Entering the ‘Vast Emptiness’

I’ve been reading the book “Invitation of Solitude and Silence” by Ruth Haley Barton, and it’s been a wonderful experience. The author writes in such an approachable way, and I love her insights into the joy of entering into quiet.

Last week, I read her take on Elijah when he was fleeing from the prophets of Baal. The prophets of this idol wanted to kill Elijah because he proved the power of God. Maybe you remember the two altars? One for the prophets of Baal, and one for Elijah. An offering was placed on the altar, and it was up to the prophets to pray and plead with their God to send down fire to burn the offering. Baal didn’t come through but the God of Elijah, our God, sure did.

Elijah was elated that God came through for him, but also scared witless. All the other prophets of the Lord had been killed or arrested; he was the only one left. And now he was fleeing for his own life. He was tired and scared and needed the solace of God, so he made his escape, hoping to run right into the arms of God in the wilderness.

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Elijah was hungry for an experience of the divine Presence, and even the public display of God’s power in the fire that consumed the altars of Baal could not fully satisfy that hunger. He had some inkling of where to go to find what he was looking for, and he was willing to walk faithfully and resolutely in that direction…

 

Elijah’s wilderness experience is a powerful metaphor for the vast emptiness all of us must walk through on the way to encounter with God. But how we as human beings seek to avoid this truth of the spiritual life! The experience of our emptiness is so painful we will do almost anything to avoid it- and most of us do for a long, long time.

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That chapter has stayed right with me, although I read it many days ago. I ask myself, “Am I ready to face the ‘vast emptiness’ and clear my calendar?” Am I willing to put aside some commitments to dedicate time to silence with the hope of finding God there?

It didn’t take much time to realize that God was calling me to rest and quiet. There’s a reason why this chapter affected me so deeply. I believe God is calling me to slow down, and settle into silence. I also think he might be leading me to a new path, which would mean going back to school. Is that something I should do? Well, I’m not sure really, but I’d love the time to investigate that opportunity.

As a part of paring down my commitments, I’ve decided to stop blogging. I’ve been writing here for almost five years, and I’ve really loved meeting so many wonderful bloggers, and seeing friends and family visit here too. It’s been wonderful, but also time consuming. I’m not saying that I’ll never come back (never say never!), but for now, it’s time to sink into more space in my day, and I look forward to that.

May you have a wonderful, holy and inspiration-filled Lenten Season, and a joyous Easter! If you would pray for me, I’d appreciate it so much. Know that I will be praying for you.

 

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An Evening Song

As early as 60 AD, religious communities of monks and priests would stop their activity at marked times of the day to pray. That tradition evolved over the years into the Liturgy of the Hours. There are eight special times during the day to stop any work or study to come together as a group to pray, and one of those times is called ‘Vespers’, or Evening Song.

At the end of the work day, when the tasks and to-do lists were completed, it was finally time to return home. Going home is such a sweet thing for all of us – it’s a return to the familiar comfort of our dwelling, to rejoin with family and begin to unwind. The monks would take this time, in the waning light of the day, to lift up their praises for the gifts of the day.

 

 

In our family, we had a similar experience. I remember my mom calling us to the dinner table every night. We’d say grace together, and then being telling our stories. Things like what happened at school. What was new on the block. What were the plans for tomorrow. Chatter went on and on, making a joyful noise.

Both the communities of religious and the community of my family celebrated Vespers. The monks would sing in unison at a church, and my family would chat on, one by one at the dining room table, but the result was the same. We both celebrated the gifts of the Lord in the day that just unfolded itself in front of us.

Our Evening Prayer began with grace, and then continued to each child who had something to share. Test scores, hockey practice, swim meet results, who got sick and needed help – all offered to each other like little diamonds that sparkled and gleamed because they were precious events. Precious God-given gifts, presented with love in the hidden hours of our lives.

At the end of the day, when you share the days events with your journal, your pet or your family, what you are truly doing is recounting the blessings that you have. The ability to participate in physical activity, the joy of a special lunch packed by your mom, the chance to help a neighbor in need are all proofs that you have been gifted. As you tell your stories, you not only give thanks for the experiences, but you praise God as you “give thanks in the great assembly.” (Ps. 35:18)

There are so many reasons to be thankful in our days, from the wonder of being called forth from sleep in the morning, to the miracle of sleep overtaking us at night. Everything that we do, see and participate in has been designed specifically for us, so what better way to celebrate that than to share those stories and marvels?

