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Sister Judy Nielsen, OSF

Spiritual Direction in the Franciscan Tradition

Franciscan Community of Divine Mercy

My Blog


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Knowing Your Story

Posted on 3 July, 2020 at 19:37 Comments comments (857)
Hello Again!
First let me apologize for the issues with the blog.  I am told that some people who follow it are receiving the same thing over and over.  They tell me that the issue developed during the Covid crisis and they are working on it.  The newer blogs and some comments have disappeared into the fog.  I miss the comments the most.  You always have such good thoughts.  Thank you to the person who notified me.  Please know you are always welcome to browse through past posts. 

I have been answering the same question lately.  It sounds a lot like this:  I want to support the issues of people who have different life stories than me but I don't know how without neglecting what I''m supposed to be doing.  What do I do?  If you are someone who has recently talked with me you will recognize some of this blog.

This is a lifelong kind of question.  When we find the answer once then we find we grow some more only to see the question come up in a different way.  So let's talk about supporting things like justice and human rights and communities as they grow.  Let's talk about how the same issues can appear like a fun house mirror to those with different life stories.  To some it will be long and stretched out, to others it will be a short term project and to some it will become a story they have lived.  The real question may be how do we contribute to the good of those who have lived a different life story than our own.  Do we protest?  Do we donate?  Do we study it?  Do we try to experience it like the missionary traveling to countries whose cultures they can only visit to deliver good will?  Perhaps none of these.  

We all have a story.  It's what makes us who we are and unfolds across the years to add to who we become.   Like the pages in a book we write our stories with our experiences and decisions.  Some of those decisions turn into mistakes that God converts into miracles others are learning experiences. Lately there's been a lot to experience.  First, lets have confidence in our ability to ask ourselves what is our purpose?  How will my life story help bring about a solution?

Mother Teresa once wrote of the many invitations she received to travel throughout the world to join people in their protests against the wrongs in the world.  She wrote that she answered every invitation by telling them if they ever marched for peace she would join them.  She later wrote she never received that invitation.  Her point was that it is easy to point to the wrongs of others but other people only hear the noise.  

Peace is hard work. Solutions are hard work.  Peace is the hard work of coming to the table with those with whom we disagree to craft a solution together. To do that we must know our purpose.  Our purpose is is always that which God has specially equipped us to do.  It is our job to be doing what God called us to do.  To offer our hands and talent to him if he can use them in the situation to find a solution.  We may be sure he will let us know if he needs us. 

This brings me to the story of two friends very different from me.  Two very accomplished professionals. Yet, they could tell me the story of housing, job, health care, law enforcement and other discrimination.  I can not tell that story.  I can tell the story of a long business career that turned into a religious vocation that resulted in one community believing I needed mental health care and having to overcome the judgments of the other.  One day my friends asked if I wanted to support a large event they attended every year.  I told them I was happy to do that but could not come to the event.   I will always remember the reply: "of course not, it's not your story to tell."   Over the years we found ways of supporting each other. Our friendship demonstrated that we saw no differences in our humanness.  That same friendship built bridges from one community to another creating peace and understanding across the divide in our life stories.  Those bridges were built on the acceptance that we are each different in the way we live out our life story.  Friendship provides the building blocks that help avoid the temptation of bitterness, anger and blaming.   Friendships aren't movements.  They are one person reaching out to another accepting each is different.  Bringing building blocks when a new bridge to a solution is being built.  I could add my financial education to fair housing.  I could invite them to share the fun things in my life and share some of theirs.  As our circle widen so did the solutions.  We have known each other now for many years.  The lessons learned and shared far surpassed our professional credentials or the differences in our life stories. 

Should is a word we generally point at others.  When we point it at ourselves we do so as an obligation and we get into other life stories to relieve our guilt.  We often fail to realize that it is not our differences that need turned into sameness.  It is our combined differences turned into solutions that God would have us look for to build our bridges.

The Importance of God

Posted on 7 May, 2019 at 20:07 Comments comments (159)
Hello Internet Family!
By now you know that I am not a professional blogger.  If I were to become one the work I told God I would be doing would often go undone.   I always read your comments.  Please know that you are prayed for when I am absent from the internet.  Now that I'm back at my desk I want to talk about a question that appeared in the comments:  Why do I think it is so important to find God?

