“But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” –Genesis 19: 26
Prior to the destruction of the city of Sodom, Lot, his wife and his two daughters are led out of the city by two insistent, visiting angels.
As Sodom is being destroyed behind Lot and his escaping family, Lot’s wife turns to look back. Perhaps the noise or the heat from the destruction proved too seductive, pulling her attention away from the present and future Grace was so graciously paving for the family as they fled.
Whatever the reason or reasons for Lot’s wife’s backward glance, the narrative shows us the need to remain focused on the ever-present, loving and guiding hand of Grace because, when we divert our attention away from Grace by looking back, we turn away from the immediacy and warmth of God’s clasp in the present moment. And we also, potentially, lose sight of the future places Grace is inviting us to go, grow into and otherwise BE, while Grace accompanies us.
The very act of looking back toward “what was” causes us to lose forward momentum in relationship to what might be during that moment when God first takes us by the hand. And, in turning to salt, we may dissappear with the very next rain storm, dissolving into the sands of our own, private desert.
In Quaker tradition, individual seekers are encouraged to follow their leadings or individualized spiritual guidance. If feeling uncertain about a particular leading, a member of a Quaker meeting may call for a Clearness Committee to help discern what course of action might be taken around a specific nudge from the Light.
In the 1700’s, John Woolman (1720-1772) referred to his spiritual guidance or revelations as “openings.” Woolman moved through Quaker society speaking out against slavery during a time when many Quakers still held slaves.
Woolman must have been quite a sight as he travelled wearing undyed clothing, of a natural off-white color, after being informed that dyes were produced almost exclusively by slave labor. His work as a travelling minister caused Quakers as a group to renounce slavery decades before society would move in that direction.
John Woolman’s life and work remind us that we, as modern readers and individuals, have the abilty–when we listen closely to the urgings of our hearts–to make significant contributions through our personal decisions and actions.
At a book-signing, a woman asks me how far from Canada I was raised.
“One lake away,” I respond in an amused tone. Then, I add, “You are not the first person to ask that question.”
Her inquiry reminds me about how far from “home” I have come and sometimes still feel. Yet, every relocation my family and I have made has seemed to be a carefully fulfilled and dovetailed adventure, based upon a combination of thoughtful research and the lovingly patient guidance which the hand of Grace is able to provide.
The furthest afield I have ever moved with my family is when we relocated to a mountain town in the American Southwest. And, this is how that particular story unfolds.
One September day, four months prior to our departure from our home region in the upper Midwest, while riding my bicycle across town, I cruise to a hard stop at a red light. Planting my feet firmly on the ground astraddle my snow-friendly, fat-tired bike, an overwhelming sense of you-do-not-belong-here comes over me.
In response to this sensation, I think, “Where do I belong, if not here?”
Sitting with this question over the next few days, I begin a flurry of research at the local library into other municipalities which I and my family might call home. Where do I and we belong? I consider the list of things we need in a new, home city: employment, good schools and affordable housing amid clean air, water and soil. In my heart, I consider that I would like to try living somewhere below the fortieth parallel, much further south than we have ever lived before. Yet, I feel no clear leadings to take up residence in the Southeast nor do I feel a pull to move due south.
In terms of my research, everything points to the possibility of moving to the American Southwest. This is a region of the country with which I am almost completely unfamiliar and, as “a child of the forest” the notion of barren deserts or scrubby, rocky landscapes at a high degree of altitude give me pause. Nonetheless, in faith, I persist in my efforts to downsize our household’s inventory, as I narrow the field of municipal candidates for relocation.
Finally, having selected a new city to call “home” and with a little more than a month to go before our scheduled departure, we make arrangements with a cross-country mover. We have no address, no relatives and no friends to meet us on the other end—just a very strong sense that this move will take us where we need to be.
Then, one day, while I am sorting through the few remaining items to be packed in the vehicle along with us, I choke. I choke on the entire idea of guidance, intuitive nudges, Quaker leadings and blind faith. Looking for some form of concrete affirmation outside of myself for the leap we are about to take, I try something for the first (and only) time, which a former Christian roommate used in her daily faith practice: I decide to engage in sortes Biblicae.
Scrambling to find a copy of our Bible to put my Spirit at ease, I paw through the stacks of books which have been set aside to travel with us. After some searching, I pull the book out from under several others. Then, placing the Bible on a freshly cleared window ledge facing the north side of our apartment, the lake, the arboretum and my own local “forest” sanctuary, I close my eyes and open it, being careful not to injure its delicate pages. With a solid sense of resolve, I plant my extended index finger firmly on one of the two open pages. Picking up the book, while being mindful that I do not shift my finger in a way that would cause me to lose the marked passage, I open my eyes and draw the book closer to me.