Sharing prayer in a group setting shouldn’t be restricted to religious communities. After all, isn’t family our first religious community anyway? So why not make your dinnertime, or evening time a prayer by telling someone about the wonders of your day. You’ll be singing an Evening Song of praise and thanks to your community, and to your Lord.

 

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What Makes God a Little Bonkers

I think it makes God a little bonkers when we won’t share our trials, hardship and sadness with him. God wants to hear…everything! There’s no need to be afraid. He’s ready and waiting to smite the problem. Not you.

When we pray, we lift up our hearts to the Lord. I agree that it’s a great thing to praise the Creator, Savior and lover of our lives. We have breath, strength, a plan for the day and live surrounded by the support of family and friends. I mean, if you took notes of every good thing you saw today, you’d have a hefty list by bedtime. Just the act of waking up is miracle to be praised.

St. Paul says in Thessalonians: “Rejoice always, pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances.” We are encouraged to be happy, joyful and thankful, and to let those emotions flow into our prayer life. It sounds great doesn’t it? Well, that’s because it is. But…

What if you don’t feel joyful? What if you feel sad, disappointed or scared? Maybe your heart won’t lift off the ground today because you’ve been betrayed. Your child said some hurtful things to you. The bills total more than your checkbook balance. You’d really like to make a joyful noise – but all the disappointing experiences of the day have robbed the joy of your soul.

All you feel is sorrow, anger and embarrassment. How do you make a prayer out of that?

Some people don’t think that prayer should include any negative feelings. Instead, they berate themselves for their emotions, and hurry to throw sand and dirt over them. “God doesn’t want to hear my litany of problems. He wants me to be thankful, not mournful.” So they struggle to ‘pray hopefully’ for a while, trying to smile through the pain. But soon, prayer just stops. It’s too hard. And it feels dishonest.

I think that’s a great idea. Why continue prayer that feels forced and inauthentic? But instead of quitting altogether, beginning to pray from the heart, no matter how the heart feels, would be a sincere and healing step. God knows how you feel anyway, nothing is a surprise to him. So why not settle in to prayer and let your feelings flow?

Remember when your child was small, and it was obvious something happened at school? You’d ask, “How was your day?” And all you get back is: “Fine.” No matter how you ask, the answer was always the same. But you knew things weren’t fine. And if you were me, you’d start to go a little bonkers too. I mean, I can’t force the information out, squeezing my little one like a tube of toothpaste. I’d just have to wait…and watch my child be unhappy.

Well, just like me, Our Father doesn’t want to watch any of us be unhappy either. So don’t drive our Father bonkers. Just tell him everything, he can take it. And then you’ll see how he’ll take on all those problems too.

 

 

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Word For 2018: Read

The new year has begun, so it’s time to elect a new word to guide me through it. In the past, I’ve used ‘joy’ and ‘now’ as the focus, which fit well with my goals for that particular year. For 2018, I’ve chosen the word ‘read’ as my theme.

I’ve always been a streaky reader. I’ll get on a tear, reading books at a fast clip for a few weeks. Then I won’t touch a book for months. I used to think that I must be too distracted by life, just or didn’t know what to read next. But now I think that the reason is a lot simpler than that. Reading just wasn’t a priority.

I want 2018 to be different. I want to turn over a new leaf. (See what I did there?)

There’s just something inside me that’s crying out to learn – to gain an understanding of different perspectives on faith, life, love and even history. For example, my husband and I just saw the movie “The Darkest Hour”. I came away from that film wanting to read more about Winston Churchill. Have I made time to do that? Nope. Now really, that needs to change.

Reading is fundamental to a robust spiritual life too. I have my own ideas about God and how he influences my life. But there are two good reasons to open myself up and seek more knowledge.

Cultivating a Deeper Spirituality

Experts in their fields don’t get there by living in a world of their own. Scientists, medical doctors and car mechanics know if they are going to advance in their practice, they have to read the latest research. If they want to serve well, their knowledge base has to keep advancing.

I want to be the best follower of Christ that I can be. In order to do that, I can’t stay locked in a little box of my own ideas. I have been given the bible, and wonderful books and articles by theologians, writers, and bloggers. They are a priceless source of wisdom, nudging me to create an ever evolving, deeper relationship with Jesus.

Others Will See What I Believe

No man is an island. What I believe and how I life that faith affects other people around me.