My new family member Coach helped answer this one.   Coach is a cattle dog that was abandoned by his owners.  He found himself in a scary world that cared little about whether he lived or died or starved.  Many people must have passed him on the road. From the kindness of a stranger he found his way to a shelter and a man who taught him to sit. The food was provided every day but it was not enough for his malnourished body. He was safe but living in a cage next to bigger more aggressive dogs.  The man he met at the shelter gave him his name and took him outdoors to play.  He helped him learn to wear a leash so he could go to adoption day at the pet store where I buy food.   When I came in the door he was using his new sitting skill intently watching the door.  The hope in his eyes as he watched each newcomer was unmistakable. He was expecting someone.  I thought I had other business getting food for the two Labradors in the family so I continued on asking God to find him a family.  As I prepared to leave the store he appeared right in front of me again.  The man thought he must know me.  So Coach got his home. When we adopted him I said to him, "let's go home."   He was excited to get a new leash and collar but stopped to run back to the man at the shelter to excitedly tell him goodbye.  Right into the car he went to meet his new family.  With love and lots of rowdy play and food Coach has adopted us and he has healed.  We have figured out ways to reassure him that he has enough food, he will get his turn and he has a stash of boxes he can go fetch in the pantry that are his to chew.  He herds his flock of Labradors, jumps hurdles in the backyard, chases balls and loves snuggling at the end of the day.  From his darkest days of rejection and cruelty he has found that someone cares and he is loved.  

He couldn't see me and didn't know me when he was lost but Coach had the virtue of faith. He was convinced I was coming.   He was watching the door for me.  He had a belief that there is a loving Powerful Presence in this world that is concerned with us and with our good not because we are useful or beneficial but because we are special to this Presence.  I know this Presence as God.   We often find this Presence when we look backwards at what did not happen or even some unexpected good.  Faith causes us to look for this goodness and to expect it will be coming.  To paraphrase a passage from the book Franciscan Virtues: We can not see God, we can not examine him with a microscope for appearance, gender or classification but we can experience God through God's actions.  We can know Goodness, Truth and Beauty as it appears in our world.

 While we can explain away why the wind blows we can't explain the cool breeze that comes along when we are hot and tired or the unexpected goodness of a stranger.  Because God is good he can bring good out of the bad that humans do and good out of our own mistakes.  We know from the wonderful pictures coming from space that there is an order to the universe.  It is an order that man can not create.  Who wouldn't want that presence in their life?  When we hold on to our belief that there is Order and a Power for good no matter what is going on in the here and now we are practicing faith.  Faith brings about hope.  Hope gives us the courage to persevere with our dreams in the face of difficulty.  God creates the outcome.   When we are discouraged at not getting what we want God is the power behind the opportunity that would have been unavailable had we gotten what we wanted at the time. When we have taken the wrong turn God is the action behind the opportunity to choose again.  God is the action of the universe that brings about what is in our long term best interest.  We may choose good enough but God would have us choose the best for us. While we cannot know him as we know another person we can know the reassurance of his presence that nudges us toward hope with the beauty of a sunset, the rainbow after a storm, a butterfly in early spring, the goodness of strangers in a disaster and yes, a puppy playing in the sunshine, rolling in the grass showing his joy in God's creation.  

In a world that is often uncertain where we can encounter people who are uncaring or just plain mean God wants us to know that He is present with us.   The old story that he likes to wear disguises is a good one. He can show up as an opportunity, an encouraging phone call, a moment of quiet reassurance or a friend or a stranger offering help.  He is not the drive up window where our demands are handed out as quickly as possible.  He doesn't walk away or look for better company when we are feeling down. He is the gentle breeze slowly shaping us into reflections of his goodness.  In the social media world people often hurt themselves by sharing too much by sharing in a way that is too personal.  Only God can know our hearts, our dreams, our deepest desires and our pain.   Only God has no reason to judge what he has made as anything but good.  That goodness is on board when we arrive here and it should not surprise us that it is the Good that we seek. 

