Spiritual Formation

The difference between oak trees and freeways

It was a simple statement, created in the moment by one of my Syrian students attempting to form a dependent phrase, but it stopped us all in our tracks. Everyone else in the class (teacher included!) had created much lazier sentences:

  • “When I’m bored, I watch TV.”
  • “When I’m bored, I go to sleep.”
  • “When I’m bored, I use the computer.”

But none of us had considered offering this depth of insight when tackling grammatical structures in English sentences: “When I’m bored, I ask my heart what it needs.” The simple phrasing of his words lingered with me. How often do I ignore what my heart needs by calling it boredom?  I wondered silently, the teacher-in-me suddenly becoming a student.

These students.  Though they may use broken words at times, they have so much wisdom to share.  Perhaps we’d all be a little better off asking what our heart needs before we speak flippantly about our moods.

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I spent some time recently chatting with a group of women about what makes us flourish, what makes us feel most alive in the midst of the flurry of jobs and families and ambitions and responsibilities. We had lots of great ideas from the superficial and fun like pedicures and ice cream to the rich and meaningful like chats-with-friends over coffee and quiet-time-away-from-it-all to restore our souls.  Some of us cried. All of us laughed. A few of us ached. Others of us shared grateful moments of fulfillment.

I shed a few tears over some breaking dreams and a friend reached to hold my hand. I squeezed back tight. Sometimes in the midst of falling apart, presence speaks so much louder than words.

What I heard most frequently expressed among these women was the same exact sentiment my student had just expressed that very morning: ask your heart what it needs.

Reflect.

Slow down.

Ponder.

Be a friend.

Read a book.

Watch a silly TV show.

Take a walk.

Listen.

Notice.

Contrary to the story of the freeways, we are not meant to live at break-neck speed every minute of the day. Unless we build barriers around and stoplights into our lives, we might hurtle ourselves right over the edge without even noticing.

Though we’d much prefer to speed right through them, even dark and barren days hold deep value for our souls, for what is day without night or a field without fallowness? For our roots to grow deep, we must attend to all the realities of life, not just the easiest ones.

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While much in our current culture facilitates a shallow and superficial path, we must dig deeper if we believe faith is more than mere entertainment. “Remind me each day that the race is not always to the swift; that there is more to life than increasing its speed,” writes Orin Crain. “Let me look upward into the towering oak and know that it grew great and strong because it grew slowly and well.”

It’s a bit like asking my soul not what it wants – things to numb or entertain or distract it – but simply what it needs and then working those very things into the daily mundane. 

Sometimes it’s the quiet of a walk in the early hours of the morning with a friend or the steady beauty of the mountains at sunset. It can be a slow cup of coffee with my husband, cuddles on the couch with my kids or the hand of a friend reaching out. Sometimes it is letting the tears fall while other times it is letting laughter carve my wrinkles deep.

In his accidental eloquence, my student had captured a truth that we fluent speakers so frequently stumble over: paying attention to our souls gives us life. Living slowly and well shapes our days into flourishing and full lives that paint a backdrop of strength to those living in our shade.

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