Friday, September 25, 2015

The Beginning of Wisdom: What it is to Rest

There's something I'm really excited about lately: I'm getting ready to co-lead my first ever women's retreat this December! I'll be using the practice of painting to cultivate and speak on restfulness, on what it means for our souls to be at rest during that time of year where we (especially as women, and especially the moms out there) have to be fully engaged and on our game.

As I think of ideas to share with these women on the topic of restfulness during the holidays, so many thoughts are coming to mind: what does it mean for our souls be at rest? What does it look like (and feel like) to have a truly calm spirit in all circumstances? How, as women of God, are we called to handle stress in ways that are grounding, not agitating?

And how, especially amidst the hustle and to-do lists that seem to multiply during the holiday season, do we stay calm but engaged, present and able enjoy any of it? The holidays are a time of family, sharing, gathering, and celebration- all the best things in life- they'd actually be a perfectly blissful time to stay present, serene, and open to all the blessings that they bring.
It's interesting for me consider this idea- cultivating true inner peace- having personally looked at it from a number of perspectives over my lifetime. I could talk to these women about meditating and doing yoga; two practices I do believe are so important and helpful; about self-enlightenment and calling on the strength that is within them to 'get it all done;' about fixating on Jesus, about mediating more on the word of God, to help them through.

I might add some meditative element to the painting session: it's vital, especially to cultivate restfulness, to be able to simply sit with ourselves and all the emotion (and maybe stress, negative thoughts, anxiety, or whatever else we discover when we stop the commotion of life) and be in the here-and-now. It's important- particularly, I think, for women- to be aware of our bodies both physically and emotionally, and to cultivate peace in and acceptance of them. We can begin to do this when we are still- and carry it with us when things get hectic.

And for me personally as a practitioner of yoga, I love the creative effects of a practice which is physical and active for the body but also good for the mind: when the mind is still, ideas are so available. The anxiety of the future is totally overpowered by the possibility of right now, and all I can accomplish once my practice is over and my mind is calm. Yoga isn't a break from the anxiety of life- where I'm calm centered, and unangered only during my practice- but more like a supplement to the cure: the affects are integrated into life itself, and the more we practice, the deeper the daily transformation.
So there's that route. There's also the route that sort of supplements that: teaching these women that self-empowerment is beautiful and that they are minds, bodies, and souls worthy of peace, self-love, and compassion no matter what the circumstances- even when stress seems to pull them in a million directions. That they are part of a sisterhood of other women and that support, love, and the uplifting of one another will carry them through. That what they will, they can do in their own strength by bolstering themselves up against the demands that are placed on them by family pressure or societal pressure, big or small. 

While I believe there is much truth and empowerment to women realizing we are mighty in our uniquely-crafted blend of beauty and strength; and that sisterhood, and women supporting each other, is vital, I don't want to give these women fierce and empowering words without a strong foundation for real self-leadership and action.

I don't want to tell them to be compassionate warrior-goddesses without giving them the spiritual groundwork to actually behave that way (on or off a yoga mat). I don't want to feed them the wisdom of the world, that teaches us to behave in ways that are so focused on building up, empowering, improving; or calming, or transforming, or enlightening the self without ever focusing on what might be available to them to sustain it- over the long haul of a lifetime, eternally.

If I'm trying to teach on restfulness, I can't tell them to battle for what they're not getting. I don't want to tell them to do things that will agitate their souls and fragment who they believe they are. I'd like to point them to the kind of peace that is beyond the mind, the kind of peace that flows from knowing their souls.

I want to give them bits and pieces of many things that will help them on this journey through the holidays- and life- but ultimately, I want to give them Jesus. 
I want to lead them back to something bigger than what they can do by themselves, or for themselves, that radiates outward so far- from a place deep within them- that their very lives take on the quality of what Paul in Philippians calls 'a peace that surpasses all understanding.' I want them to understand eternal calmness in all circumstances, big and small, all the time. I want to tell them not just about temporary happiness, but eternal, unshakable joy; not just about self-love, but the love of God for the people He has created; not just about making it through this world, but living big for a purpose well beyond it.

If I can, I'd like to give them wisdom.

"Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of Him is understanding." 
-Proverbs 9:10

Many things change in life when we orient ourselves around a center-point that is fixed and unchanging. This we have in an eternal God, whose character is stronger and more consistent than we could fathom. We live in a human world which is, especially right now, it seems, self-interested. It's not common to see wisdom in people before the desire for comfort or convenience, which worldly thinking has us craving constantly: emotionally, relationally, sexually, monetarily, even spiritually in some cases, we want what we want now, and our culture is ruled by convenience.

We think the constant fulfillment of our own desires will lead us to happiness, but the reason why it never does is profoundly simple: we're so conditioned to think that we'll be happy when we have what we want that we never even consider what we fundamentally need. When we have found God and we love Christ, a different desire on a totally different level than we're used to confronting ourselves on is finally fulfilled. It's a base, innate desire. We are at rest when we find it: part of the beauty of Christ is the revelation that everything else we seek actually only awakens desire, while Jesus fulfills it.
It's not common to see in people an awareness of living for the kind of stuff our souls were designed to live for, but it is fundamentally a part of who God is- and when we seek Him, we find that life for ourselves. The life we were actually meant to be living finally becomes ours, and we feel it. It is not just external, like 'living our dreams' or 'following or hearts.' Those things are important, but if getting what we want- even if it's beautifully well-intentioned- is not actually what we need, there must be something else

Outside of the time and human error that we are so subject to, He is righteous, just, loving, and merciful all the time- not just sometimes. Simply put, when we make His desires ours, when we take our direction from Him versus the world, we become like Him (on an insanely smaller and nowhere-near-as-impressive scale, of course): the very core of the people we become begins to change. We get lightness. Restfulness- unending inner calm- though a great gift, is merely a byproduct. Our hearts change. 