If I want to be a positive influence not only to myself, but to the community too, I’m going to need support and encouragement. Reading uplifting and inspirational spiritual literature will give me the boost I need. It’s a reliable way to fill up my soul’s gas tank, giving me the strength to be a peaceful presence. A person who can then support and encourage others.

 

I’m looking forward to this year of reading, both on my own, and in group studies too.

To kick off the “group study” part of the year, I have joined with Linda on her blog to discuss the book “Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence.” You can get the particulars here. Anyone can join in, so check out the link if you’d like to do some reading this year too!

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Mindfulness: It’s Not What You Think

A few months ago, I was looking for a unique way to celebrate my birthday. As I cruised around the internet, checking out different ideas, I came across a class entitled: Mindfulness: It’s Not What You Think. Hmm.

I chose the word ‘Now’ to be my guide in 2017. Instead of living in the past, or worrying about the future, I wanted to be fully aware, in each moment, right now. The class that I found on-line sounded like a perfect way to learn more about my theme. What is mindfulness, but paying attention to what’s happening right now? And I was intrigued. And what did ‘it’s not what you think’ mean?

The instructor opened the class by saying that many think of mindfulness as ‘living in the moment’, but that’s not entirely true. (So that’s where the ‘it’s not what you think’ comes in.)

Imagine you are sitting on a bench by a river lined with trees and a nature path. As you watch the river slowly flow by, you may find yourself focusing on a lone leaf as its pushed along by the current. In narrowing in on that leaf; the trees, path, birds and breeze that also lived in that ‘now moment’, were effectively blocked out and unnoticed.

Seeing and following the leaf wasn’t wrong, it just proves a point: It’s impossible to grab hold of ‘now’ because it’s too wide and too densely packed a place to completely absorb. Isn’t that interesting?

He suggested that instead of trying to constantly grab at an event, while missing everything else (think Lucy and Ethel in the candy factory), we should try to step back and observe as much of life as we can without judgement. There’s a constant flow of events that meets us in each hour, and the goal is to be truly present and aware of as much as possible.

The biggest block to being mindful is overreaction.

As soon as powerful emotions take over, we become frozen in that moment. For example, wrestling with anger over a pushy driver, I’m unable to appreciate all the other courteous drivers or the music in the car, because I’m held hostage by irritation and disappointment. Immersed in negative feelings, beautiful and intricately knit gifts of the day continue to silently glide past me unseen and unheard.

This new way of living mindfully was a revelation to me. It makes sense that it’s impossible to take in everything happening right now, just based on the volume of input. I like the idea of being open to moments instead of trying to to attach myself to them, and trying not to be carried away by emotion. That way, I can lovingly accept every circumstance and give thanks, ready to accept the next experience planned for me.

“Mindfulness” allows me to receive, while “living in the moment” demands that I reach, grab and try to possess each event. Mindfulness certainly sounds like a more peaceful way to negotiate life.

 

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The Secret To Success = Move Forward

Five children, ages seven to ten, were lined up side-by-side on the cement pool deck. My sister and I were among them. The diving coach stood about ten feet in front of us, as he barked out the same rhythm, “Let’s move! Step 1 -2- 3, JUMP.”

Five new divers took three steps forward as counted, and then jumped as high as we could. After jumping, we’d scramble back to the starting point on the deck to do it again. And again. And again. After a while, we added throwing our arms up in the air, while kicking up our left knee to the jumping. Step by repetitive step, we learned how to perform a dive approach.

“If you don’t have a strong bounce off the board, you’ll never have a successful dive. Your approach has to be solid, and your bounce has to be high. Do it again!”

I remember practicing that darn three-step approach for days. Finally, we were allowed to move to the diving board. Step 1 – 2 – 3, knee and arms up, pushing down on the flexible board, bouncing up high, sailing up into the air and landing in the water.

Now, one of my favorite sports to watch is diving. The movements in the air are amazing, as are the perfect entries. But those dives start on the board. Fancy dives don’t just happen without a strong approach and a high bounce.

The instructions barked out to me when I was seven are useful in a lot of places in life, not just on a diving board. Preparation is key for any success. Any good coach will tell you that excellence doesn’t just happen. It’s a result of grasping the fundamentals, making an effort and doing the best you can.

Just ask Moses. He told the fleeing Israelites: “The Lord will fight for you; you need only keep still.” (Exodus 14:14). Um… Really?? That sounds amazing! Pardon me while I take a load off and watch that happen.

Well, Moses was right, but he forgot a step. Fortunately, he had a great Coach. In the next verse, God said to him, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward! And you, raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water…” (Exodus 14:15) Yes, God will give them the victory, but not without their participation.

