Spiritual Lessons from the Desert, Part II: Take Shelter

When people ask me how long I lived in the Sonoran desert I usually respond in terms of summers, not years.  “I survived 6 summers!” I boastfully reply, as if they should be impressed with my cunning, woman vs. nature survivor skills. (Yeah…right…).

As I continue to ponder the spiritual lessons that the desert taught me, it may be no surprise that with the extreme climate the desert can bring that I would think of “shelter” as a spiritual necessity.

The Southwest sun can be brutal much of the year.  Last May 2012, Tucson had two hikers die from the heat within a 48 hour period, one from Germany (age 35), the other from the Midwest (age 23).  And let us not forget the countless migrants whose lives are claimed each year from heat related deaths.  Taking shelter from the heat and understanding the dire importance of drinking lots of water is crucial in surviving in the desert.

The beautiful Palo Verde in bloom

My urban shelter came in many different forms.  I discovered that using a UVA/UVB umbrella while walking reduced the harshness of the sun.  It felt womb-like each time I entered my car after its windows were finally tinted.  And I rejoiced every time I could sit or park in the shadow of a Mesquite or Palo Verde tree.  They may not compare to the grandeur of a Maple or an Ash, but even the slightest bit of shade for me was a welcomed blessing.

And what might spiritual shelter look like?

This is often what I attempt to discover when I first meet a hospice patient and his or her family/caregivers.  How have they coped in the past when things turned foul in life?  When circumstances intensify, from where or whom do they seek shelter?

Here are some of the things that spiritually shelter me:

  • Scripture or even profound quotes often buffer me from life’s hardships.  I will never forget coming across an inspirational Ojibwe saying on the BART train, of all places, that shifted my self-deprecating mood. “Sometimes I go about in pity for myself, and all the while a great wind carries me across the sky.”   Like stepping under the cool shade of that Palo Verde, I was instantly comforted. The intensity of my life had lost a bit of it’s heat. For your own spiritual shelter, have a few memorized scriptures and/or quotes  to draw upon or have at a glance for those moments of need.
  • Having several confidants—whether a friend or a professional—with whom I can share my heartaches, frustrations, and worries protects me from holding things in and letting them fester (Which is always bad for the soul!). There have been several core people in my life who have rescued me through the years with their gifts of presence and listening.  (And I thank you.) Seek out and keep close in your life those who truly care about your well being.
  • A spiritual discipline is an essential shelter.  A spiritual discipline might be reading sacred scripture like the Bible, praying, doing yoga, or meditating.  It could be that gardening or hiking reconnects you to the beautiful world around and gives you a fresh perspective on life.  What matters most is that the discipline allows for or leads to personal reflection. For me, I find journaling to be very effective at leading me to examine my life, to notice my connection—or lack there of—with God, and to see my spiritual growth. But know this.  This is the kind of shelter you don’t want to get too run down.  Maintain it! Create time each day, or at least each week, to practice your discipline.

My environment is so very different these days living in the Pacific Northwest.  But I will always be grateful for the things I learned on my desert sojourn.  May your own journey provide you with valuable, spiritual insights.

And feel free to share them here at Desert Sojourn!





Do you want what it takes?

Do you want what it takes?

I was hammered with this question over and over again during my year in Clinical Pastoral Education in preparation for becoming a certified (and on some days I believe “certifiable”) chaplain.  Honestly, I’m a bit thick headed (and stubborn!!) and don’t recall exactly which of my many issues they were addressing with this question, but I will admit, I have contemplated those six words countless times in my life since.

I’ll give you an example.

Photo by Scott Griesel, Creatista.com

I am a disorganized individual.  My brain goes way too many directions at one time and has a painfully difficult time focusing.  I may be deeply compassionate, intuitive, and creative, but being organized is almost as easy and natural for me as breathing underwater.

Natural or not, there are times in my life when my very sanity depends on being organized. When work becomes overwhelming, when home life is frantic and an orderly life is the only sane way out, that is when I have to say, “Okay Kid—do you really want what it takes?”

“It’s going to take incredibly hard work to get organized.  You are going to have to begin making lists (again) and oh yeah, adhering to them.  You are going to have to get up early and go to bed on time.  You are going to have to prioritize (First things first). You will have to battle the tendency to procrastinate.  Are you willing to do these things to be organized and sane?  Do you want what it takes?”

