The Way God Comes to Us

God is easy to miss.
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Every once in a great while he comes in the earthquake, the fire, the lightning flash of glory.
Which is, is it not, the way we most often pray for him to show up? We pray for him to reveal his presence in a miraculous, unmistakable way.
We plead for the glory of a healing, not the glory of a sunrise.
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The miraculous presence is not usually what any of us receive, and when he does not show up in the way we hope desperately for, we feel abandoned.
Sarah Clarkson writes of this feeling of abandonment in her struggles with mental illness:
But he never arrived in the shattering display of strength that I thought was the only way he could answer my prayer. So I felt betrayed. … I assumed God was absent because he didn’t come in the way I thought he would. I didn’t yet have an imagination that was healed enough to picture a power that could cherish and heal me as I was — not discarding what was broken in me, but making of it something precious and new.
Jesus is God enfleshed, the perfect image of the invisible God, and when I read the stories of Jesus after the resurrection to find out how God comes to us, I most often see him coming into life in its real and inescapably common places.
I see Mary at the empty tomb desperately pleading with a gardener.
I see two men meeting a stranger while walking down the road.
I see Jesus making breakfast on the shore after a night of fruitless fishing.
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Jesus doesn’t approach from on high, but always in the midst of people, of real life. He approaches in the midst of the questions that come out of real life.
The sacred moments, the moments that pull back the veil and reveal God with us, are often the everyday moments.
God most often comes to us not on high, but in the fragile and often hidden beauty of our everyday moments.
It is these very everyday moments which,
if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears, reveal only … the gardener, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all of our being and our imagination — if we live our lives not from vacation to vacation, from escape to escape, but from the miracle of one instant of our precious lives to the miracle of the next — what we may see is Jesus himself. ~ Frederick Buechner
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This is my prayer for you as you read this: that in the glimpses of beauty that come to you in your darkness, you will be able to see the kindness of God who does not often zap away the bad pieces of your life but who instead died to bind them all up in his love.

Our Beloved Enemy

There have been times when my hurt and grief overwhelmed me and turned my face away from God.
Times when sorrow turned my inmost thoughts to darkness and I “blamed God for it with fierce, hot breath and yet ached for his touch at the same time.”
Wrestling with God
We all wrestle with God at times, shoving against him in the darkness of our pain and doubt.
We wrestle like Jacob by the river. We wrestle, hurling our accusations while at the same time refusing to let go until he blesses us.
And isn’t this what most often happens? We fight against God without being able to let go of him.
I strike at him with my pain while being unable to rid myself of my anguished desire for his love.
He was the cause of my grief, the opponent, and the peace I craved all in one enigmatic, awful Beloved. I could no more walk away from his existence than I could walk away from my own desire for breath. ~ Sarah Clarkson in This Beautiful Truth
Wrestling with God
Do you know the story?
Jacob, deceiver, heir to God’s covenant promises, is heading home after twenty years in exile. Home to the land God promised him.
He sends his family and servants across the river Jabbok, but stays behind to spend the night on the shore alone. We don’t know why.
Suddenly, out of the darkness, a stranger leaps at Jacob and they fall to the ground, wrestling through the darkness. All night they struggle until just before dawn when Jacob realizes who it is that he has been grappling with.
God.
God is the enemy whom Jacob fought there by the river, of course, and whom in one way or another we all of us fight — God, the beloved enemy. ~ Frederick Buechner in The Magnificent Defeat
In the realization that it is God who is wrestling with him, Jacob refuses to release his grip, just as he has refused to release his grip all night, but in his pleading for a blessing, his grip of violence becomes a grip of desperate need.
Wrestling with God
God is our beloved enemy because he promises us everything, but before he gives us everything, he demands of us everything. “Before giving us life, he demands our lives — our selves, our wills, our treasure …” Buechner
Will we give them, you and I? I do not know.
Only remember Jacob, limping home against the growing light of dawn, a shadow of one to come.
Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God. ~ Buechner

Art credits: Jacob Wrestling by Gustave Doré; Jacob Wrestles by Gerard Hoet; Jacob Wrestled by Charles Foster

