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? 

Noticing the Sacred In Each Other

By Katie Harmon-McLaughlin

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’” –Luke 1: 40-45, NRSV

I love the image at the heart of this Advent text. Mary and Elizabeth, both unexpected carriers of this new life gift, greet in joy as they recognize the divine life within each other. Elizabeth proclaims that the child in her womb moves, leaps, in recognition of the child in Mary’s. The sacred life forming within us pulls us toward awareness of the sacred life forming in others.

This text describes our hope for relationship– that we might find ourselves expectant of the divine life present in every person we encounter. My own ministry has been shaped by Margaret Guenther’s simple wisdom, “when in doubt, I always assume that God is at work.” What if I adopted that attitude toward every person I greet? How might my relationships, expectations, and behaviors change if I assumed God’s presence and activity in everyone?

In my culture, we find ourselves in a tense time of suspicion, division, and increasing fear. As I ponder the meaning of Advent into these realities, the story of Mary and Elizabeth offers hope for what can be. Two women offer a sacred yes, bear an impossible promise, and delight in the presence of the sacred in each other.

May it be also with us. May we have the courage to see the sacred coming to life in each one, even in unexpected people and places. May we nurture that life as together we bring to birth a world of justice and love.

Daily Lenten Reflection

And, always remember, the way of suffering love that leads to the cross also leads to resurrection and everlasting life in Christ’s eternal community of oneness and peace. Trust in this promise. –Stephen M. Veazey, Words of Counsel 2013

We do not seek out suffering, but it happens. There is no neat theological explanation for the Good Friday moments of life that can satisfy my deepest questions. And yet, we can see how it is often through enduring what we would never choose that we find ourselves transformed into who we really are. When asked to draw a map of my spiritual life, the relationship between the lowest points and the most growth becomes abundantly clear. In our aching Gethsemane prayers we dare to utter what is most real in us. There is no time for fancy wording or even right theology. What was once abstract becomes sharp immediacy. And it is here, in this journey to the cross, right in the middle of what we’ve tried to avoid, that we discover the presence of the One who is truly in all things even in the places we’d rather not be.

And it is here, in our dying, that the seed of resurrection breaks open, shedding even its own seed-identity to become fullest life beyond what we can imagine or hope. This is the threshold we dare to cross. This is the promise we dare to hold. –Katie Harmon-McLaughlin, Holy Week: To Enter the Suffering 

Reflect: 

  • When have you discovered the presence of God even in a place you would rather not be?
  • What is the invitation of Holy Week in your life this year? What promise do you dare to hold?
  • Prayerfully dwell with the words of counsel. What is God’s invitation to you in this text?