For all you Type A people out there, those of you who don’t lack motivation, are quite driven and terrifically organized, do NOT be led to believe this post isn’t for you.  You may be reaching every goal you’ve ever set for yourself and methodically checking off everything on your to-do list, but there are areas in your life that need tending to.  I guarantee it.  For many of the motivated people I’ve known, often the questions are:

Are you willing to practice true self-care of your body, mind and spirit? Can you see the benefits of learning how to slow down?  Will you push yourself to build genuine, intimate relationships where you allow yourself to be truly vulnerable and fully present with that person? Are you open to listening to an individual without trying to fix his or her problems?

For any of us the real question is, Do we want what it takes to reach a balance in our lives?

One of my definitions of Spiritual Growth is the movement away from brokenness and chaos and into balance and serenity.  I won’t ever be a fine-tuned, organizing machine. Ever.  But there are times when I must push against that disorganized nature and tip the scales to where my life is more balanced.

You may be a very precise and orderly person, but are you willing to find a balance and gracefully accept the imperfection in your life—yours and other?

You may tend to seek and maintain power in your life, but can you allow yourself to let your guard down, trusting in someone else to take the reins or to see his or her shortcomings as something other than a direct assault on you?

Instead of working harder, are you willing instead to take time out to pray longer?  Rather than backing down all the time, will you challenge yourself to stand up for what you believe?

In other words, do you want what it takes to be a great parent or committed spouse, to be a compassionate friend, to be successful in your job, or to lose weight and get in shape? Do you want what it will take to reach those goals?

It is not easy to name the areas in our lives that are out of balance.  Often we are too spiritually blind and can’t see where the scales are tipped. Other times, we prefer denial.

I challenge you today (or as a friend would lovingly say, “I command you”) to spend time in prayer. 

Ask God to reveal the areas in your life that are out of balance. Seek guidance from someone who will speak the truths you may not want to hear. And courageously begin today balancing out your life.

May God bless you with all that you need to be whole and balanced.

When life gives you rotten green beans, compost!

In every place I’ve lived as an adult, I’ve dreamed of composting.

This desire would especially surge nearly every time I reached into the vegetable bin in my refrigerator.  There I would inevitably discover that my once beautiful green beans, zucchini, broccoli, lettuce or perhaps peppers were beyond the point of no return.

Even with refrigerator sludge on my hands, I always managed to come up with excuses as to why I couldn’t compost.  The weather, I would decide, was the problem.  It was either too damp (as in Vermont) or too dry (as in our current location in the desert).

Or the glitch, I would convince myself, was that I didn’t have the money for a fancy compost bin or lacked the time to make my own.

But food kept going bad in my fridge. Grieving the loss of more and more once-tasty-now-rotten veggies (I’m from an incredibly frugal family), I had to finally admit that something had to change.  So this winter I began composting on my deck in my flower pots, void of plants, but full of dirt.  Change the things you can! If my grandmother and father could bury their kitchen scraps in their gardens, why couldn’t I do the same in my pots?

I was finally composting.

It has been several months now and it is going fairly well.  The dogs have only gotten into it a couple times, the odor has been minimal, and my buried treasures are decaying beautifully.  My husband wasn’t crazy about my recent idea of moving the bins under our patio furniture for the summer (I found the idea to be quite practical!) so I’ll have to rethink a permanent spot for my project.   I believe, however, I am finally on my way to becoming a full time composter!

We can spend our whole lives angry and frustrated with all of the rotten things life brings us or…we can be courageous, spontaneous or determined and do what we can to make a difference in our lives. So I say to you, my friends: Be Courageous. Be Spontaneous. Be Determined.  Change the things you can.

Here is the most famous prayer I know on this subject (a longer version than most are familiar with):

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed,                                                                      courage to change the things that should be changed,                                                                                                              and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.                                                                                                                  Living one day at a time,
enjoying one moment at a time,
accepting hardship as the pathway to peace;
taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
not as I would have it;
trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His will;
that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
and supremely happy with Him forever
in the next.

The Serenity Prayer attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr (1943)

Be at peace.