How to Solve All the World’s Problems

I’ve been reading a book of Wendell Berry’s essays, and I came across one that hasn’t let go of me.
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Family Love Color 3
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In his essay, “Think Little”, Berry compares the major movements that have occupied our nation in recent decades — civil rights, the peace movement, the environment — and makes the claim that they all stem from the same root.
War and oppression and pollution are not separate issues, but are different aspects of the same issue.
Greed.
Exploitation.
The mentality that exploits and destroys the natural environment is the same that abuses racial and economic minorities, … that makes war against peasants and women and children with the indifference of technology …
He goes on to say that we would be fools to believe we could solve only one of those problems without tackling all of the others.
Part of the problem we have historically run into when trying to solve these issues is that we tend to turn them into a Cause.
When we turn a problem into a Cause, we simplify a complex matter and attempt to power our response by impatience, guilt, and short-term enthusiasm.
When we turn a problem into a Cause, we turn it into something that is “served by organizations that will self-righteously criticize and condemn other organizations, inflated for awhile by a lot of public talk in the media, only to be replaced in its turn by another fashionable crisis.”
Public responsibility is absolutely part of the solution — we should continue to bother the government and not allow them to be comfortable with easy solutions — but we must go beyond protest and political action.
Rather than attempting to increase government, reaching for change through a program or a law, we could do a completely crazy thing.
We could first begin solving the problem ourselves.
If you are worried about the damming of wilderness rivers, join the Sierra club, write to the government, but (also) turn off the lights you’re not using, don’t install an air-conditioner, don’t be a sucker for electrical gadgets, don’t waste water.
It is easier to protest, easier to contact our representatives, than to give up our own comforts for the Cause.
Of course we need better government, but more than that we need better minds, better friendships, better marriages, better communities. We need people and families who don’t have to wait for an organization to lead the way, but can make necessary changes on their own.
When we turn the brokenness of this world into a Cause, we are pushed and pulled from one new focus of outrage to another.
When we root our understanding of what we see in our culture in the reality given by our Creator, however, even “amid the outcries for the liberation of this group or that, we will know that no person is free except in the freedom of other persons, and that our only real freedom is to know and faithfully occupy our place — a much humbler place than we have been taught to think — in the order of creation.”

Art Credits: Black Men Praying by Aymara Mejia; Mortar Men photo by Ustinov

Good Work

I’ve been thinking about work lately.
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good work
The idea of work has changed a great deal over the centuries, but more recently (relatively speaking) it has undergone a more dramatic change. In the beginning, we were created to work.
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And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.
We were made to do significant and meaningful work and we were made to do it well.
Mankind moved from the practice of each person or family creating all that they needed themselves to the practice of families gathering together in villages and having specific people working to make what was needed for everyone (the metal smith making tools for the hunters, the potter making jars to hold water, etc.). Yet now, in our modern age, we have moved even farther down this road. Now we have work that is solely for the purpose of earning money.
work for money
No longer do we consider whether a work is good in itself, nor do we consider whether an unnecessary work is done well. It has, in fact, become necessary that work is not done in a way that is good. How else would people continue to consume, and workers therefore continue to have work, if the products being made were not designed to wear out quickly?
There is still plenty of work that is both good in itself and that is good to do well: agricultural laborers, doctors, teachers, artists, and many others do work which they would do even if there were no pay to be had in it. Yet there is another whole category of work that has no significance and no importance. It was only created to allow the maximum number of people to be employed.
work for efficiency
Employing people is not an evil, of course.  It was an act of love that led from talk of reducing the “surplus population” to talk of reducing unemployment.  The danger is that this has led us to forget that unemployment is not an end in itself.  We want people, as C.S. Lewis put it, to be employed only as a means to their being fed – believing that it is better to feed them even for making bad things badly than for doing nothing.
Perhaps this view is correct, but it should not lead us into forced appreciation for work that is not good.
I, of course, have no comprehensive plan or brilliant strategy for ending this sort of endless cycle of meaningless jobs producing poor quality products that are consumed briefly and then discarded, requiring a new replacement product.  Yet perhaps it is something just to recognize the problem and the insanity of the idea of meaningless work.
Just as the Christian has a great advantage over other men, not by being less fallen than they nor less doomed to live in a fallen world, but by knowing that he is a fallen man in a fallen world; so we shall do better if we remember at every moment what Good Work was and how impossible it has now become for the majority.  ~ C.S. Lewis
One of the areas in which I see this most clearly is in Christian art.  It is another topic for another essay to discuss whether or not there even IS such a thing as Christian art but, as Madeleine L’Engle said, if it is bad art, it is bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.  When art is done well it testifies to God, even if the artist does not know God.
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Provided he is an artist of integrity, he is a genuine servant of the glory which he does not recognize, and unknown to himself there is ‘something divine’ about his work. ~ Madeleine L’Engle
In the same way, work that is done well, even if the worker does not personally believe in God, testifies to the glory of God. It is not an insignificant instruction of Paul’s that whatever we do, we should work at it as if we were working for God rather than only for men.
Whatever we do, whether we are leading a meeting or scrubbing a toilet, whether we are painting the sunrise or designing a bookshelf that will be put together by a young father, we are to do good work.
We may have to earn our living by taking part in the production of objects which…would not be worth producing – the demand or ‘market’ for them having been simply engineered by advertisement. Beside the waters of Babylon – or the assembly belt – we shall still say inwardly, “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its cunning.” ~ C.S. Lewis
In this way we will testify to the glory of God and will draw others to Him so that they, too, may bask in His presence.
What do you think? Should anything be done about work that is unnecessary or of poor quality? Can anything be done? What about your own job: would you still do it if you did not need the income to survive?

