Some find Lent, the pathway toward Easter, as a means to intentionally follow Jesus’ example in his journey toward the cross. Some use a devotional and others give up something they value as they prepare to celebrate the Resurrection. If this describes you, I pray you feel met in following this invitation.
For others of you, me included, maybe because I was not raised in church, Lent, Good Friday, and the upcoming Easter celebration do not provide the same kind of invitation. And yet, our Christian faith journey holds a cruciform aspect that follows Jesus regardless of the season. So, what is the invitation to intentionally walk toward Easter for the rest of us?
My journey toward Easter has much to do with my image of God. For years, adhering to what I was taught required painful, lonely steps into not being good enough and facing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for my sins by a wrathful Father. In later years, I have learned a distinct perspective to engage this essential story that values my humanity and views a loving and compassionate God who is with me because I exist and not despite me. When I opened to a compassionate and loving God, it became possible to participate in an experiential relationship with God that goes beyond only head knowledge to embrace a much fuller relationship.
This describes the spiritual journey for each of us. As we are drawn to a deeper relationship with God, our yearning for more is understood and informs how we live out our spirituality. This deepening invitation is often due to unexpected and destructive events experienced in life as we seek ways to understand and find answers amidst the struggle to make meaning from our experiences.
Often, there is a gap between what we believe or understand about how things “should” be and what we actually experience in life. The rational explanations and definitions often cannot answer the more profound questions that arise. Often, we experience this gap through our desire for wholeness, and it is this gap that needs healing. This is the invitation toward a deeper relationship with God as we discover that our profound questions remain unanswered by our limited definitions and understanding of the genuine pain and suffering in a world held by an all-powerful and all-loving God.
As we wrestle with our knowledge about God and our desire to live out a relationally connected life with God, we experience conflicting paradigms of how life works. We struggle inside ourselves and in our communities. And when we feel that our questions are not welcome in our communities, we struggle alone.
I experienced this place of being unmet by what I thought should be the way forward professionally. I experienced a job loss, which completely devastated me. It seemed unjust, and I discovered nothing I could do to set things right. Where was God in this? I had done everything I was “supposed to do” and found myself trying to figure out a way forward. I remember sitting in church wondering if there was more to this life of faith—because the one I was experiencing did not add up to the abundant life promised. Moreover, I could not make the puzzle pieces fit again. My community could not hold my questions, so I leaned into a deeper relationship with God, which opened to me through seminary.
02. Who is God?
We all hold a concept or image of God formed by our childhood experiences, our family of origin, the communities we grew up in, and our current communities. This is true even if we claim no belief in God. There is always an image of God we either believe in or resist.
When you reflect on your image of God, what do you notice? You may hold many images—some more conscious than others. As a spiritual director, I use sand tray figurines to help people discover—either explicitly or implicitly—what they hold to be true,. Images allow us to bypass our conscious bias to see what is under the surface. Some have selected Zeus, Superman, a lion, a compassionate hand holding a child, Rafiki from Lion King, and even an ashen Edgar Allan Poe image. These images help us see a little more about how these individuals view God. You can imagine that some of these are more accessible than others.
In my work as a spiritual director and educator, I have discovered that God meets us right where we are, regardless of how we understand the character of God. Imagine we have a box that shows the spaciousness and limits of our understanding of God. There are things we hold to be true about God and other things that are out of bounds, such as God being loving but not for those people—and one of those people might be ourselves. Some of our beliefs about God are true and others are not. We just do not know which are which. Yet, these distinctions about the reality of God are often evident in our relationship with ourselves, others, and God. Yet by the graciousness of God, this God, the One bigger than we know, enters our box and expands our understanding.
Struggle is an excellent word to describe this transition as we navigate our understandings of God, the world, and ourselves. In the process, we may find that the God we have known is not something or someone we can believe in anymore. This journey is difficult. It is one of the most challenging transitions in a person’s transformational journey.
