Making a list of goals and resolutions didn’t lure me this January. However, one invitation came through my inbox I couldn’t ignore. Christine Valters-Painter, creative author and online abbess, tenderly asked her subscribed readers to join in on “Give Me a Word 2016”. Each day, for 12 days, I received an offered spiritual practice for how to allow a word to choose me for the upcoming year. In the past, I’ve participated in similar notions, where I chose a word that appealed to me for the year. But, this was different. Instead of grabbing an interesting word and attempting to uphold it; this was an opportunity to slow down, listen and allow a word to choose me. A few of the suggested practices ranged from silently reviewing the year before to see if any themes (or words) arose to taking a contemplative walk (a walk aware of surroundings, noises and steps) to consulting a spiritual friend.
As I embarked on this mini-adventure, I grew a bit anxious. Will the word that arises be the “right” word? How will I know? Will trying the offered spiritual practices really help? Initially, I found myself grasping at different words as they crossed my path. It didn’t take long for the word “wait” to come to me. “Wait” seemed appropriate because I’m at a point in life where I’m not sure what’s next. “Wait” asked me to rest in the waiting, enjoy the waiting, in essence, give in to the waiting. But, as the days rolled on, the word “wait” shifted to the word “unfold”.
As ‘unfold’ stayed with me, it drew me to it’s beauty. Unfold speaks to being in the present. Unfold doesn’t reach for the next big thing… the trip out of town, the next fun weekend, the next learning experience. In fact, it some ways, it seems to be the opposite of wait. Wait is eager for the pinnacle moment, scanning the horizon for the future, wanting to pull the exterior in. Unfold has an air of contentedness for what is, an awareness of this moment being an opportunity, a trust in what is to come. Unfold is birthed from the inside out.
‘Unfold’ led me to think about Abraham, a man chosen by God to be the Father of all nations. A man who accepted an invitation from God to allow his life to unfold in a new, life-altering way. Genesis 12 tells us, “The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Gen 12:1)
Let’s reflect on this for a moment. Abraham had a place he called home. A way of life he was comfortable in. A community of people he spent time with. An extended family he cared about. One day, God spoke and essentially said, “Leave every bit of comfort you’ve ever known and follow me.” The text doesn’t tell us Abraham put up a fight or argument. Instead, the text tells us, “So Abram left, as the Lord had told him” (Gen12:4). Abraham trusted in the scary, unknown, mysterious unfolding promises of God.
If I had been in Abraham’s shoes, I would’ve asked God for the map of where we were traveling and the agenda of what was on the schedule. I would’ve wanted the exact details of the plans before I left behind everything I was familiar with. When God declared, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Gen 12:3b), I would’ve responded, “Sounds exciting! How long will it take?” However, God’s directive to Abraham didn’t give him any inside scoop and yet, Abraham was on board.
Essentially God said, “Trust me. Allow me to unfold your path as it is to unfold”. So, Abram gathers his family and possessions and sets out. Abram travels through the land of Canaan and is reassured by the Lord the land will be given to his offspring. He treks through more foreign land building altars to the Lord as he goes. But then, Abram comes up against a tough situation. A famine. The famine must have unnerved Abram a bit, because this is when he takes things into his own hands. Abram decided to head towards Egypt, a more plentiful land. Scripture tells us “As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, This is his wife. Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” (Gen12:11-13) Abram convinces his wife to lie to the powers that be in Egypt to escape the death he imagines is in his near future.
Surprisingly, this episode soothes me. I admire Abraham’s willingness to follow God and allow the unfolding. But, the reality of how quickly he attempts to regain control resonates with my own tendencies. I can faithfully be walking the road of God one minute and, then, plowing my own path the next. Throughout the rest of Abraham’s story, the tension between God’s unfolding and Abraham’s directing (the future) continues to play out.
I know when I greedily grasp for answers or try to make things happen, fear is not too far away. I sense this in Abraham too. When Abraham sneakily has Sarah lie to the rulers of Egypt, I sense his fear of death. When Abraham follows Sarah’s request to lay with her maidservant to hurry the childbearing process, I sense his fear of God’s promises being untrue. When he bargains with God for the righteous in Sodom, I sense his fear of losing his cousin, Lot. Fear desires control. Fear decides on an answer far before any decision needs to be made. Fear bargains to get what it wants. Fear is quick to respond with “no”, dwell on “what if” questions and be ruled by practical guidance. Fear is the inner voice desperate for safety.
Each time Abraham falls into fear and takes the reigns, it’s not too much later when he returns and responds when God unfolds another step. Abraham doesn’t run from fear, but walks through it. Maybe this is the key. When we find ourselves gripped by fear, ready to make our own decisions and plans, we return to God. As we return, we don’t dwell on past mistakes or force our future. Nor do we sit back, lazy, waiting for life to happen. Unfolding isn’t passive. It doesn’t hope things will change while continuing down the same path. Instead, we return to God, opening ourselves to the scary, unknown, mysterious promises for our lives. And we walk through it. Living into the unfolding of life is developing trust in a God who loves.
Deepening my trust of God’s unfolding challenges me. Can I rest in not ‘knowing’ (mind knowledge) to receive another kind of ‘knowing’ (heart knowing)? Unfolding summons me to respond to today, not basing my answers and assumptions on how things have “always” been done. Instead of sticking to the same traditions, the same routines, the same seasonal approach or doing something because it’s always been done that way, Unfolding asks, “What is occurring in life right now? How will you respond today?”
Since ‘unfolding’ chose me, I’ve been surprised by it’s subtle nuances and sense of humor. A sudden change in plans surprised me. Running into someone whose been on my mind delighted me. Several unplanned conversations have left me in awe of God. Only a few weeks into January and when I’ve found myself gripping for the future, ‘unfold’ whispers to return.
Maybe this is how it happened for Abraham. God unfolded in His life. He took a chance on God and experienced God was true. He stumbled, but returned and God stayed faithful. As God took more chances on Abraham, Abraham took more chances on God. Unexpectedly, as Abraham allowed God’s plan to unfold in his life, a bigger unfolding was unearthed. One that revealed God is faithful. God is true. God can be trusted.
As 2016 unfolds for you, and you find yourself off course, may you return to the whisper reminding you: God is faithful. God is true. God can be trusted. Amen.
Often, it’s easier to reflect on our past and see God’s hand at work. Reflect on a time in your life when things didn’t make sense for you in the moment, but now, looking at it, you have more clarity around the situation. Is there a characteristic or quality you recognize in God?
Keep the Conversation Going:
Comment on this post and share if you have a word that has risen for you for this upcoming year.
Get into a comfortably seated position. Close your eyes. Reflect on a situation in your life you are grasping at. Envision yourself approaching the situation. Where do you feel tension? Take a breathe to release it. Now, envision walking through the situation surrounded by light. As you walk, consider if there are any friends around encouraging you. Where is God as you walk? Notice how you respond to the situation. Be careful not to judge yourself, only observe. When you are through the situation, notice how you feel. Do you still carry tension? Take another deep breathe to release. Reflect on what helped you walk through the stress of the situation. Draw in several more deep breaths as you close this prayer time.