It’s springtime here in San Diego. We’ve had so much rain over the winter months which means now as the sun comes out and it starts warming up everything is bursting with color. The hills are green and lush, flowers are starting to bloom, and I swear even the sky is brighter shade of blue. Spring is not only the time for plants to emerge from dormancy after those long winter months, but the animals too — birds are chirping and butterflies are literally everywhere! Every time I go outside I get excited to see what new expression of life I will discover that day. It’s intoxicating.
I recently discovered that just like how every other living thing is impacted by seasons, humans experience seasons too. By that I don’t just mean the natural cycle of the year, but rather autumn, winter, spring and summer are real seasons experienced on our personal spiritual journeys’. I had heard the concept a few years back but it didn’t dawn on me until I was reading Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer that the metaphor of seasons can aptly describe our current lived experiences. Palmer writes:
“Seasons are a wise metaphor for the movement of life…The notion that our lives are like the eternal cycle of the seasons does not deny the struggle or the joy, the loss or the gain, the darkness or the light, but encourages us to embrace it all—and to find in all the opportunities for growth.”
Since making this discovery I have fully embraced the metaphor of seasons, finding it to be so helpful in giving words to those current lived experiences—both the inner life and outer circumstances—which sometimes make no sense. But more than that, the metaphor of the seasons validates our experiences, recognizing them all as necessary in our journey of transformation. We don’t have to fear the struggle of autumn or the desolation of winter, but acknowledge these times as just as crucial to our spiritual journey as the joy of spring and fruitfulness of summer.
Adele Albert Calhoun, in her book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us also explores the metaphor of seasons, giving description to what one might experience in each season:
Spring is the season of new life, new beginnings, new growth. Enthusiasm for the things of God accompanies spiritual springtimes. Desire for more of God breaks forth in a beautiful way. Calhoun suggests that the spiritual disciplines of worshiping in gratitude or celebration, hearing God’s word through the disciplines of bible study, devotional reading, meditation, and sharing our lives with others through practices of community or hospitality usually come easy during this season.
In the summer season of abundance the capacity and desire to give overflows. Serving others, working for justice, volunteering and engaging in outreach brings us life. During this season, the fruit of the Spirit of God seems tangible to us. We sense God’s love, joy, and peace in deeply satisfying ways. Again, practices that help us share our lives such as mentoring or service, as well as disciplines that help us incarnate God’s love, maybe through care for the earth, justice, or compassion are disciplines that help us partner with the flow of the Spirit in this season.
Autumn is a season of transition standing between the bounty of summer and the barrenness of winter. This season is a mixed bag of harvest and loss. Sometimes, even as we reap the fruit of sharing our lives with others, we sense a weariness of soul and a desire to hibernate for a time. Calhoun suggests the spiritual discipline of prayer such as centering prayer or fixed-hour prayer can help us acknowledge the authentic realities of our lives and guide us to move more deeply into relationship with God in this season.
Winter is a season when the well runs dry and we feel we are running on empty. It is a demanding season when death’s victory seems to reign supreme; it’s cold, it’s dark, and everything goes quiet. It’s a time when we need to wait in hope even when all hope seems to be gone, but ultimately winter yields rich growth that flowers in other seasons. For this reason Calhoun recommends spiritual disciplines that will help us relinquish our agendas and open new spaces of our lives for God to show up. Silence, spiritual direction, examen, journaling and contemplation are all practices that can sustain us in this dry season.
As Spring starts to reveal itself in nature here in San Diego, I find myself experiencing the joy of a Spring season in my own life too. New life and joy and light bursting forth in abundance after a season of darkness and confusion brought on by the burnout of my master degree. In those first few months after graduation I felt the Spirit of God call me to hibernate and rest, a call to literally do nothing with my life but rest. As someone who finds her identity in doing and achieving, giving myself permission to stop was really difficult, and as I walked through this winter season I had to face many hidden doubts, questions, confusion, and temptations. Yet through it all I came to understand how necessary it was for me to stop and lie fallow, embracing practices of silence, spiritual direction, contemplation to help me see God’s work in my life when everything felt beyond hope. I learnt to accept the truth of Ecclesiastes 3:1 which says “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the sun.” And now, as I step into a springtime season I can look back on that winter will gratitude for all that it grew in me.