However, in the process, we receive a gift of understanding that God is more than we have known. We begin to realize that the god we have created, often in our own image, is not all of whom God is. If we persevere on this journey, we discover that the God we have come to know has been with us from the beginning. Just maybe, this God has only broadened our understanding and is more than what we have previously understood to be true.
This describes the journey of spiritual formation and provides a lens to a growing depth of self-awareness and God-awareness. Along the way, our old ways of doing things become unhelpful, and we discover a new way that allows God to meet us experientially, beyond what we have previously known. This opening gift is a grace and only possible by the Spirit.
03. The Invitation
As I followed the invitation to hold my unanswered questions introduced to me through my seminary journey, I discovered a way to relate to God experientially. My beginning adult relationship with God was experiential, but I shut down this way of knowing God due to attending a community church that relied on a more rational approach. When I shared my God experiences with this community, I usually received blank looks, so I eventually moved away from my own way of relating with God and tried to conform to the box presented to me.
What if God is bigger than the box I held that contained my idea of God? Given my job situation, the God I was trying to trust did not seem trustworthy. Yet, this provided the invitation to contemplative prayer, trusting silence and solitude, bringing my mind down into my heart space, and meeting God in new ways.
Contemplative prayer creates a space of openness and rest without conversation or control. Various forms allow us to create space to listen, hear God’s voice, and experience God’s presence. Some may feel uncomfortable initially, but the transitional journey invites us to a continual practice that helps break past the unease and enter into a more restful space.
In our hesitance and even suspicion of contemplative prayer, we miss the opportunity to relate with God experientially out of fear of leaving our minds out of our control. This was my concern, given my earlier understanding. However, in our practice of contemplative prayer, we trust our Creator—God—to join us. Scripture opens the way for us to hold this kind of practice.
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to his world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1–2, NRSVScripture quotations marked (NRSV) are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved., emphasis added).
Notice we are not to be conformed but to be transformed. The Greek words used for both show a passive response—we can either be conformed, something done to us, or be transformed, again something done to us. They also imply a continual process without a starting or ending point. This practice is not about achieving or getting it “right” but allowing ourselves to be in God’s presence.
St. Teresa of Avila, a mystic and a Carmelite nun from the 1500s, shared a picture that provides another way of looking at our journey. We are a little like the wax used for a wax seal. The wax cannot impress the seal into itself, and it also cannot make itself soft for the impression. The only thing the wax can do is just be there.Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, E. Allison Peers, trans. (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1946), 74, Kindle ed. So, like us—we can only be present and whatever does or does not happen in this time with God is in God’s hands.
In John 14, Jesus taught about the Holy Spirit:
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you (John 14:16-17, NIVAll Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™, emphasis added).
The words translated as “with you” are different words in Greek. The first one means “in your midst.” The second means “beside you.” The last one is translated as “in you.” Jesus is saying that the Holy Spirit is in your midst, beside you, and in you. Think about that—there is no place to be away from God’s Spirit. This is comforting as we enter this kind of prayer, realizing that we are indeed in God’s presence.
04. The Lenten Journey
What does this all have to do with Lent, Good Friday, and Easter? Everything! It changes our approach to understanding who we are and our place in the world. What if Lent and this intentional walk toward Easter have less to do with behavior modification and more with relationships? Our relationship with ourselves, others, and God is at the root of everything we do and how we live in the world.
Spiritual writers speak about our false and true selves. Our false self is who we pretend to be—how we think we should live to be accepted in our world. Our true self is who we are created to be. As we live life, we separate internally. Sensing who we are is unacceptable; we form a false self to hide and try to protect the root of our true selves. This separation presents a disconnection internally as we pretend to be who we think we need to be while hiding our true sense of ourselves. Along the way, we forget that who we were created to be is enough.
So, part of the Lenten journey is coming home to ourselves as a beloved of God, just as we are. What if God loves us just as we are, without having to be different? That is really trusting God, the one who intimately loves us, to meet us right where we are.
As I walk alongside others in spiritual direction, understanding that they are enough and that God meets them exactly where they are, I rest in an inner knowing that God always invites us to greater freedom and wholeness.