 It is a world full of imperfect often wounded and angry humans but God still chooses us to be His friend and his companion.  Imperfect people will often let us down.  We will let others down.  God gave us the gifts of hope and faith that we may not feel alone. God allows us to choose how we will use the goodness given to us.  It is up to us to practice the faith Coach demonstrated for us by watching the door of our hearts for God's presence.  We may be lonely but we are never alone.  We may be passing through the desert of our disappointments or the cruelty of rejection but we can hold on to that faith and keep walking toward the good knowing we are cared for by the Creator of the Universe.   Who wouldn't want a friend like that?   And that would be why it is important.

Finding Peace

Posted on 21 October, 2018 at 19:29 Comments comments (263)
Peace reminds me of an old friend.   Every conversation included "where is my peace?" and "I just want some peace."  I was reminded each time that there was no point in talking about faith or Scriptures because this person possessed a degree in those things.  Looking at peace academically can make us blind.  Wanting to acquire peace like something we could own can make us envious of what we think others might have that we do not.  
We can come to believe that peace is outside of us.   We can come to a place where we allow other people and their actions to cause our lack of peace.   We can even believe if this person or that person would stop what they are doing or saying or perhaps change into the person we think they should be then we would have peace.  We are blinded to our judgment of the other person as less than acceptable.  
We can become like the cat who brings us a dead mouse because he is unsure that we know how to hunt. It is often our belief that what we advise others is in their best interest.  We have no way to know that.  We aren't writing the pages in their book of life.  For the cat it's logical that we would think of the dead mouse as a treat.  For us it is not that logical. Our logic says a dead mouse belongs outside. So how does the cat convince us?  How do we change the cat's opinion of us?   We do not.   
Peace lies in the letting the cat be the cat and in accepting that I do not have to be a cat to be loved by one.  Its a simple lesson but acceptance is not easy.
Acceptance requires faith that all is as it should be.  Faith that there is a Creator that can bring good from what is intended to be bad.  That little bit of faith is a gift.  It starts on the inside.  If allowed to grow it produces peace.  It seems to me that the anger I hear today that often turns into violence against others is rooted in our inability to accept that is okay for others to be different from us, to think differently and to draw their own conclusions about their own long term well being.  We become sure we have the balance scales that will prove our actions are right. We push and shove either verbally or emotionally even sometimes physically to try to make others be who will be acceptable to us.   But acceptance is tricky.   Acceptance means that if I can make mistakes, if God isn't finished with me then maybe - just maybe - I ought to leave God to his work.  It is possible that I can receive the gifts God intends for me if I let go of grasping onto you to change to be more acceptable to me.  The word acceptance often means redeeming grace. To be redeemed means we are known as who we are and loved in spite of it and because of it.  It's an inside job we call peace.