Art credits: photo of factory by Henno Jacques; Ford assembly line photo from Wiki Commons; The Water Lily Pond painting by Claude Monet

edited from the archives

Suffering Gladly for the Sake of Something Greater

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suffering gladly
My first inclination is to avoid suffering at any cost.
I cringe a little when I read Scripture passages about embracing suffering in order to reach a desired end:
we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance …
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory …
For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ … to also suffer for his sake …
Whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
One earthly shadow that has recently helped me to better understand this truth is childbirth.
I suffered labor pains willingly, even gladly, for the sake of birthing my babies. Even when it came time for the fourth baby, even when I knew what lay ahead of me, I suffered gladly for the sake of something much greater.
I have a suspicion that if I only knew what eternal glory was waiting for me I would bear my sufferings much more gladly.
 I claim I trust God’s love for me, trust that his end purpose for me is good and beautiful, beyond anything I could have asked or imagined, yet when it comes to his methods, I push back and fight, unwilling to be still and trust.
The fruit we are given is not always what we expect or want; it may even be bitter, but we are secure in knowing that it is given to us out of love. ~ Kathleen Norris in Acedia and Me
It is easy for me to be attracted to the idea of becoming like Jesus, to the idea of the grace of God bringing me into eternal glory.
It is much harder for me to recognize that grace when it appears in my life as suffering.
In the depths of our confusion and anger, we ask: ‘How can this be God’s love? Where is God in this disaster?’ For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed and take us to places we didn’t want to go. As we stumble through the crazily altered landscape of our lives, we find that God is enjoying our attention as never before. ~ Kathleen Norris
My deep desire is to be able to trust in the reality of God’s providence and love enough that I will suffer willingly, even gladly, in order to gain the purpose for which God created me.

The Real Is the Thing You Would Never Have Guessed

One of the great scourges of our time and place is the idea that what is real is predictable and governable.
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The real is what we can wrap our minds around and wrestle into submission.
The real can be measured and understood.
The real is able to be repaired and manipulated.
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I would assert (along with most Christian theologians) that, in fact, the opposite is true.
The real is the thing you would never have guessed.
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Almost everyone would agree (there are always a few truly dedicated relativist philosophers who might not concur) that birth is real. The process by which humans procreate is a thing that is real.
C. S. Lewis asks us to consider this way of creating new life, writing that it is
a very curious process, involving pleasure, pain, and danger. A process you would never have guessed.
This is never more true than when considering the first reality to exist.
The same God who is terrible to gaze upon is also good.
The same God who couldn’t allow Moses to look upon His face lest Moses die submitted Himself to a humiliating death out of love for us.
The same God who is the King of heaven and earth became poor for our benefit.
Mr. Beaver, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, says of Aslan, the Christ figure in the Chronicles of Narnia, “He’ll be coming and going. It’s quite all right. He’ll often drop in. Only you mustn’t press him. He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion.”
God is not safe, but He is good.
The real is the thing you would never  have guessed.
This is important to remember when life is out of control, when circumstances are spiraling downwards.
When life seems more than we can bear, safety is not what we need.
A “wild, terrifying, powerful” goodness is what we want and what we need.
He is somehow perfectly self-consistent and yet altogether unpredictable … (able) to love in ways that nobody could have guessed. ~ Jonathan Rogers in The World According to Narnia
There is nothing predictable or safe about God. But He is good.
And in the end, omnipotence turns out to be the same thing as infinite love. Who would have guessed it? ~ Jonathan Rogers

What Does Jesus Think Is Most Important?