So dear reader, as you process your life and your own current lived experiences, may the metaphor of seasons be encouraging to you, may it bring meaning to both the joy and the sorrow, to the abundance and the death. And remember, there is a God who walks alongside you through it all, who sustains you through it all, and who allows the beautiful cycle of the seasons to manifest in your life deep growth and transformation.
Recently, late at night, I was sitting out in my courtyard watching a beautiful fire burning away in our fire pit, flames licking up through the rich eucalyptus wood, and warming my skin as I snuggled with my four month old Vizsla puppy, Honey. Without conscious thought, I leaned toward her and with all the tenderness that my heart was feeling, whispered into her ear: I love you Honey, I love you so much, you are so precious to me.
As I sat there in that moment, my heart bursting with affection and delight toward this little pup lying against my chest, I had a moment of clarity where I realised that this is exactly how God feels toward me, and though I may not be aware of it, he is constantly leaning in and whispering into my ear: I love you Rose, I love you so much, you are so precious to me. More than that, I realised that God is simultaneously whispering His declaration of love into the ear of every single person that exists in this moment.
Reflecting on this I thought back over the first few weeks of Honey’s life as she entered into our home: when we introduced her to her crate she would howl for 20 minutes straight every time we put her in there (to the point that our neighbour complained), she wakes us up multiple times a night to go to the toilet, she has pooped in our lounge room not once, not twice, but three times, and because she is in her teething stage, Honey has tried to chew our hands, our clothes, our shoes, our furniture, our books and pretty much anything she can wrap her little mouth around. And despite all this my heart burns with love for this little creature. I see how affectionate she is, how timid she is, how much she desires to please us, how much she relies on us for her survival. Honey has won my heart completely, in fact if I am really honest, before we even picked her up from the breeder’s farm I already loved her, and there is not a bone in my body that regrets choosing her to be a part of my family.
So it is for God when He looks at us human beings, these creatures of His creation that He made out of the burning love in His heart. Even before he created us and brought us into existence He loved us with and overwhelming love and there is nothing that we can do to diminish His love for us or make Him turn away from us. Even when we reject Him, when we choose to live life without Him in mind, when we try to love Him but fail miserably, when we fall abysmally short of loving our fellow human beings… in our brokenness, in our shame, and in our messiness, God’s love for us never fails. He continues to lean in and whisper into YOUR ear: I love you, you are so precious to me. If you want proof of this love just look to Jesus Christ. His life and death are a testament to how much God loves and delights in you. You are everything to Him, and for as long as you live He will never stop leaning in and whispering his declaration of love over you. Will you listen and accept his love?
A couple of months ago a beautiful friend from Australia surprised me by sending over a book for me to read. It was a book that her bookclub read, and she loved it so much that she wanted to share it with me. It sat on my shelf because I was swamped with writing papers for school, but once I met all my deadlines this December I was finally able to pick it up and pored over the beautiful stories of Bread and Wine by Shauna Niequist.
The pages of this book are filled with Shauna’s memories and life experiences, all brought together by her love of food and passion to sharing beautiful meals with family and friends. With each chapter she weaves in a special dish that reminds her of that time in her life, a dish that leaves your mouth watering and your stomach grumbling with hunger because it just sounds so delicious. What makes this book so special is that at the end of the story Shauna shares the recipe with her readers, so we can experience the fabulous flavours of the food she has written about. Two nights ago I made her risotto. It was superb (if I do say so myself!)
Bread and Wine is beautiful, but at the end of each chapter I find myself wanting to crawl up into the foetal position and cry. Maybe it’s because of the time and situation of life in which I find myself right now, but her book leaves my heart heavy. Firstly, as she talks about the beautiful friendships she shares with people I feel an ache of loneliness and desire to sit around the big eight person dining room table that we used to own in Australia. I want to sit and share meals with all our closest family and friends whom we left behind when we moved to San Diego. While I have beautiful friendships here, I don’t have nearly as many, and whats more it takes hours and hours to develop those really deep and special relationships with people that can last the distance. Secondly, as Shauna talks about the pain of struggling to have a baby for years, of miscarriages, and then the hard and exhaustive pregnancy that she endured to bring her second son into the world, her stories open up deep longings and I am left desperately wanting to hold the baby we have desired to have for the past six years. The despair caused by infertility makes you do crazy things like go on diets to try and make your body more “fertile”, or have silly routines to get your menstrual cycle on the same pattern as the Luna calendar (apparently it helps), in addition to the thousands of dollars you’re spending on acupuncture, alternative medicine, and many different fertility treatments. These days I have learnt not to try to force our baby into existence by doing these things, but reading Niequist’s book opens old wounds.