Finding God In A Digital World

Posted on 10 September, 2018 at 19:17 Comments comments (166)
Today I made my cup of coffee, said good morning to God and opened my news feed to catch up with the world.  As you can tell, I like to procrastinate about writing in this space.  The attraction of checking on the world with my i- things  is tempting.  The more I do that the more noisy the world seems.  And the more distant God seems to be until I remember there is nothing going on in his world he can't handle.  He doesn't need me to supervise.  It  is hard to hear the violence in our world's words and actions.  If I stay connected long I find myself getting discouraged about the goodness in myself and others.  Words have been turned into weapons.  Our words have real power.   Name calling, blaming  and shaming others for being different or character assasination because they got what we wanted is telling God whatever or whoever he has made he has made a mistake. It can lead us to taking bad actions that harm others.  I want to be careful with that.  God doesn't make mistakes.   He didn't start with me or you or them.  I want my actions to put good in the world not the thoughtless acts of other people's words.  
Today it was back to the new excuse for doing this:  personal politics.  I wondered about the original meaning of politics.  I looked it up.   Here it is my friends.  It might surprise you to know that the definition was "activity associated with the governance of the country and especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power."   There it was:  power.  We are being called to the war between politicians and news people wanting the power or the profit from our thinking and decisions.  Our thoughts & feelings are being hijacked to help someone else in their pursuit of power.  They will neither know or care about the damage we do if we choose to follow the noise off into action.  People don't handle power well. History tells us that. Yet God tells us it's a respected gift. Without the God of our understanding we turn power into our right to take instead of give, our addiction to get but never give and our excuse to bully others into giving us what we want regardless of what it might cost them.  Pursuit of power is part of the pride thing that causes us to fall.  But God gave us real power.  We have the power to say I don't play that game.  We don't have to react or respond. We have that power.  We can unplug from the invasion into our space and plug into the real power in silence. That's right.  Fifteen minutes of silence seeking God's voice generates more power than every digital tool you have.  It might be challenging at first but an unplugged walk or pause any place with more things God made than man made will plug us into a God connection.  Our mind clears of other's thoughts.  Our thinking clears of what others might think of us. We get out of the business of telling God we can't hear him and find him waiting for us in 15 minutes of unplugged time.  How to start?   It's a pretty cool thought that the HOW is already written down for us:  Philipians 4:8 tells us to put our minds on whatever is true, just, honest, pure, things that are good.  Silence generates faith. People recognize the power of integrity. And that has real power.  Real power generates faith.  It looks like this:  One person plugs in and says "that's terrible but what can I do?" another plugs in and says "wow! I can hardly wait to see what God does with this."  Peace and Light, my friends.

What Is Success?

Posted on 26 July, 2014 at 2:05 Comments comments (167)
Hello again.   I have been away for a long while as life sometimes requires of us.  Now that I am back I will be posting here more often.  Thank you to those who continued to return and to those who sent emails to ask if I would be posting again.  I want you to know that I did get your messages.  I want you to know that you can post your concerns here and we can talk about it.  Be careful with yourself and send a private email if your wish to include personal information.  I want you to know that your are prayed for daily.

So let's begin by talking about success.

I have a friend preparing to move to another state for a new job.  She is, of course, excited about the possibilities and the opportunity.  I am happy and excited for her new beginning.  It was a long process from "What should I do?" to "This must be it!"  The journey wound through many doubts, hopes and much thinking about if the move would add to her hopes of increasing success within the company.   

Now that the time for the move is here we have been talking more about what success will look like. Questioning if a successful climb to her business goal will be enough or will it take more to feel that her life has been successful when she arrives at the place she wants to be in the business world.  It is my hope and prayer that she will add much more to her life.  Beginning to ask the questions and searching for the answers is a great place to begin to grow.   

We need our business life.  God made a whole world that includes work for our hands.   He also made us in a way that we need to be a whole creation balanced with work, love, community life, hobbies and rest.

We need to ask ourselves those tough questions about success:  Is it just more money?  Is it finding the right person with which to share our lives?  Is it friends that are close and caring or is it a higher number on our Facebook page?  Is it knowing that we've done our best and contributed to what is good and right in our business lives and the world around us or is it collecting connections on LinkedIn and finding people that we see as profitable?  In our spiritual lives we call this questioning discernment.  

Here are some suggestions if you should chose to explore success in your own life:

Discovering our answers can't happen without first having a willingness to be aware.  To take the time to think about it. That means that we intend to take full responsibility for our own decisions, get into action & turn over to God the responsibility for the outcome.  Life works that way anyway but acknowledging it will move away our fears of letting God help us and be with us in our everyday life.    

We are talking about committing to being aware and participating with God as opposed to letting God know what we think the finished product should be - He may have better in mind.  We'll call this a working definition of humility which is one word that represents our understanding that we are not God.  Somethings only God can fix.  Somethings only God knows and understands - we call that the mystery of God or Faith.  And, somethings just need God's assistance to work.  If we acknowledge this and live like we understand it life gets better.

The basic thread that runs through this discernment process is always:  
1) Is this temptation or opportunity?
2) Is it surrounded by confusion or calm?
3) Am I willing to put it on paper and talk to someone I trust so my thinking is real to me?
4) What is my experience of God?   Does what I am considering fit that experience? 
5) Would He communicate this to me in this way or want this for me?
6) Does it feed my desire to be of greater good in His service no matter the outcome or does it feed my ego and self importance requiring public credit, approval & my ideal of success?
7) Am I absolutely sure I'm right (usually a mistake) 
8) Am I willing to be in conversation with God about it or am I worried about His response?