We are the Church.
You and me.
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Whatever our stage of life or economic status, whatever bits of theology on which we might differ, whatever our politics or race, we are the Church.
When the world wants to know about Jesus, to know what He thought was most important, they look to us.
What did Jesus think was important?
Well, He said that loving God with all of your being was the most important thing of all, followed by loving others. In fact, the Bible teaches that one of the main ways you love God is by loving others.
Jesus thought that this loving others business was so important, in fact, that He named it as the main way that the world would know we follow Him.
Would the world know that today’s church follows Jesus?
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If you knew you were going to die in the next day, what would you pray for? Trivialities and side issues, or would you pray for whatever was paramount in your heart?
When Jesus was about to leave His disciples and head toward the cross, what did He pray for? What did He think was most essential?
He prayed for His followers to love each other. He prayed for unity. He prayed that His followers would be one in the same way that He and the Father were one.
We are the Church.
You and me.
Is that what the world sees?
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Jesus is no longer on this earth. His Spirit is inside of each of us, but we the Church are now His body to bring God’s kingdom to this world.
Are we acting like a body or is the hand slapping the head in the face? Is the right foot kicking the left leg?
Jesus pleaded with God to make us one. Why? So that we could be happier and have easier lives while treating each other more kindly?
So that the world would know God’s love.
This is how those in the world can know that God loves them – by the way that we love each other.
What does the world see when it looks at the Church?
That question makes me want to weep.
What does the world see when it looks at you?
Whatever has come before, I implore you now. Love each other. Be unified.
Invite someone from another faith tradition to go along with you the next time you head out to serve the hungry and the orphans.
Find someone who grew up in another culture or another part of the country or even just a different side of town, and take them out to lunch. Listen to them. Ask questions.
After a particularly nasty election and its aftermath, invite someone who voted for the other candidate over to your home for a meal.
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We are the Church.
You and me.
I entreat you to show the world what Jesus valued. Astound the little piece of your world with your love for other Jesus followers nearby.
Our world needs some astonishment. And it is up to us.

Art credit: Photos of various cathedrals by Kirk Sewell

edited from the archives … yet sadly not any less relevant at all.

A Knowing That Goes Beyond Words

I am a learner by nature. I am always curious and always want to know everything about everything.
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It drives my husband a little crazy. He often feels that I am giving him the third degree about his opinions, while I think I am only being curious about why he thinks the way he thinks.
We’ve both had to learn a lot during our 17 years of marriage.
My penchant for learning and research serves me well in many areas.
In some ways, it also serves me well in my walk with God.
In other ways, however, this piece of who I am has shown itself to hinder my knowing God.
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There are different ways of knowing someone.
It is helpful in a relationship to know about a person, to know their character, to know what they have done and how they think.
You do have to know about someone to be able to know them.
Yet this alone is insufficient.
This is not truly knowing someone.
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God delights in being known by us. He wants us to seek for Him, to seek after knowledge of Him.
He also wants to make Himself known to us, and He often makes Himself known through other means than our logical mind.
… (at times) God no longer communicates himself through the senses. He does not make himself known through the analytical mind, which synthesizes and divides ideas. Instead, he begins to come through pure spirit, through simple contemplation, untainted by discursive thought. ~ St. John of the Cross in Dark Night of the Soul
St. Ignatius of Loyola, an early 16th century Spanish priest and theologian, wrote a series of prayers and meditations to help people seek after the will of God and devote themselves wholly to Him. As a part of the instructions, he writes that it is by contemplating the nature of God that a person will deepen his understanding of God and divine grace,
… for it is not an abundance of knowledge that fills and satisfies the soul but rather an interior understanding and savoring of things.
I hunger after that abundance of knowledge, but God is teaching me that this kind of knowledge is not enough.
Hungering after the knowledge of God is good and right, and it is insufficient on its own.
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There must be a knowing that goes beyond facts, beyond words. There must be a deeper knowing that leads to falling in love.
Madeleine L’Engle puts it this way:
There is a kind of knowing that comes in silence and not in words — but first we must be still. ~ in Walking on Water
I have been learning this way of knowing, this knowing that comes out of being still before God, and I will testify that it is deeply satisfying.
Knowing about God leaves me thirsty for more.
Knowing God fills me to overflowing.
To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

Art credits: Fairy Tales by Jessie Willcox Smith; all other photographs are my own, copyright Made Sacred 2021

This is what we are desperate for in this chaotic world_ an inner peace and joy that remains in us as we begin to look more like Jesus. This is what God promises us as we learn to abide in him. copy
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When You Feel as Though Nothing Is Happening

