Widening Space with Others

Widening Space with Others
by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin, Spiritual Formation Ministries

I believe that Spirit is seeking incarnation in every person I encounter. No one is outside the scope of God’s unfathomably wide love and grace. This Advent season, we open our hearts, preparing to receive Christ in and through one another.

LISTEN DEEPLY. 

“We can change the world if we just start listening to one another again.”
–Margaret Wheatley, Turning to One Another

There is nothing like the full presence of another person, undistracted and completely available. I am always grateful when I encounter those people who can make me feel as though they have nothing more important to do than listen thoroughly to what I most need to say. Imagine if we could hold this quality of space for one another more often. Imagine if, even in our disagreements, we could pause the rise of opinions and rebuttals to listen instead with curiosity, compassion, and availability. What if we truly desired to hear one another’s stories, to understand one another’s life experiences, to listen with courage into each other’s fears until they dissolve into love?

Of course, there are complexities. Some level of mutuality is required for conversation to move into these depths. And yet, I believe it is worth the risk. The hunger for human connection is as strong as it has ever been. I still believe that taking the time to honor (or restore) the worth of another by offering my full presence and attention can transform and heal. I even believe I can be transformed and healed if I can find the courage to reciprocate vulnerability when the space is opened to me.

REALLY SEE THE SACRED OTHER. 

“… encountering another human being is as close to God as I may ever get– in the eye-to-eye thing, the person-to-person thing– which is where God’s beloved has promised to show up. Paradoxically, the point is not to see him. The point is to see the person standing right in front of me, who has no substitute, who can never be replaced, whose heart holds things for which there is no language, whose life is an unsolved mystery.” –Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in The World

The need for a quick lunch prompted a stop at Taco Bell. My inner state was the opposite of receptive. I was anxious, hurried, frustrated, and impatient. It was the clank of a coin on the counter that interrupted my self-absorption and suddenly sharpened my attention to my surroundings. The cashier was opening a new roll of coins when they slipped from her hand and spilled out on the counter and the floor. I noticed the look of panic in her eyes as she rushed to pick them up while the line lengthened.

My heart burst open with compassion and I truly saw her for the first time even though she had taken my order just minutes before. This humanizing accident humbled me into curiosity. I wondered what her life was like and what was on her heart as she rushed to pick up the coins and resume the orders. As the minutes passed, time slowed down while my heart expanded. When my number was called, I caught her eye and said, thank you. I hope she felt that she was really seen.

I confess that I often move through the world in this hurried way and miss seeing the people right before me. I turn others into characters in my own life story or obstacles on my path. It is easier to live in frustration, fear, or misunderstanding when we don’t slow down enough to recognize our shared humanity. Our capacity for recognizing the divine life in another is directly related to our capacity for seeing that person as they really are. This is the sacred relational space in which Christ becomes incarnate.

STAY OPEN. 

“A deep place in the other reaches out toward a deep place in you, hoping for a connection. Their heart calls to yours, and when you’re at your listening best, you heart responds, ‘I am here.’ Listening with your heart invites you to stay open to another even if their feelings are much different from yours, even if the expression of those feelings is stronger than you expect. In doing so, you heart will lead you to encounters with your own wholeness too.” –James E. Miller, The Art of Listening in Healing Way

I am friends with a person on Facebook with whom I often disagree. Almost every post I see makes me cringe. I will confess to wrestling with the temptation to “unfollow” this person so that I don’t have to be confronted with what makes me uncomfortable. Instead, I remember when we had an opportunity to listen deeply to each other’s stories. My heart stays open with love for this person because we shared a profound and unexpected experience of sacred connection beneath our politics and opinions.

I believe words have power– that they can be devastating and degrading, costly and consequential. The same can be true of reducing people to words that only ever express a portion of who they are. (It is also important to acknowledge that there are truly toxic and destructive relationships that require hard choices about how to honor our own and other’s worth.) It takes great courage to stay open to one another. My hope is that others stay open to me too, trusting that there is always more to me than what they see on the surface. This Advent, I yearn to recover trust in the basic goodness of other people, the divine life present in each one, and the redemption that is still possible for us all. This is the essential starting place for the important conversations we need to have to make whole a broken world.

What does it look like to widen the space to receive the Sacred Other in your life? What might it feel like to be received into a space wide enough for you? Where are the deep places in others reaching out toward the deep places in you this Advent season? 

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.

Widening the Spaces: Preparing for Advent

by Katie Harmon-McLaughlin, Spiritual Formation Ministries 

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.

-Rainer Maria Rilke

I have been hearing a frustrated weariness coming from many as we approach the Advent season this year. Globally, we have been frightened and grieving as violence, despair, and division threaten to settle in as the new norm. Turning toward a season luminous with joy and hope, I struggle to embrace its arrival, wondering what “new thing” there could possibly be to bring, wondering how an ancient story might still form and guide us in these challenging times.

How do we prepare our hearts to live again this story of Christ’s birth into our lives and world? This Advent, we are invited into a practice of sacred opening to God, self, others, and creation. While the temptation is often to shut down and withdraw, Advent reminds us to “prepare the way of the Lord” by opening up with courageous presence to reality as it is, wherever we are. Something is happening, whispers the mystery of this season of hope. Can we gather the strength of heart to still trust that Spirit will become incarnate even where we least expect, for the healing of our world?

Each week during this season, we will contemplate widening the spaces in our lives and relationships. Perhaps the gift that Advent can bring this year is a sacred opening of those spaces within and around us which have become too crowded or closed. The more we open, the more we will be able to receive of the divine presence that is already here and always arriving.

A few practices can guide our way as we journey through the Advent season:

Opening Space Within: Resist the distractions that are often used to fill the time. Pay attention to what emerges as you listen into your inner spaces. This can be as simple as choosing not to reach for your smart phone while standing in line or spending the first couple minutes of the morning present to what you are feeling as you start the new day.

Opening Space with Others: Pay attention to the ways you interact, and react, with others (family, friends, colleagues, strangers). Intentionally take a posture of listening in your relationships rather than filling the space with your own stories or opinions. Keep your heart open to people with whom you disagree. Become more open in relationship with others by risking vulnerability.

Opening Space for Spirit: Find time each day to enter a few moments of silence, to be present with God. It could be a deep breath when entering the car for the morning commute, or an intentional pause between activities. Let this question gently interrupt you throughout the day, “Where is the Spirit present right here, right now?

Opening Space Around: Open wider your own boundaries of belonging. Explore a new part of your neighborhood, form of prayer, or relationship. We often get caught in the routines that encircle our lives with unintended boundaries of comfort and familiarity. Embrace a wider belonging by being present in a new place or with a new person.

May we dare to open wider to incarnation possibility in every relationship, in every place! 

Additional Advent Resources:

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