Consider that last statement. Think of a time that you experienced God’s presence. How did it feel? What were you doing or where were you? A question I often ask is, what is the texture or sense you noticed? Does a color or image come to mind? Where do you notice this in your own body? Do you have a felt-sense internally? This kind of practice allows us to engage with our whole selves in the presence of God more fully in helpful and healing ways.
And it only becomes available to us through practice—it is not about getting this right. We cannot manufacture it. We are invited to sense into the questions, allowing the possibility of answers, trusting that God, the One who loves and created us, will meet us right where we are. And God always does through gentleness and compassion, even if the answers take time. We only need to practice listening.
What if this is the beginning of the Lenten journey? As we follow Jesus’ example of a cruciform journey, we are invited to let go of what we think is true about God, ourselves, and the world. It is accepting with humility that we do not have all the right answers, and the invitation is to allow God to meet us in our theological box and expand it. If this is true for us, it also means that God can do the same with those around us.
As we learn to live in our belovedness and our being enough, we can hold that same kind of space for those around us. We heal the world by viewing others with the same kind of generosity and compassion as we experience with God. It starts with us, as we embrace the posture Paul invites and of the wax that St. Teresa of Avila spoke about—the invitation to be present in the journey with the humble posture of surrender and letting go.
05. A Practice of Examen
One way to begin this journey is the Prayer of Examen. It can be at the beginning or end of the day. If it feels more inviting, try once a week. (I have used this practice at the end of the day and sat on the floor at the foot of my bed.)
The familiar practice invites imaginatively walking through your entire day to notice a consolation and a desolation. I invite you to sit and listen and ask two opposite questions such as:
- Where did I notice Love today, and where did I not?
- Where did I notice God today, and where did I not?
- Where did I feel loved today, and where did I not?
As you ask one set of questions—do not try to hold the answers in your head. This is not a place to analyze the experiences of your day. Just listen to your inner self to see what rises to the surface. As you hold the experience(s) that arises, what do you notice about it? Again, this is not a space to analyze but to notice without judgment what comes up. Then, hold this experience and all that you notice about it with God to hear God’s view of what you experienced.
For example, I noticed a conversation where I was angry. I held that experience and recognized the feeling, underneath the anger, of being unseen and why I felt that way. Part of it was my own judgment of the other person, and my giving control to them, and another part of it was recognizing my own need to be part of a collaborative conversation, one where both parties could be seen. God spoke to both things, which allowed me to have compassion for the other person and communicate what I needed in the relationship. This allowed me to speak with a grounded presence, and not only did I experience inner healing, but so did the relationship.
You may not get an answer from God during your prayer time, but you will gain a deeper understanding. Curiosity and non-judgment are essential. When we move into rationalizing and justifying, it moves us away from this open space of holding and noticing. So, when you experience a movement away from the openness, just return to being curious and resting in your own belovedness.
As we walk this way with God, leaning deeper into our own belovedness, allowing God to heal our inner selves as we walk alongside others in their journey toward the same, we become more like Christ, who always invites us to greater freedom and wholeness.
May you feel met on your Lenten journey toward greater freedom, wholeness, and a sense of your own belovedness.
Kathi Gatlin, a spiritual director, supervisor, writer, and educator, enjoys bringing two of her greatest passions together: teaching and spiritual formation. Her greatest joy is walking alongside others in their own spiritual journey, sharing ways of understanding God anew through contemplative prayer and teaching, and seeing them grow in the depth of their own understanding of who God is and who they are in their relationship with God.
Kathi has a DMin in Leadership and Spiritual Formation through Portland Seminary and a MEd from George Fox University. She is a co-founder of the CompanioningCenter.org—a virtual platform that offers courses in spiritual formation and programs to train spiritual directors and supervisors for the vocational call of walking alongside others. In her own practice of spiritual direction and supervision through BoldlyLoved.org, Kathi hosts people both virtually and locally in Newberg, Oregon. You can contact her at email@example.com.