Anna: Nurturing Connection with God
I have always liked the story of Anna, partly because I am sort of named for her. There are other reasons my name is Anne – I had a great aunt named Anne Marie and my mom loved Anne of Green Gables, which is why my “Anne” is an “Anne with an e.” But my parents also say Anne is a nod to Anna, and Marie is a nod to Mary, both the women in this story.
- Introduction and our basic view of Anna
So I’ve always been interested in this story, but growing up, I felt a little sorry for Anna. She had to live a lonely life as a widow, praying all the time, and fasting. That sounded terrible! In my child mind, Anna was basically bored for decades, and then one day the thing she had been waiting for her whole life finally happened. She was in the right place at the right time for the event that gave her whole life meaning.
But as an adult, a different picture of Anna is forming in my mind. For one, the text says that it is Simeon who was waiting to see the Messiah before he died, not Anna. We have no reason to think that this was the one meaningful event in Anna’s life. And the little we know about Anna suggests we should give her more honor and respect that I did as a child.
In the mere three verses about Anna, she is named as a prophet. There are only three people who lived in New Testament times who are named as prophets in the New Testament – Anna, John the Baptist, and Jesus. I doubt Anna earned this title because of this singular event in her life. For one thing, Simeon was also there, and he says something clearly prophetic. He’s speaking truth boldly. But he isn’t actually called a prophet. Anna is. That suggests this is not the only prophetic act in her life.
So let’s put Anna in the lineage of prophets for a minute. Looking at those named as prophets from the Old Testament, we see people such as Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos. We see a few women – Miriam, Deborah, Huldah. These prophets are understood to speak on God’s behalf (even if people didn’t always want to listen). In Huldah’s story, for example, young King Josiah asks the high priest to consult God, so the priest goes to Huldah, who tells the priest what God says. [2 Kings 22:11-20, 2 Chronicles 24:19-28]
Looking forward from Anna’s life, I can’t help but notice the similarities between Anna and later Christian monastics who carried on her model of a life of prayer, fasting, and influence, including St. Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, and Hildegard of Bingen.
So this is the lineage in which we find Anna. Now what about her life? Let’s hear those three verses again:
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)
So we know Anna was married, probably when she was around 14 years old, as was the custom. When she was around 21, her husband died. The text doesn’t mention any children. At this point in her life, I assume people would have expected Anna to remarry. I think of Tamar’s story that we heard recently – how important it was for her to remarry and bear children. Somehow Anna doesn’t go this route. Perhaps that decision was somehow made for her – we don’t know. But perhaps she intentionally chose her path.
- Anna’s story in Scripture
When we find her story in Scripture, Anna approaches Mary and Joseph in the temple as they are presenting their firstborn son, according to custom. She probably overheard Simeon prophesying over them. Anna sees the young mother who just heard the startling words that “a sword will pierce her own soul.” Perhaps from decades of honing both her own intuition and her connection with God, she also speaks into the situation with words of praise for God. She speaks of the child to all who look for the redemption of Jerusalem. Like Simeon, Anne recognizes immediately that this child is part of God’s plan for redemption.
- Anna’s spiritual journey
This is a remarkable story, and we could reflect on it from so many angles. But what captures my imagination here is Anna’s spiritual journey that led her into this surprising life. We see her as a 21-year-old widow with, we assume, no education (she was a woman after all), and then somehow, we find her as an 84-year-old prophet.
She was not born into or appointed to this position. There wasn’t a “prophet school” where she could learn her craft. No one expected her to grow into this role.
So what happened? Let’s imagine together.
84-year-old Anna knows and trusts her ability to speak God’s truth. We know that much. This seems like it could only come from practice and experience – practice recognizing her connection to God. I imagine that at some point in her life, perhaps in her bewilderment as a young widow, she had an experience of connection with God … and she took note of that experience. She had another experience of connection with God, and again she noticed it.
She learned what that awareness of connection felt like, how it affected her life. She began nurturing that sense of connection. Maybe she noticed the spiritual practices that fostered it for her, and she devoted more time to those types of prayer and fasting. She started speaking truth out of her sense of connection. In other words, She learned to trust her lived experience.
I imagine that Anna’s discernment of her life work came as she paid attention to how God was actually using her. She honed her skills and awareness in the context of the temple community – whose responses to her presence and words over the years must have helped her learn and grow into her role.