Don’t get me wrong the book is beautiful, but Shauna writes with such openness and vulnerability that it leaves me terribly raw. It brings me face-to-face again with some of the pain that I have done so well to withdraw from… But I think being confronted with your pain is a good thing, and having it be brought out into the open to deal with is much healthier than pretending it doesn’t exist. When we learn to face our own hurts, discovering God’s presence in the midst of it all, we become much better prepared to meet others in their pain. I think this is one of the privileges of being human. It also reminds me of another book — The Wounded Healer by Henri Nouwen. In a nutshell, Nouwen shows how we are living in a hurting world, and that wounded people who can work through their pain are equipped and ready to offer authentic empathy and compassion for other wounded and lonely people.
This is what I want to offer to those around me: a safe place to be vulnerable and hurt. I want to be a person who will not shy away from another’s pain, but is ready to offer hospitality to those who need to cry and talk and work through their own wounds. I pray that you can be one of these people too — that special friend who can enter into another’s pain and be with them in it. The world desperately needs more people like this, and when we can offer this then we are truly the best friends hurting people can have. The reality is that pain exists, it’s very real for all people at some stage or another, and the effects of it can run so deep, but if we cannot offer genuine love and life to those people who are in despair then what’s the point of life? Life is about more than success, having the best car, having this nicest house, or having a fabulous Instagram account. Life is about relationships. Relationships are the reason we were created, and developing strong relationships with God and people is our purpose here on earth. Relationships ask us to be there for each other in the good times, and more importantly the bad. Relationships require intentional vulnerability and hospitality towards others in their pain. But to do so requires us to face our own pain, and be ok with the wounds of our own lives.
So I am grateful that my dear friend introduced me to Shauna Niequist, and I am grateful that Shauna’s writing has opened me up to myself in a real way. Bread and Wine is a beautiful book, and one that I am going to cherish always… as well as one that I am going to enjoy splashing food and wine all over as I cook every recipe in the book!
“Don’t despise the small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin…” ~ Zechariah 4:10
I stumbled upon this verse as I was reading the Bible during my time with God the other morning. I am slightly embarrassed to say that I’d never seen this before, but I was so warmed and encouraged by these compassionate words from God to His people.
I don’t know about you, but I find it very easy to get frustrated with where I am at. I can often feel like a failure, as though I should be further ahead in my efforts to bring glory to God. I get frustrated that I am not preaching week-in-week-out; I get frustrated that I am not writing blog posts on a more regular basis; most of all I get frustrated that I am still at school studying, rather than working in a church and impacting lives for Jesus.
But then I read these words of encouragement from God to His people; His words to me…
It makes me think about that first day that I walked into seminary to begin my theological study, and I realised that in that moment God rejoiced that the work had begun. I was taking the first, small step of being trained and tutored for the purpose of becoming a pastor.
It makes me think of the first time I got up to preach before my church community and how energised it made me feel. Yet another small beginning which God celebrated. I was totally untrained and green, but that was ok because God’s work of shaping me and refining my speaking ability had begun.
God declares here in Zechariah 4:10 that He rejoices in the small, slow beginnings. And we must remember that these small beginnings always lead to greater, faster momentum down the track.
As I reflect on this truth I recognise that small beginnings are in fact good. It is much, much better to start small and slow, than to go big and quick, only to then fizzle out because the Lord was not in the work.
Then I think of Jesus who came as a tiny baby. Before that, just an embryo in His mother’s womb. Small beginnings. It took thirty years before Jesus stepped into ministry. It was the small beginnings that trained him, and prepared him, and perfected him for the purpose of changing the world.
So next time I get frustrated with where I am at, wishing I was further along in life and making a bigger impact on the world around me I am going to pause to remember that God does not despise the small beginnings, but rejoices to see the work begin.