What do you do when you have a really big decision to make? Do you just go with your gut? Do you write out pros and cons and then make your decision based on which side of the paper has the longest list? Do you pray for guidance or sit in silence with your question? Or maybe you talk it over with friends and family and then choose the direction that sounds and feels best to you.
For a good portion of last week, I had a bad case of puppy-on-the-brain. I do this periodically: I see a picture of an adorable puppy and I start to think that maybe it’s time to add to our family of four-footeds. It might be a kind of “empty nest” feeling that comes over me, or a longing for that sweet nurturing that’s called for only when you have a baby in the house, but whatever it is, it feels like a craving and stays and it wrestles with me—not unlike Jacob’s angel—for a good long while. I go back and forth and back and forth with it. At times, it’s like I can hear two different voices in myself: a young, emotional me that just adores animals and would be happiest in life with a whole houseful of them. There’s also an older-sounding, more rational me that says, yes, animals are wonderful, but adding more also means adding responsibility, and costs in time, money, and energy. It’s like a parent and child battle going on in my head, one side just wanting what it wants and the other trying to be the voice of reason. I can put myself through a lot of mental calisthenics, wearing myself out and never really getting anywhere.
There have been times in my life, though, when the answers I needed have come in surprisingly easy ways. Maybe you’ve had this happen too. Your mind and emotions are swirling about something that’s bothering you, and suddenly a song comes on the radio with just the words you need to hear. You feel yourself calm down; something inside you gets it. Or you’re all tangled up about something you don’t know how to solve, when a person makes a single off-handed comment that suddenly shines a huge light on the whole situation. In the clarity, you understand it better and you can see what you need to do next. Sometimes it just happens that the answers are there when we need them. It feels like we’re being helped, like God is providing a solution, sometimes even before we remember to ask for help.
Our Old Testament reading today tells us that this support is intentional, planned just this way to give us the help we need in a confusing and often overwhelming world. The whole book of Isaiah is a great warning and promise to God’s children, as Isaiah urges them to turn from their willful, self-indulgent ways and be open and tender hearts to a renewed and healed relationship with the God who loves them. Throughout the book, the writing alternates between angry and threatening words of judgment and beautiful promises of restoration and wholeness with God.
In the passage we heard, Isaiah says something fascinating about God’s presence with us even in the midst of our struggles: “Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction,” he writes, “yet your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher.” Isn’t that curious? There’s something significant there. God may allow the bread of adversity and water of affliction to be in our lives for a season, but Isaiah seems to be saying there’s a purpose for it, something for us to see with spirit’s help. Right in the middle of that circumstance, whatever it is—the scary diagnosis, the lost job, the frayed relationship, the unsolvable dilemma—right there, we can meet our Inner Teacher. If we remember to look for God in the situation, we’ll find him. Our eyes will be opened and we’ll see things in a new light, in God’s Light. There is truth and healing there.
Isn’t this just the sort of experience George Fox had on the hillside in England 350 years ago? He was despairing that anyone would ever speak to the yearning of his heart and soul as he searched for the truth of God. Isaiah tells us God is already here, waiting for us to turn and be willing to look at our situations in new ways. If we’re paying attention, we’ll find that God is there and God is leading, step by tiny step. By some means, inner or outer, we’ll hear a voice behind us, saying “this is the way, walk in it,” when we prepare to turn to the right or to the left.
What a remarkable promise that is. And I can tell you, from something I experienced in my own life, that it can prove true in pretty remarkable ways. When I was 35 years old and living with the kids in Columbus, I’d been having chronic headaches for 22 years, since I was a teenager in high school. I’d been taking eight Excedrin a day most of that time, just to keep the pain at a bearable level so I could function. I’d been to lots of doctors and had lots of tests, and the only answer I ever got that helped me deal with it was the suggestion of my GP that they’d just have to cut off my head when I died and test the fluid at the base of my brain. That didn’t seem too helpful in the here-and-now, so I reached for the Excedrin.
Early one summer morning, as I sat out on the front porch, I’d been praying and writing in my journal when suddenly the thought occurred to me—for the very first time in all these years–that God didn’t want me to live my whole life with terrible headaches. I knew God wanted more for me—more for all of us–than that. I prayed about it, telling God that I believed he wanted me to enjoy my life, and I asked for direction on how to heal my headaches. After my prayer, I picked up my Bible and the chapter I opened to was the one about Daniel and his friends sitting at the king’s table. The king wanted Daniel to eat what they served at his table, which included meat and wine, but Daniel and his friends ate only vegetables and fruits. Daniel told the king, if I and my men aren’t stronger than your strongest soldiers, we will eat as you eat. But of course Daniel and his friends were stronger, their diet didn’t limit them, and the king let them eat as they liked.