Not just our actions change. We don't think happy thoughts and then become happy people- though the world commonly suggests we can do it that way. Not just our appearance changes. We are not merely appearing to be kind or loving: we are answering to a call higher than ourselves- so it is not self-interest we answer to at all. 

This was a learning that rocked me when I moved from the self-reliance of agnostic indifference into Christian thinking (that's a story for another day...): until we answer to God, no matter how compassionate we would like to be toward ourselves or others, we won't be. 

Knowing God purifies the motivations for our actions- the greatest of which is love. As long as I take my commands from myself, I indicate that I have my desires at the center of my interest, not God's. And certainly not others'.
Not our friends'. Not our husbands'. Not our wives'. Not our childrens'. Not really. It's a humbling thing to realize that we're not as pure hearted as we think we are. Without Jesus we're kind and good to the extent that it's convenient: so we're not actually kind or good, to the fullest extent we can be anyway. It's hasn't become our real nature until we fall in love with eternal love. 

I remember the first time this dawned on me: I'm nice. I'm pretty smart. Educated. Well-read, well-enough-spoken, pretty articulate. I have some talents. I'm good at my job. I do yoga. I really do practice mindfulness. I'm a good person. 

But ultimately I am living in this world only for myself. And there's something about that that just doesn't feel right, or true.

Inevitably, taking a good hard look at God's character changes how we see ourselves. Suddenly we're not so awesome because we think we are, but eventually we learn that we are so awesome because He made us. Our sense of what makes us worthy and loved shifts, and that changes a lot too. If I get my self-confidence from being impressed with my own knowledge, I'm egotistical (which is the opposite of a spiritual quality). If I get my self-confidence from my opinion of myself, it's usually not good enough. 

If I get it from others' opinions of me, it's heartbreaking and confusing- flattery goes to the head and failure to the heart; if I get it from how I match up to the world's standard, it's not consistent enough because the world is values trends and changes all the time. 

Only when I get it from Jesus- from seeking God, meditating on God, knowing God, learning about God, fixating on God above all things of this world- am I free, and do I have any idea at all as to why I'm alive. 
Our spiritual understanding as Christians (or at least mine) doesn't begin with Jesus: it ends there, after infinite searching for other alternatives that always fell a little short of totally fulfilling. I've heard it said that we're all looking for something: the Christian should be a person who behaves as though he's found it.

And more awesomely, that it has found him. That in the midst of loneliness, sadness, the search for 'answers,' the search for peace, the search for more, God has a way, if you pay attention, of pursuing people relentlessly, of drawing them near to Him, of disentangling personal lies we believe about ourselves and giving us a new identity. The one that we need and want on our deepest level. The life for which we were designed. 

When we know Christ we can never say 'God doesn't love me,' and we can never be cynical about suffering (this does a lot for our level of inner peace), because we know God actually does love us: so much so that His was the ultimate example of suffering through Christ. 

I'm not saying this is where it starts- it might take a lot of learning and resistance even to believe these words could actually be true- but it is where it ends. I know a lot of people who hate (or are simply unmoved by) the idea that there could be a God who sees us- and loves us- who sent Himself into the world in the person of Jesus to suffer as a man. I hated it too for most of my life; it's a funny idea to love. Depending on how you grew up or what you learned in school or a million other things, it might be a downright crazy conceptualization of love. 

But the results of receiving it speak louder than anything.
So how do we rest? Kierkegaard said that when we read the Bible, we must constantly be saying to ourselves, 'it is talking to me, and about me.' This is a book of wisdom, of the word of God, which informs our life not just like other spiritual reading we may do. It is not impersonal, like a novel whose events we are observing from the outside, or informative in the same way other texts are. It is for study, mediation, sharing, discussion, and referencing in our everyday actions. It gets deeply into us.

Its words fuel our soul and bring peace to our minds. Though I love with all my heart painting, or writing, or doing yoga, I feel most at rest and at peace on an indescribable level not when I am doing these things but when I am truly mediating on God's word and learning and seeing. So we read. We get into the thing that challenges us to ask: what is your anchor in an ever-changing world? Will it hold you in peace through all circumstances? Are you free of mind and pure of heart?

Whenever I'm internally agitated, I realize it's because I've taken my eyes off God and put them on something in this world: something that's happening to me, something that's not happening to me that I wish were happening to me, something that's irritating me, something that's not happening like I would like it to happen. Whenever I'm at rest, I'm looking at God. Rest of the soul is not something that happens when the universe has aligned and everything is going right, or when my thinking is clear. It is deeper.

It is the result of constantly becoming new, and this we need for creative living, for proper loving, for virtuous sharing; for deep friendship, for right knowledge, for rich wisdom, for inner peace. Rest doesn't feel like running. Rest with God looks like running free.
 "The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere." -James 3:17


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