Putting all this down on paper or on your computer or tablet will help you see your thoughts.
I hope to continue working on this project in my own life.  I hope God saves me from thinking I have mastered it and always know what I am doing without giving it any thought.   No one is perfect.  Life is not perfect but it is always good.   A personal commitment to become aware and accountable may be all that is required as we do the footwork toward our dreams and goals because God is in charge of the outcome.  Because He cares.  Always.


A Spiritual Wellness To-Do List

Posted on 27 June, 2012 at 21:49 Comments comments (259)
I like lists so the thought of having a spiritual check list appeals to me.  That thought sent me off on the hunt for a spiritual to-do list I could check off at the end of the day.  My hunt started as I was in a conversation with someone wondering how all those wonderful old spiritual books on prayer and meditation don't get the attention of all the busy people today.  On the way home I was sitting at a red light listening to someone honk "hurry up" three cars behind the car in the next lane.  It gave me pause to consider just where my spiritual wellness goes in the push and pull of a busy day.  
My patience with the red light and the impatient fellow traveler is a good reminder that "God with us" means just that but sometimes I need a check list to discover where I am.  Many of us today miss out on the wealth of comfort and reassurance we can gain from wonderful little books like Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen because we can't translate them into a check list for the way our life looks today.  I have taken bits and pieces of the best check lists I have found and pasted it here for you.  Perhaps today we can have a quick checkup together.   I hope it brightens your day and helps you find your place.  I prayerfully hope it gives you reason to put time with God on your to-do list today.  Here it is:
Spiritual Wellness Check List - You may have stepped away if: 
1) You can’t remember when you weren’t in a hurry 
2) The person with 12 items in the 10 item express check-out makes you angry 
3) The person in front of you driving 40 in a 40 mile an hour speed limit is in your way
 4) Your dining room table is now your flat filing cabinet 
5) Leaving your house without your mobile phone is cause for turning around to get it
6) Your last conversation with a friend was email and "face time" means trading photos on Facebook'
7) You pull up in the driveway and use your cell phone to see if anyone is home
8) You can’t remember the last time you said NO to an extra project 
9)   Red lights are opportunities to check your text messages
10) You can’t remember what your “dream” for your life was – it got lost in the everyday details
11) You can’t remember feeling at peace – you occasionally wonder where God went
12) Your idea of a date with your spouse is meeting at Starbucks while you both check your email and messages 
13) Your idea of playing with your pet is walking the dog while you return phone calls 
14) Feeling uneasy when there is no background noise: TV, Phone, etc 
15) Your “to do” list always has to be carried over to the next day 
16) You eat lunch while you work; you can't remember what you ate
17) Dinner is something you pick up on the way home and distribute
18) You don’t have time for a vacation '
19) You can’t think of or take the time to explore fun activities indulge in an activity just for fun; you laughed out loud with a friend or child 
20) Current circumstances:  financial, job, family etc – make you feel that you must be in constant motion to make sure things get better, don’t get worse, get out of control, etc ----------  
21) You need to be at Church to have a conversation with a person whose call you didn’t have time to return yesterday, someone is planning an event you want to attend, so others don’t think something is wrong, because it is a good social or business network or because you heard something about another person and want to check it out for yourself or  because it is the obligation you have once a week and you need to check it off your list this week.

