patience, and I came through it.

It took a few tries to get the right anti-depressant.  The first one numbed me… it was better that I wasn’t feeling so negative, but I also wasn’t feeling joy.  The second one worked for a bit… until it didn’t.  The third one was the charm.  While I worked with a psychiatrist to tinker with the right dosage of the right medication to get the chemicals in my brain to behave, I took the opportunity to work with a great counselor.  She helped me differentiate between what was real and what was my skewed interpretation of things courtesy of depression.

Depression lies.  It makes you not trust your own judgment.  It makes you feel like you deserve the negativity and emptiness.  Counselors can help you wade through this before, during and after the medication takes effect.

Counselors can also help you identify the warning signs of depression.  And triggers.  For me, stress triggers depression.

Last spring and summer, I worked my tail off to finish writing and publish my book.  Without money for childcare, I wrote about half of the book after the boys finished their school year.  That was extremely stressful.  And the depression came back.

As difficult as it was to admit that the depression was back, as difficult as it was to manage the stress, as difficult as it was to function, this time there were a few differences.

We had houseguests–a very special family of houseguests–in late-May.  As per my depression, everything annoys and frustrates me.   In this case, I had been annoyed and frustrated that one of these very special houseguests (“H”) was blowing off quality time visiting.  Now I knew that H struggles with anxiety and depression, but I hadn’t realized that when H would leave for large chunks of time to “go on a walk,” it was to work out the extra energy that accompanied the anxiety.  I was humbled.  And impressed by how insightful and courageous it was for H to prioritize self-care.  Because in the end, doing so made H a better parent, spouse, sibling, and friend.  And an awesome one, at that.

H and the family of very special houseguests extended their stay by a day because we were having such a wonderful visit.  After they left, I reflected on H’s insight, courage, and commitment to manage the anxiety and depression.  And I made an appointment to see my doctor about getting back on the anti-depressant.

Here’s what the anti-depressant does: it helps me be a little more in control of my spiraling emotions, which decreases the negativity just enough.

In the midst of all of this, I was also working on a retreat with an amazing group of women.  I felt that God was calling me to honestly share my struggle with depression, but I had no idea what to say.  Or why.  I actually got a little angry with God about this point.  After spending hours trying to figure out what to write, I sat back in my chair, leaned away from my laptop, raked my hands through my hair, looked up and yelled, “You want me to talk about this?  Then tell me what to say!  Because I don’t get it.  I’m done.”  It was nearly midnight and I was now frustrated and annoyed with God, so I walked away from the computer and went to bed.

The theme of the retreat came from Matthew 28:20  “I am with you always.”

Jesus walking on a path

At 5:51 am, I awoke with tremendous clarity, feeling fully refreshed.

I realized that in the midst of the darkness of depression, God never stopped whispering: “I am with you always.”

From the timing of the very special Houseguests, to my friends, to the community of women I shared my retreat with, to my husband, to my boys, God never stopped whispering his love.

Instead of accepting the lie of self-doubt and loneliness that depression brings, I began to see–and try to feel–the adoration of God.  As I sat at my desk that morning, trying to put into words how God whispers “I am with you always” to me, my 8-year-old son came bounding in to my home office just to give me a hug and kiss and tell me, “I love you, Mommy.”

That’s how I came to see and experience spirituality in depression: I surrendered to undeserved love.  And through the arms of my child, God hugged me.

For all the negativity I feel in the depression, God still manages to remind me I am with you always and I adore you.


This called my home by Daniel Wehner licensed under CC BY 2.0

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