The Israelites had to go forward, Moses had to raise his arm. Then, and only then, could God bless their efforts abundantly.

In every part of life, we are called to take action. Getting a good test grade, hitting a home run, or landing a perfect dive, it all depends on us. After all, God can’t bless our efforts if we don’t make any.

Our ultimate Coach wants us to practice, to try, to move forward. So if you want to succeed, don’t just grab a chair and a soda, and watch the show.

Instead, do the work to set it up. Bounce high. Then you’ll see what God can do for you.

 

 

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Learning to Celebrate Everyday Victories

I slid into the water between the lane lines at the pool, ready to start my workout. In the lane next to me, a woman was taking a lesson from a private instructor.

When I swim laps, I only go four lengths at a time. After that, I pop up for a fifteen second breather before pushing off the wall to start the next set. So I couldn’t help but hear bits and pieces of the exchanges between instructor and student. It was obvious that the swim lesson was very difficult for the middle aged student. I heard the instructor calmly encouraging her, giving her lots of praise for her short strokes and flailing kicks.

 

What really impressed me was something the instructor said to boost her student’s confidence. “You’ve come such a long way. You used to be afraid to get into the water. Now you can float and swim a little on your own too. That’s great progress! That should be celebrated!”

I couldn’t help but chime in after hearing that wonderful bit of wisdom. I said, (a little breathlessly), “You’re impressing me, that’s for sure.”

The instructor gave me an appreciative smile, and the student let out a shy, little laugh. I could tell she was proud of herself, and I was proud of her too. But even more, I was struck by the instructor’s words.

We really should celebrate our victories, no matter how small they may seem. This new swimmer was doing great things, but she thought she wasn’t doing well at all. How sad is that? I wanted to tell her that every time she overcame her fears, or got even a step further toward her goal, she was victorious.

Why is it so hard to accept that we are capable of doing good things?

As I continued swimming, I wondered about that question. I had to admit, I often fail to recognize or celebrate my own achievements too. Instead, I’ll think, “Yes, I did that. But I could have done it better. Or faster. Or thought of it sooner.” It’s like I repeatedly light the candle of victory in my mind, and then turn around and blow it out with self-defeating criticism.

That little swimming lesson really helped me realize how important it is to recognize personal growth, no matter the size. We all need to experience the encouragement and joy of our personal achievements. A little happy dance, or a small giggle of delight doesn’t mean that you’re prideful or refuse to see that you could do better. It just means that you appreciate the grace and goodness of a work that’s been well done.

In this season of Advent, the weeks before the celebration of the birth of Christ, let’s make a pact. Every day, let’s promise to catch ourselves doing something well, and then stop for a minute to soak that in.

For these next few weeks, let’s claim our daily successes, without exception. All those victories are joyful, encouraging gifts from the Lord, who loves to make his children happy.

Let’s honor our personal daily victories with a little happy dance…or maybe pie?

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I will be taking the month of December off to prepare for Christmas in my home and in my heart. I wish you all a blessed Advent and Christmas celebration, and I look forward to seeing in January. May God bless you and yours with his peace and joy!

An Unexpected Connection

It’s Thanksgiving time, and my house is full of relatives. Naturally, the cable service started acting up. My daughter and SIL were all tucked in and ready to watch their favorite show. The TV picture looms into view: Good! No sound: Bad! Connection issues yet again.

We just had the cable tech out for service. He swapped out our box for a new one, new remote too. The cable wires were rerouted through a bright and shiny new metal coupler, indoors and out. And now this? I am definitely thinking bad thoughts in my head.

Well, couldn’t do much about it. Board games to the rescue! We abandoned the television set for a rousing game or two our family’s ‘go to’ game, Sorry.

The next morning, I called tech support. After successfully getting through to an agent, I described our issue.

“Oh!”, the agent said. “I’m so sorry that you’re having problems. Sometimes after you have a fix done, all we have to do is reset your box from here.”

Great news I guess. Except why didn’t the tech do that two days ago? I am not a happy person.

“And I see that you’ve been a subscriber for…wow! I hope you don’t mind me saying that…well…you don’t sound that old to me.”

Well, that was an awkward thing to say, right? I don’t know if it was the mood I was in, or her southern drawl, but either way, I burst out laughing. “Oh yes”, I replied. “I’m that old. I’m a grandmother.”