Check points for Making Progress - Am I?                                          
1) Emotionally Mature – I avoid falling into uncontrolled feelings when stressed or angry                    2) A Possessor and User of Common Sense – I can be trusted 3) Well adjusted –  I am able to live life as it comes; accepting and allowing others to be who they are without fixing or being critical 4) Joyful -  Taking breaks for family, fun & me-time; others often hear me laugh 5) Grateful - I can say thanks for the people, places and things; little kindnesses, I can give away and give back a smile to anyone, anytime;  
6) Generous - I can give others my time and my attention even when I lack money  

Check points for Living Christ-like life:
1) I am a Loving Person –   I make an effort to demonstrate love by my presence and support to those closest to me, I realize that saying no to unacceptable behavior is loving & gives others the ability to grow I can demonstrate kindness, courtesy and patience with those who are different from meI do not have to be rightI do not think how useful a new acquaintance might be to me  I avoid critical statements like what could that person be thinking? Who do they think they are?  2) Forgiveness – I able to forgive – to leave aside getting even and/or acting in anger in favor of God’s ability to provide justice   3) Trust –  I am able to allow others to earn my trust & recognize trust is not a gift but to GodI am able to trust God is a partner in any situation & can share the credit with HimI recognize that  anxiety is an indicator that I need to talk to God and perhaps a trusted other about the situation.  
Did you find some issues?  Might I suggest a solution?Start right now to take time with yourself.  Be at least as kind to yourself as you would be to a friend.Stop to enjoy the people around you; look for God's reflection in others.Realize the person who annoys you the most is your best spiritual instructorAsk God to help you have the patience to explore who you are and help you become who He would have you to be with your next thought or action.Keep in mind that your spiritual wellness is like your gas tank if you don't fill it up it stops on empty  
Peace and God's Grace until our next visit!   

How does Spiritual Direction Help?

Posted on 30 May, 2012 at 2:04 Comments comments (404)
Have you ever thought that you just don't "get it" when it comes to God?
You are not alone.  Many people think something like this:  "I've heard about spiritual direction but spiritual directors are only for Church people who have titles and collars. I am an ordinary person."   That's common thinking but it keeps you away from the help you need. 
The reality of being human in today's world is also about having those moments when you find yourself wondering if there is a way to find a deeper connection with God and keep up with a busy life.  At some point in our lives most of us will find ourselves in a spot that feels empty and full of struggle.  We all need a connection that gives us the spiritual tools to reconnect and know that "God is with us".  One of those tools is spiritual direction.
The world is a big place.  It is easy to feel that it's spinning out of control. That's when we come up with those big questions like "where is God in this?"  That makes us human.  It can make us feel alone with our worries and concerns.  We need to be connected to each other.  We need to be connected to other people who keep their faith alive and well during times of struggle.  We need to find a way to keep company with God.  
When everything is going our way our task is staying balanced and continuing to grow.  If we can't find that balance we find ourselves using a lot energy trying to be in control of what happens next to ensure nothing goes wrong.  That's when we know we have taken God out of the partnership.  We need to be accountable for what we say believe and what we do next.  That's a part of spiritual direction. 
Spiritual direction offers us personal space where we can take time to consider what we believe and feel safe about expressing our doubts, our dreams and our worries.  We can put down or express our concern that God may want more from us than we want to give if we accept His presence in our everyday world.  We can come up with a plan that helps us build an awareness of God's presence.  
Spiritual direction provides a long term relationship that creates a peaceful space.  We use that space to consider the ways God shows us He is present with us always.  We can learn to see and to hear with our spiritual self. That takes practice.  It often takes learning to use the tools he has given us to do that. He is in the everyday miracle when all that worried us last week or yesterday did not happen as much as He is present in our success.  His company means that He cares enough to celebrate and suffer with us - to be with us.  It is typically a long term relationship because we change and grow slowly.  A place to realize and be reminded that it is a noble thing to be a better human than we were just yesterday.  Spiritual direction is a space that allows us to grow
How to choose a director?  We invest our thoughts and concerns with others carefully and we are wise to do that.  We need a spiritual friend with a listening heart where growth is the focus and judgement is not the issue.  It is a path built to help us become more aware of God's presence in our lives.  It is often in the talking about our spiritual path the we discover the tools God provides to guide and direct our growth.  Those tools can be as simple as prayer, meditation, listening, compassion or developing the habit of small acts of kindness and courtesy.  Direction is using these tools to build our awareness that we are a part of all the good God has created and for that, we are responsible.   Realizing and celebrating that growth sets our spirits free to experience the joy of God's presence.  These things are among the benefits that everybody can enjoy from spiritual direction.