Later that afternoon after reading this story, I took one of my boys to a doctor’s appointment, and as I sat in the waiting room, I picked up a copy of Yoga Journal magazine and started flipping through the pages. My eyes lit on an article about Ayurvedic eating. I had no idea what that was, but it caught my curiosity. The idea was based on 3,000- year old holistic medicine from India that approaches health by balancing mind, body, and spirit. The article suggested that different body types react to different foods differently and that can have an impact on our health in that way. I took the quiz in the article to see what my body type was, and then looked up information about different foods for different types. One of the symptoms of too much protein—at least for my particular body type–was chronic headaches.
Now, suddenly, the light bulb went on: Could it be possible that my prayer was being answered? Just a few hours before I’d read that Daniel and his friends were thriving and strong as vegetarians. In the afternoon, information in an article suggested that too much protein in my diet could be causing my chronic headaches. I decided to try going without meat for 10 days just to see what would happen. And in those first 10 days, I went from taking eight Excedrin a day to two; and two weeks later, my headaches were completely gone. And that was 22 years ago now. The headaches have stayed gone—and I’ve been a vegetarian—ever since.
So what healed my headaches? That first impulse—that initial idea that told me after all that time that God didn’t want me to have to live with that pain—I believe that was spirit, prompting me to pray. I reached out to God, asking for light, and then God provided it, through scripture, through a magazine article, and finally, through my own confirming experience and my growing sense of health. I feel grateful that something inside me was paying attention to the clues my life was giving me. I was surprised that the answers came so quickly on the heels of my prayer. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I’d downplayed those things as coincidences or overlooked them because I didn’t believe an answer was possible for me. That’s what the doctors had said, after all—I’d just need to learn to live with it. Luckily, God had a greater vision and more joy in mind for his beloved children.
In our New Testament reading, the disciples are asking Jesus why he so often teaches in parables. When I was younger, I was frequently annoyed with Jesus about that. Why didn’t he just come out and say what he meant? Even his answer here is a non-answer. They ask why he teaches this way, and he answers by telling them they are fortunate because the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given to them, but not to the population at large. He tells them he is fulfilling the scripture in Isaiah that says the people are hearing without understanding and seeing without perceiving because their hearts are hardened. If their hearts weren’t calloused, God says through Isaiah, “they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn, and I would heal them.”
I think the most important word in this whole passage is the word turn. What if we started to see every experience we have of struggle, conflict, limitation, or lack as an opportunity, an invitation to notice where we need God? If we can turn away from focusing on the problem for just a moment—with all the anxiety, worry, upset, and frustration it brings—and turn toward God’s goodness, God’s love, and God’s unlimited capacity to act in every circumstance, our eyes will begin to see God already at work, our ears will hear sounds of peace; and our hearts will soften and a new understanding and trust in the Great Love that upholds and directs us will be born in us.
Where does our direction come from? God never leaves Himself, Caroline Stephen said in the reading Sherry read for us, “without a witness in the heart as well as in the surroundings of man.” For me, that inner witness was the prompting of my spirit realizing God wanted me to have a life free of pain. My surroundings gave me the ideas I needed to make changes in my life that ultimately solved the problem.
When you are facing a big decision or weathering a crisis of some sort, what does God’s witness in your heart say to you? That sweet, loving, voice of spirit will remind you that you are not facing your circumstance alone. It will prompt you to remember the good and tender qualities of the God who loves you. And soon, as you take your focus off your problem and relax into God’s presence, answers will quietly arise, the situation will begin to balance, and peace will return. Whatever you might be facing, try it and see. God’s answers are always near.
As for my puppy-on-the-brain problem, I can report that it resolved easily when I woke up Saturday morning simply knowing that now is not the time for a new puppy. I thanked God for the clarity and said a prayer that that sweet little girl would be led to the perfect loving home for her. But that tiny situation—and countless others like it—leave me knowing that this vast, limitless system of love is continually unfolding and available for us all, whether we are two-footed, four-footed, or no-footed beings. Goodness and light, support and direction are always with us simply because that’s who God is. When we have the heart, mind, eyes, and ears to perceive it, we realize that God’s love is truly everywhere, in every situation, always.
- OT Isaiah 30: 19-21
- NT Matthew 13: 10-17
- Beginning info on Ayurvedic diet: https://www.healthline.com/health/food-nutrition/i-tried-the-ayurvedic-diet#1