- Our own connection to God
So what about us? How does all this wondering about Anna affect us?
I come with the belief that we are all connected to the Divine. The same Holy Spirit dwells in us all, connecting us with each other and with God. I also believe that we are always connected to God – God dwells in us and God isn’t going anywhere – it’s just that sometimes we are more aware of that connection than other times.
So I ask today with curiosity, what does awareness of that connection look like for each of us? Anna learned to recognize God in her, to know what the flow of divine love felt like in her. What does it look like for each of us to learn to recognize what the flow of divine love feels like in us?
- Spiritual direction and how people find what connects them
At this point, I’d like to speak from my experience as a spiritual director with a small practice for the last 9 years. In my training and work, I’ve had a front row seat to intimate views of how people experience God. And what I’ve learned is that we are all so different. I find myself astonished at the unique ways our hearts open to the flow of love. For Anna, that was living in the temple in prayer and fasting.
For many people I meet with, they come with an awareness that the tools they had in the past to connect with God don’t feel very helpful anymore, or at least aren’t sufficient. The forms of prayer and worship, study and devotion that have helped ground them in the past aren’t as helpful anymore. That dissatisfaction is often what prompts people to pursue spiritual direction. This is a common stage for people to go, and it opens an exciting question of what actually is working for them right now.
And almost always, there are things in their lives that are helping them feel aware of God’s love. It is often not how they think they “should” connect with the divine, or how they’ve been taught. To illustrate what I mean, here’s an example I’ve stitched together from patterns I’ve seen often in spiritual direction. So, not a true story, but it easily could be. A directee starts to describe the state of flow she experiences when she works on a quilt. She might be upset, stressed, scattered, and then start quilting and settle into this deep sense of peace and beauty, that lasts into her day. It feels like she has communed with God in that time, and is moving forward with greater love and joy because of it. But she is hesitant to honor that as prayer, as important, because it isn’t what she has learned in Sunday School. As we explore this over time, it is freeing for her to start honoring her quilting as a gift she can return to and nurture. This awareness opens up new areas of joy and freedom in the rest of her life.
- Noticing what moves you toward connection
And this is one of the main tools I use in spiritual direction – helping people notice what things tend to move them toward connection, hope and love, and what things tend to move them away from it. We notice together where the fruit seems to be. If quilting helps you feel connected to God, and helps you be a more loving person filled with the fruit of the spirit throughout the day, maybe that is a practice worthy of your honor and priority.
We all probably have a list in our heads of what we “should” be doing to connect with God. Even as I say that, do you feel that somewhere? Do you have a pang of guilt somewhere, about what spiritual practices you’re failing to do right now?
That question of what we should be doing can be helpful. But it’s not the only factor. Anna had a societal expectation of how she “should” connect with God and her religious community. She “should” have remarried, borne children, raised them in the law, and carried out all the rituals that gave families in her culture their flow and grounding in that time. But instead, somehow, she ended up on a different path.
I wonder if instead of asking how she “should” connect with God, Anna noticed how she actually did connect with God. And after decades of this, we find her speaking truth to this young family who needed it, and to all others who were ready to listen.
So I want to ask you a question today. What are some times in your life when you have felt aware of your connection to God? Other ways to ask the question could be: When have you felt fully alive, or like you were in the flow of love? I know those sound like three different questions – when were you connected to God, fully alive, in the flow of love. I personally think they get at the same thing, but I won’t go into that today. For now, you can ponder any or all the questions.
I acknowledge that these might feel like fun questions to consider, they might feel scary, they might just feel strange and unknown. But in a bit here, we’ll have one minute of silence in which to ponder.
- What moves others toward connection
Before we do that, I want to help open the box of what “counts” as practices and situations that help us be aware of our connection to God and others. Times when you might feel fully alive and in the flow of love. Notice if any of these mentions spark something in you.
- Perhaps you often feel connected to the Divine when you take a walk in nature, sing a blessing before a meal, or immerse yourself in an art project or gardening.
- Perhaps in a difficult time, when you were grieving and felt God’s presence.
- Perhaps relational – when you have been vulnerable with a spouse or friend.
- Perhaps intellectual – pondering theology and coming to new insights, or getting into a state of flow as you work in your discipline.