Acid Test of Faith

The acid test of our faith in the promises of God is never found in the easy-going, comfortable ways of life, but in the great emergencies, the times of storm and of stress, the days of adversity, when all human aid fails.
– Ethel Bell

In August 1942, the SS West Lashaway was torpedoed and sunk by an U-66 in the Caribbean. The handful of survivors, including four children, endured a three-week ordeal in an open boat with minimal supplies before being rescued. One of them would later write a book about the experience, “In Peril on the Sea: The Story of Ethel Bell and Her Children, Mary and Robert”.

A Different Kind of Occupation

It was one of those visions in the twilight hours of the morning.  Three words came to mind, “Occupy your heart.”  An Ah-ha moment to be sure.  Well, okay…not really.  Truthfully, although the phrase seemed profound,  at such an hour, the depth of it truly escaped me.

Occupy your heart.  I thought about the phrase all day.  Could it mean, “Be compassionate.  Lead with your heart”?  I immediately engaged into judgment mode.

I considered the various wealthy men running for the Republican nomination for president.  Take presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, for instance.  I had heard that if you broke down his recent yearly earnings, he made around $57,000–a DAY.

Again, I realize I am being judgmental (and should probably first go for the plank sticking out of my own eye before trying to remove the fleck of gold, I mean, sawdust, in Mr. Romney’s eye—Matthew 7:3) but can anyone who is surrounded with so much wealth lead with his heart?

To what extent can a wealthy person occupy her or his heart with compassion and empathy when s/he most likely doesn’t know what it means to struggle financially, to have to decide between medication or food, to wear nothing but thrift store clothes, or to commute four hours one-way by bus for a minimum wage job because you can’t afford a car?

I remember years back the heartache and stress of having only $30 for groceries for the week.  Subtract the $10 needed for baby formula—the breastfeeding had ended sooner than I had hoped—and our family of 4 had hardly anything to work with.  We made it, but only after receiving a food box donated to us by our day care provider.  She had noticed how lean our preschooler’s lunch box had gotten.

No, being financially strapped didn’t make me a saint.  But that experience, and every time after when financial hardship has rested at our door, have nurtured my ability to empathize—to be compassionate and occupy my heart with love for those who struggle to make ends meet.

What about the person who has been rich in health?  It can be difficult to relate to someone with chronic pain or illness when you have never suffered from sickness in your own life.  When I was a hospital chaplain, I knew a woman who had chronic fatigue syndrome.

She came daily to visit her husband who was often hospitalized for chronic issues of his own.  I recall silently doubting she really had a medical problem.  She seemed healthy to me.  In my mind, her so-called “chronic fatigue” was more like an excuse not to work.

And then, less than 3 years later, I began experiencing my own physical melt down—often fighting pain and, ironically enough, a constant lack of energy.  Financial struggles, chronic health problems…occupying my heart with compassion and understanding for others who suffer was no longer difficult—it was a natural response.

To my surprise, it wasn’t until that evening—after nearly a full day of pondering those three words—that the phrase became ever more meaningful.  As a spiritual discipline, I read scripture, then journal my reflections or insights to God or just to myself.  That night, as I was combing through past entries,  these words stood out, “[T]hat Christ may dwell in your heart through faith as you are being rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17 ).

And now the Ah-ha.  My early morning epiphany wasn’t simply “Occupy your heart.”    This phrase as it came to me was neither complete nor intended to be something done by me, rather through me.  The message that became clear that evening was this: Let God occupy your heart.  Surrender to the Holy.   Invite that which is sacred into your very being.  Allow God to dwell in your heart and see how you might be transformed by that kind of occupation.  

Surrender.  Invite.  Allow.  Those are the kind of actions required.  After that, it is the Holy Spirit in action working within us.  Imagine what might happen, for instance, if we surrendered all that troubles us into God’s care?  Consider the transformations we might experience if we would only invite that which is sacred into our hearts.

What would it be like if we allowed our faith or spiritual practice to truly guide our daily living?

Having faith or being a spiritual person does involve action on our part.  We study sacred scriptures, pray or meditate, gather in community, give of our time, treasure and talent, but ultimately we are required to surrender and allow that which is greater than ourselves to direct our way of living and being in the world.

When we do, it won’t matter what kind of life experiences we have or haven’t had.  Compassion and kindness and understanding will emerge out those occupied hearts of ours.

So, if even just for today, let God occupy your heart and see what happens.