Clearly marked by my extended index finger, one line from a verse in Isaiah (40:9) stands out, “…Get thee up into the high mountain….” All tension and doubt melt away. My Spirit grows calm with the affirmation that we are on the right track.
Sacred scripture—no matter the tradition—usually counsels its readers to become more self-aware, generous and respectful toward humanity by means of teaching some form of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Yet, the cultural and historical details of certain scriptural narratives often feature nuances which lead to a great deal of discomfort and/or interpretive hurdles in terms of deriving a “modern” lesson for current application.
The other day, the story of Hagar came up in a reading from Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament in The Bible. Hagar is one of Sarah’s handmaids, an Egyptian slave-girl. At Sarah’s suggestion, Hagar is used by Abraham to produce a male heir (this is prior to Sarah’s own unexpectedly late conception and birthing of her only son, Isaac).
For most modern audiences, there are aspects of this story which are highly problematic, especially in cultures where respect for an individual’s life, sense of personal choice and the sanctity of one’s volition with regard to the body are given priority. Still, in rereading the excerpt, what strikes me the most is that Hagar’s relationship with God is equal to that of Abraham’s and Sarah’s.
God does not forsake Hagar eventhough her worth and life, in the society of that time, are of little to no consequence or value. She and her body may be a means to Sarah’s and Abraham’s end, yet her relationship with God is equal–in terms of protection and guidance.
God listens to Hagar. God talks to Hagar. God reveals to Hagar her unique place in the grand plan. And, ultimately, Grace places an umbrella of protection over Hagar and her son, Ishmael, after they are cast out into the desert.
What I have learned is this: Even as the sands of a social circumstance may become like quicksand and threaten to swallow a person up, Grace is the one surety, toward which we may turn and upon which we may rely.
So, remember to get quiet, open your heart and listen, because cultivating a connection with the Light provides protection and support.
This is what I have learned regarding authentic guidance or leadings.
If we are in alignment with our highest Light and prepared to go the places the Divine hand would lead, not only are we able to unfold, but we are also able to offer a hand of assistance to others who are ready and waiting to unfold.
Everyone has a place at the head table on the dais–because it is God’s party. You are invited.
“Let me admonish you, first of all, to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those most sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil.”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is a space in our consciousness, an avenue of Light, where—when the traffic is at a complete standstill—a receptive soul is able to converse with the Holy Spirit. It is so difficult to find that hour when the traffic of our minds is stopped long enough for us to listen.
And, when we do try to listen, it can be challenging—especially initially—to discern whether or not we are hearing voices from our upbringing, shadows from our past, the growing pains of Spirit reaching for the Light or the hum of Grace itself offering us gentle guidance to move in a direction which may seem untoward and daunting.
Then, there are the concerns of well-meaning friends, family or other spiritual advisors who feel they may know best how to allocate or reallocate our precious energy.
Yet, the only person capable of coming to know our Truth sits not beside us at the table, stands not in front of us at a lectern nor does he or she even share a plot with us in some future graveyard. You and I must travel toward our Truth alone…in the stillness of our hearts and find the strength and bravery to walk our singular path.
“I’ll call the pizza in,” I announce. We have agreed on a medium, cheese-and-onion, something small to celebrate the two-person “girls’ night in.” Our conversation has revolved around listening to the heart and bringing the heart around to becoming a willing and reliable agent of Grace.
“Self-care is imperative,” I continue the thread of our conversation, after the pizza has been ordered. “Don’t think that self-care needs to suffer in order to serve from the heart. But, what does happen is that our definitions of what we consider solid self-care begin to shift.
“For example,” I continue, “where we once thought of self-care as a shopping expedition to purchase a new blouse, blazer or a bit of random bling may shift to revolve around our desiring more quiet, personal time in nature. Or, if shopping is truly a joyful, must-have experience, we may elect to shift our shopping desires toward the purchase of life necessities for another person, who is in need, choosing to work through a charitable organization.”
My friend breaks in, “But, how do you know when you are receiving reliable guidance?”
“It should feel right in the heart. There may be a sense of Stillness or Peace around the proposed action or around an idea,” I explain. “It may also feel like it is perennially Christmas Eve–almost everyday. And, genuine guidance from Holy Mother does not injure or harm; it heals.
“Finally,” I explain, “There comes a phase where Holy Mother seems to step in, in order to care for you, in seemingly minor yet very meaningful ways. I’ll explain more later.” Our conversation stops so that I may run to pick up our take-out pizza.