- Perhaps listening to the chancel choir or meeting with your Sunday School class helps you live with more love throughout the week.
For myself, I think of how this practice of noticing God’s movement in my life helped me discern my desire to become a spiritual director. (And I acknowledge my privilege here in being able to pursue that desire.) In a house church community in Denver as a young adult, I found that the way I was actually serving my community, the service that was actually life-giving to me and meeting a need in the community, was something I hadn’t expected. It came through providing a safe space for people to process their spiritual journeys. I often felt connected to God in a sacred space during these conversations. I followed where that life-giving practice led me, and found my way into a spiritual director training program. Every time I reflect on what helps me feel alive and in the flow of love, working in spiritual direction consistently comes out on my list. I know I’m not the best director out there, and I know I only spend a very small portion of my time in this work, but even so, I feel the joy of serving in a way that overall makes me feel alive. I am a more centered person in the rest of my life because I make time for this. So … I keep doing it.
Other things on my list would include:
- Silent or contemplative communal prayer, such as the recent Taizé services here in the Fellowship hall
- When I spend time outdoors with my children, or read good fiction aloud to them
- Through potlucks, sharing meals and fellowship with others
Since we are all different, I asked some members here at First Mennonite to share ways that they become aware of their connection to God. Several answered, with permission to share their responses anonymously. Here are some replies:
- One way that I become more aware of my connection with God is by journaling. When I start journaling, it’s usually my own thoughts and feelings getting out on paper but as I go along my writing becomes more centered and more hopeful. I feel more of a connection to God, which comforts me.
I’ve heard versions of this from many people. If there’s a way you journal that helps you feel more centered and connected to God, you can honor that as a meaningful practice
- There are times that I sense God through the majesty, pathos, or sheer beauty of art and music; through nature; in the faces and frailty of humanity. I sense God in the everyday.
- I feel close to God in silence, listening to music, and feeling supported by friends within and outside of the church.
- When I focus on being grateful for daily blessings and for the challenges that invite me to spiritual growth. And when listening to others share their spiritual beliefs and experiences.
- I notice that at times when I am lonely in life, I sometimes will eat a meal by myself with no distractions and pray as I eat; I’ve felt close to God at those times
- Being alone in nature at night
- Silence for reflection
So we’ll spend a minute in silence now (or whatever silence looks like for young children – no worries). If you want to, you could even put your hand on your heart for this time – I like to do that to remind myself that I am more than just a mind – I have a body too. I invite you to take a deep breath and see what comes to mind when you look back over your life and recall a moment or moments when you felt aware of your connection to God, when you felt fully alive, or in the flow of love.
[Silence for 60 seconds]
Thank you for the courage to be in silence with that question. I hope you can honor what came up for you. Perhaps nothing came to mind and you feel like you did it wrong, or that it’s just a silly question. That’s fine. There are no right answers or methods here.
- Conclusion and giving the Examen practice
What if we moved into the New Year with curiosity about what helps us be aware of our connection with God?
Not for the sake of mere introspection, but because noticing these patterns in our lives has effects beyond those moments. They help us live with more love, stay grounded, to discern next steps in life, and to have the energy to do what we are called to do in the world. Noticing and honoring these patterns helps us move toward faith, hope and love.
As we start a new year, I put together a worksheet for anyone who wants to take a look back at the past year in order to strengthen yourself for the year to come. If you’re interested, you can pick up a packet on the table in the Fellowship Hall and then go through the questions sometime today or this week. The questions explore what has moved you toward love this past year, as well as what has moved you away from it. It might take 20 minutes, or longer if you get into it.
This could be a great thing to do together as a family, small group, with a friend, or just on your own. Some of you, including those of us in the Taste and See Sunday School class will recognize this as a version of a practice known as the Examen. If you do this and want to talk about what it brings up, you can reach out to Pastor Phil, Pastor Carrie, or a member of the pastoral care team, listed by the office door.
So today, let’s consider the fruits of Anna’s choice to nurture those moments of connection in herself. Because she did that for so many years, she was in a position to step in and offer words and presence that blessed the holy family and helped to prepare the way of the Lord.
I doubt any of us will choose to move into this building and live a life of prayer and fasting all the time like Anna. But we might be surprised at where we notice God already moving in our lives. And we might be surprised at where that movement leads us.
Attached is the Examen Annual Review