The book I recently published, Beyond the Front Door: Cultivating Rhythms of Abiding in Jesus, says a lot about being still before God, about the practice of silence and solitude.
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One of the cautions I give in the book is to understand that you will not always feel something during your times of stillness. The work of God is slow and subtle, and an emotional experience of God is a rare gift. A welcome gift, to be sure, but rare.
St. John of the Cross
I recently read Dark Night of the Soul by 16th century Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross. I wish I had read it earlier. There was so much in his writings that I wanted to add to my book! It is too late for that, but I want, nevertheless, to share with you some of what he is teaching me.
St. John writes much about the beginners on this spiritual journey of knowing God and becoming like Him, and one of the points he continues to come back to is that beginners strain toward feelings of pleasure. They become so attached to the idea of experiencing God through their senses that when no feelings come they believe they have failed.
St. John admonishes us:
Don’t they realize that the sensory benefits are the least of the gifts offered by the divine? God often withdraws sensual sweetness just so that they might turn the eyes of faith upon him.
He notes that anyone who searches for “sensory sweetness” ends up turning their face away from the bitterness of self-denial. Rather than seeking after feelings, we are to simply offer humble praise and reverence to God within ourselves.
silence
I am certainly guilty of feeling as though my time with God was a failure because I did not feel anything. Because nothing seemed to happen. Yet St. John calls this a “negative judgement against God.”
It is a lack of trust that God will accomplish His promised work inside of us regardless of whether we see Him working.
The idea that there is great benefit to God removing any sense of His presence is another idea St. John returns to again and again. When we feel satisfied, we tend to move toward practicing our own inclinations and weaknesses rather than leaning wholly on God. When we lose the feeling of God being with us, we wake up to our deepest desire for Him.
Without the turnings away, they would never learn to reach for him.
I hope this encourages you as it does me.
solitude
When we feel as though nothing is happening in our time with God, it is most likely that we are receiving even greater gifts than pure sensory benefit.
When we cannot sense the presence of God, let His seeming absence force us to trust more deeply in His promises and rouse us to reach out for Him.
He is, after all, always there.
To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

Art credit: John of the Cross by Francisco de Zurbarán; all other photos are mine, Made Sacred copyright 2021

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Beyond the Front Door

Useful or True?

I often work through ideas by writing about them. Writing helps me to process what I am learning, consider what I am thinking, understand what I believe.
Sometimes this process shows up in my blog posts. I use my crafting of an essay as a way to work through what I think about an issue. This is one of those times.
I have been thinking through the idea that the way we speak of the world impacts the way we treat it.
Useful
I have heard a lot of language recently, in a number of arenas, that is very machine-like, very utilitarian.
Language of consuming and using, language that speaks of things in terms of how useful they are and how well they serve our needs.
I have heard this language used in regards to the natural world, to communities …
I have even heard it in reference to Christianity.
Useful
The hosts on a recent podcast were discussing the possibility of another Christian Reformation, and the main question they posed was whether Christianity is useful in our modern world. They discussed which elements of Christianity were outdated and which were still useful to us.
Now I do not deny that the Church in every age has blind spots, areas where we get it wrong. Perhaps a Reformation is needed.
But simply by using this mechanical language of what is working and what is useful, we miss the core of Christianity.
Christianity is not useful.
Christianity is true.
The kind of language we need is the language of reality, of being, of what is true, of joining in with what is already happening.
True
We need the language of creation.
When we speak of everything, from the natural world to the people around us to our faith, as being there to be useful to us, we have lost sight of the created nature of things. We are blinded to the truth of the world as Creation rather than material for man to act upon.
When we view everything around us as finding its purpose in satisfying our needs, we have lost something essential in ourselves and in our world and we become impoverished.
The remedy?
Worship.
Divine worship reminds us that we are created beings living among other created beings in the middle of a created world.
True
Worship creates an atmosphere of true wealth even in the middle of the direst material want because the living heart of worship is sacrifice,
a voluntary offering freely given. It … is in fact absolutely antithetic to utility. Thus, the act of worship creates a store of real wealth which cannot be consumed by the workaday world. It sets up an area where calculation is thrown to the winds …, where usefulness is forgotten and generosity reigns. ~ Josef Pieper (German theologian in the early to mid-20th century) in Leisure: The Basis of Culture
When we view everything around us in terms of use, when we falsely believe ourselves to be the master and owner of creation, we create an atmosphere of grasping for what will satisfy our needs, an atmosphere where we can never be content, an atmosphere of poverty regardless of our material condition.
If our world is a Creation, however, our true wealth consists in “seeing what is and the the whole of what is, in seeing things not as useful or useless, serviceable or not, but simple as being.” ~ Pieper
True
Language matters. I plan to spend time thinking this through more deeply, and as I do so I will attempt to use more words of joining, of generosity, of creation and what is rather than words of usefulness and ownership. Perhaps you will join me in paying more attention to the words we choose?
To hear my blog post read aloud, just click the play button. If you’re reading this in an email, you may have to click here to hear the post on my site.

Art Credit: Cogs photo by Marin Walls; Circuit Board photo by Nicolas Raymond; all other photos are my own, copyright 2021 Made Sacred

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