Widening Our Inward Spaces

A Journey Through Advent
by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin, Spiritual Formation Ministries

I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!

–2 Corinthians 6:11-13, The Message

It was a morning like any other. Out of habit, I reached for my smartphone prepared to scroll through social media and news reports to prolong the time before I needed to drag myself out of bed. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of sunlight creeping in the spaces between the blinds and the window. Suddenly, like thunder in the soul, was a memory of life before my smartphone when I would wake up every morning simply to the light in the room.

I put down my phone. Without being too dramatic, I overcame the immense urge to fill the space and simply entered it just for a few minutes. I laid there in the silence of morning and witnessed the light slowly brightening the room. I breathed. I noticed what was on my mind. I felt what was on my heart. It was three minutes, maybe five, before I finally pulled off the covers and made my way to the kitchen to start the coffee. Time, which normally moves way too fast, slowed down. A spaciousness opened within me.

I am concerned that our inward spaces are becoming too crowded in an age of everything-at-once all-the-time. The inner resources we most need to access as we attempt to meaningfully engage with the complexities of this moment are just waiting for our attention. There have always been sources of distraction, but they are growing louder and multiplying. We must be even more intentional to pause the constant immersion in new information to be present with what may be seeking expression within.

Nir Eyal teaches programmers and tech entrepreneurs how to create habit-forming products. He observes that, “feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation,” (Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, Penguin Random House, 2014, p.48). Technology (while it can also be beneficial) is one of many ways that I attempt to “quell the negative sensation” instead of listening deeper into my boredom or loneliness. You may have your own list!

This isn’t a new concept, but we have perfected the art of distraction in today’s society. When Henri Nouwen wrote Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life in 1975, he couldn’t possibly have predicted the myriad ways to distract ourselves today, but his words ring true, “creating space is far from easy in our occupied and preoccupied society. And still, if we expect any salvation, redemption, healing, and new life, the first thing we need is an open receptive place where something can happen to us” (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Doubleday, 1975, p. 60).

This Advent, I am craving “salvation, redemption, healing, and new life” for the whole of creation. As the divide seems to be widening between us, I yearn to widen the space within myself to receive the Sacred Other. I yearn to widen space within to pay attention to the inner voices that speak with the intention of bringing wholeness. I want to be open enough to receive the “something” that can still happen to us. A wise friend reminds me that “Spirit is always seeking incarnation” even in me, even in those with whom I disagree, and in all the places I neglect seeing because I am too busy or distracted to notice. I want desperately to wake up to where God is moving here and now so that I can follow my deep longing to participate. To notice, I must make the time to see. I must create the space for the “Spirit to breathe.”

Christine Valters Paintner describes the practice of hospitality in our inward spaces:
“When you find yourself resisting an inner voice or shutting your inner door on it, take some time to intentionally invite this voice inside to the table. Ask it what is has come to tell you. Listen past the first layer, which may sound ugly or painful, and tend to the layers underneath. This takes time, much like growing in intimacy with a friend… It is in this place of hospitality to the unknown where we encounter God… We learn to make space within ourselves because on the other side of the voices that disturb us we find the gift of wisdom waiting for us” (The Artist’s Rule, Sorin Books, 2011, p.99).

I believe there are simple ways that we can open the space to listen more deeply to the inner voices we so often resist. When you enter a silent space, linger long enough to take a deep breath before you fill it with image or sound. Pay attention to how often you reach for your smartphone or computer throughout the day. Pause to listen within to what you are feeling and why before you respond to posts on social media or in conversations with friends or family. Take time for silence, even if it’s just a couple minutes.

Perhaps creating space to listen within is one of the most important things we can do to respond with integrity and depth to the urgencies of this moment. Nouwen’s wisdom still speaks into our realities when he proclaims that, “we cannot change the world by a new plan, project, or idea. We cannot even change other people by our convictions, stories, advice, and proposals, but we can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves, to lay aside their occupations and preoccupations and to listen with attention and care to the voices speaking in their own center” (Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, Doubleday, 1975, p. 60).

May we widen the space within ourselves, and for one another, this Advent season.
Into this space, we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
And still, and always, he does.

Let It Be With Me: An Advent Invitation

by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” –Luke 1:38, NRSV

Entering another darkness
Edges lined in hope unseen–
Another practice in
Control released
Making space for what
I cannot make.

Approaching the unknown forming,
Straining to know and name.
Light will grow along
This path of promise
Shining on what must be seen
As I need to see.

Surrendering to mystery
Beyond comprehension,
A desire emerges
Greater than fear
And it opens in me
This willing yes.

Spiritual Practice: Allow this story from the gospel of Luke to come to life in you.