At the pizza place, as the clerk hands me the box for a large pizza, he explains that he “messed up,” adding, “But, don’t worry. I’ll only charge you for the medium.”
It feels like Christmas Eve again–in my heart.
Walking through the door at home, I explain what happened to our pizza order to my friend.
“So, is this the type of care you were talking about?” my friend asks. “Large pizzas at no additional charge, even though you clearly ordered a medium?” Then, in a teasing tone, my friend says through a bite of hot, fresh pizza, “I would like to meet this Holy Mother of yours.”
After several months of missing my classical guitar, I receive a nudge to stop by a local music store, which houses a large, humidified room packed with a wide variety of both new and used stringed instruments—ukuleles, guitars, banjos, dulcimers, basses and mandolins.
Once at the music store, I begin milling about the specially humidified room carefully selecting five or six classical guitars for sampling. Amazingly, one of the used guitars which I have selected carries almost the same full, warm tone I found so appealing in my previous instrument. The only other guitar in the room to match this instrument’s tone is new and almost seven times as expensive as this particular used instrument.
Wanting to make sure that I am on the right track, I hold off in purchasing the instrument. Waiting a full week and sitting through several rounds of meditation to make inquiries about the appropriate application of my energy, I finally ask my husband to go with me to verify that I have made, potentially, the appropriate selection.
After we have arrived in the humidified showroom, I begin pulling the instruments in question. My husband, for his part, goes through them, fine-tuning each. After playing parallel chords on every one of the guitars, we come down to the same pairing that I had come to on the previous week.
“Yes, you are right,” my husband acknowledges. “This used guitar sounds almost identical in tone to that of the other new and more expensive instrument.” We decide to purchase the used instrument.
At the cashier’s counter, the clerk handling our sale’s transaction announces cheerfully, “You’re in luck. This instrument comes with its own case.” Leaving us to retrieve the case, she soon emerges from the storage room with the case in hand. Back at the counter, she rejoins guitar and case, and we make our way out of the store.
Opening the music shop’s door onto the late-afternoon sunshine outside, I feel a renewed gratitude for the care and support Grace has extended to me—not only for this day, but—when I choose to listen—every day.
Standing in the check-out line at the health-food store, I see a woman with three young sons immediately behind me. Her eyes are dry, rimmed in red. She appears to have been crying.
In that moment, my heart goes out to her. Then, on the next exhaling breath, I remind myself to mind my own business. Still, as a result of my expressed concern, clear reassurance comes through from the Light, “Do not be afraid. Everything is going to be alright.”
This is not my guidance, but the woman’s guidance. It is answering the question weighing heavily on her heart.
In a rather crusty, internal moment with Spirit, I respond silently, “Why don’t you tell her that—directly?”
Yet, I know that the “ears” of most people’s hearts are closed or so overly full of expectations, to-do lists, regrets, imagined scenarios or other day-to-day concerns that the very act of waiting on the leadings of the heart can prove to be excruciatingly difficult, let alone the act of actually receiving clear, timely and accurate guidance.
Moving ahead with the conclusion of my own business in the store, I pass through the exit to wait outside. The woman finishes her own transaction.
As I wait, I grapple with the idea of passing her guidance along. I consider the situation.
The woman is a stranger to me. I know nothing about her personal beliefs; thus, I have no idea how she might respond to the receipt of guidance. Then, there is the issue of vocabulary. Verbs and nouns. Do I use conservative Christian terminology, New-Age wording or something in between? She also has three small boys in tow. And, there is the ego factor. I do not enjoy the role of Oracle at Delphi/ Prophetic Minister, showing up abruptly to break into the timelines of people’s lives, as they walk, unsuspecting, the streets of twenty-first-century America. (The dynamic duo of ego and imagination are working harmoniously now.)
We are currently living in a profoundly Christian community, where many churches practice healings and most local people are open to leadings of the Spirit. I decide to wait.
I wait for the sake of those three young boys. The woman needs the reassurance of the guidance. Those children need a calm, centered mother. If I can assist with that, then, I wait.
As the woman exits the store, with everyone linked hand in hand, I step forward to say, “Excuse me, I believe I have a message for you: ‘Do not be afraid. Everything is going to be alright.'”
“Wow. Thank you for that,” the woman responds unexpectedly. The invisible weight of concern she has been carrying appears to lift.
I am done.
Moving across the parking lot, I unlock my vehicle to load my groceries.
Moral: Get quiet. Sing songs of praise or list gratitudes to clear the atmosphere around you. Open your heart. Listen.