What does it mean in your life to say, “let it be with me according to your word”?
What Advent invitation for faithful surrender is emerging in you?
What does it feel like to live in humble uncertainty, releasing control? How might this be a sacred space of transformation and growth this Advent season?

BE EXPECTANT IN UNEXPECTED PLACES: Advent Reflections

The following is a reflection on entering the season of Advent excerpted from a sermon, Be Expectant in Unexpected Places, by Emily Rose, based on Mark 13:24-37.
Mark 13:24-37 (MSG)24-25 “Following those hard times,
Sun will fade out,
moon cloud over,
Stars fall out of the sky,
cosmic powers tremble.
28-31 “Take a lesson from the fig tree. From the moment you notice its buds form, the merest hint of green, you know summer’s just around the corner. And so it is with you. When you see all these things, you know he is at the door. Don’t take this lightly. I’m not just saying this for some future generation, but for this one, too—these things will happen. Sky and earth will wear out; my words won’t wear out.32-37 “But the exact day and hour? No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father. So keep a sharp lookout, for you don’t know the timetable. It’s like a man who takes a trip, leaving home and putting his servants in charge, each assigned a task, and commanding the gatekeeper to stand watch. So, stay at your post, watching. You have no idea when the homeowner is returning, whether evening, midnight, cockcrow, or morning. You don’t want him showing up unannounced, with you asleep on the job. I say it to you, and I’m saying it to all: Stay at your post. Keep watch.”
 “In our moments of unraveling, of feeling like our world is falling apart and on fire, God is close and at the very gates and edges of our hearts, waiting to be noticed.”-Emily Rose
At first glance, this is a peculiar text to choose for advent. This text is nestled between Jesus’ foretelling of the destruction of the temple and the passion narrative that we typically visit at Easter. It seems counterintuitive to begin our advent season here, at such an uneasy time in the Gospel story. There is fear and uncertainty, and soon Jesus will be betrayed and crucified. In the midst of all of that, we are asked to be hopeful today. Still, I’m convinced that if we look closely and let this passage take root in us, we can begin to see the small signs of hope being born into the world again this Advent season.
When I first read today’s passage, I was struck by the imagery of a world falling apart. “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” This is chaos of cosmic proportions. The first readers of Mark would have recognized this kind of chaos, given that their whole world seemed to be falling apart under the oppression of the Roman empire.
In our own world today, it is easy to relate to this feeling of unraveling. There are daily reports of violence and despair that come into our televisions and living rooms and computer screens. Images of tear gas clouding the light of the moon and the stars in the streets of Ferguson Missouri. There are more intimate experiences of unraveling in our lives, in hospital rooms and broken hearts, betrayed trust and disappointments. This is the world in which we are called to stay alert; to watch and be ready for hope to be born into the world.
When I was a student at Graceland University, I had my first true experience of winter. In fact, having grown up in Alabama I only had one childhood snow day, and we were let out of school because the snow stuck to the ground. Our city had absolutely no infrastructure to deal with the icy roads, so they sent us home so as not to put anyone in danger. Naturally, an Iowa winter was quite a shock for me! I remember feeling like the feeling of being cold would absolutely never end, and I would just be trapped in my dorm forever. At one point, my mom even sent me a solar light in a care package, just so I could remember what the sun looks like!
It was after that first brutal winter that I experienced another first – the overwhelmingly sweet smell of lilacs in the spring. One of my fondest memories of my English Literature class with Barbara Mesle was when she stopped everything we were doing, and refused to start class until everyone had walked outside and buried their face into a bundle of lilacs. It was as if it was a mandatory ritual that marked the beginning of spring. Barbara was inviting us to pay attention to the blessings around us, particularly after such harsh winter winds and snowfall.
After that first spring I began to notice how lilacs prepare to bloom. I would walk past the barren bushes in winter, snow crunching under my boots and I’d look closely at their branches. As soon as the first buds would appear I’d check on them every day, and whisper to those seeds of promise “You’re doing great! See you in a few months!” They were my symbols of hope in a cold and lifeless landscape, and it was in the noticing and the whispering that I encountered that hope.
In today’s scripture, the symbol of hope is the fig tree. We read, “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he[a] is near, at the very gates.” The fig tree unfurls the hope of summer in it’s tender leaves. The second part of that passage is even more important – “So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near.” The “these things” of that sentence is referring to all of the cosmic chaos from the passage before. In our moments of unraveling, of feeling like our world is falling apart and on fire, God is close and at the very gates and edges of our hearts, waiting to be noticed.
You see at the heart of this moment in advent is the call to pay attention. Keep awake! This requires taking on an internal stance of expectancy. Far different from marking off the days until Christmas on our calendars, this kind of expectancy is less about waiting and more about holy anticipation. From the moment we open our eyes in the morning to the moment we slip into sleep at night, we are called to pay attention. God is in the whispering and the unexpected places.