“You are?”, she answered in a surprised voice. “I am too! Hold on for a few minutes, I’m still resetting your box.”

“Congratulations!” I replied. This woman has completely disarmed me.

She was quiet for a time, waiting for the equipment to reset. Finally breaking the silence, she said, “Well, thank you…but it’s kind of a challenge really. My son is seventeen. I mean, it’s not like my grandchild isn’t a blessing. It’s just really hard.”

I sat there in my living room in front of that television set, silently willing my heart to stretch and push through the telephone to connect with the heart of a woman I’d never seen or met before, and yet felt so connected.

After we talked for a little while about her family, she said, “I’m all done from this end Mrs. Cecilia. Is the sound back on?”

It sure was. I gave her that happy news, and then told her that I’d be praying for her.

After we hung up, I needed a few minutes to think over what just happened. I began that connection irritated and exasperated, moved on to laughter, and then to prayer. That phone agent might not have been a person open to prayer, or even felt she needed it. But there was a reason we were so randomly paired that day.

She lifted me out of my rotten mood and made my situation more bearable. My hope is that, in my own way, I was there to do the same for her.

 

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“How Did I Get Here?”

I can’t count the number of times I’ve collapsed into the sofa after a crazy day, and thought with a tired sigh, “How did I get here?”

That question is certainly a great lead-in to some introspection isn’t it? It creates a perfect opportunity to silently count the days blessings, but…that’s not usually what I do. Instead, I stare at the ceiling and think back on that crazy, unexpected curveball that started my day, mentally watching it whack into the first domino of my carefully stacked, neatly planned next 12 hours. One after the other, my efforts fell into mindless oblivion as I worked to put out fires and juggle appointments.

Looking back, I know I was working hard, but I just can’t remember specifics.

Memory fog was especially strong when I was raising my two children. I quit work when they were about four and two years old, so I had the great fun of being present to them and for them for many years. But the same syndrome I experienced while working would happen at home too.

The kids loved to wake up early, and seemed to have limitless supplies of energy. (What four and two-year-olds don’t?) PreSchool, gymnastics, swim lessons, trips to the park, laundry, cooking, art projects, books – it was a busy time. My husband would come home from work and ask “How was your day?.  I’d turn to answer and freeze. Um, I don’t know. What did I do all day? It seemed like all I did was keep up. I struggled many days to answer that question, often just settling with “Fine. How was yours?”

Honestly, I’d love to tell him everything we did and how wonderful it all was. But that would mean taking a little break to quietly look back at the passing hours, so I could see, really see, all the joy, sorrow, love and challenge that swirled around us. But who has time for that?

This week, we celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, a day that gently draws us all into self-reflection. No matter how busy or brain-fogged we are by daily responsibilities, we gather together with family and friends to celebrate all the ways we have been blessed. And make a conscious effort to answer the question, “How did I get here?”

The gifts and blessings of each hour, in each day of this past year have shaped and directed us to where we are right now. What a great thing it is to take time this week to look back at all the miracles, seen and unseen, that have allowed us to be…here. Right here. Here in this blessed space with our families, friends and those we serve.

What if “How did I get here?” became the focus of every evening prayer?  I mean, not just on Thanksgiving, but every day of the week. Instead of sitting on the sofa feeling confused, we’d silently review the day instead, giving thanks for each grace that carried us through.

That way, every day would be Thanksgiving Day.

 

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The Sad Truth About Being Too Busy

It’s hard to keep up with life sometimes. Commitments to our families, communities, schools, not to mention volunteer activities; pile up on calendars and spin car odometers. The morning alarm ring starts to resemble the flag drop at the Indianapolis 500.

“And their off!”

At first, having a full plate is exciting. Getting so much accomplished is like winning the premiere race of the day…every day. But after a while, it all just gets overwhelming. And there’s a reason for that: In all the work and movement that’s been scheduled, something got left behind.

In the midst of all the planning, protecting yourself through having strong personal boundaries, somehow didn’t make the list. So on the day goes. There’s so much to do, the day never seems to end. From flag to finish line, there’s simply no time to just take a deep breath. Or be silent. Or meet with a friend. The sad truth is: being too busy, which used to be exciting, now becomes a burden.

But there is a way back. The best way to fight against an energy sapping, over-busy life, is to define some personal boundaries.

Physically, boundaries are easy to see, easy to set up. Things like fences and hedges are all built to do the same thing. They announce “This is where my property begins. This is mine.” Personally and spiritually, it’s a little harder to identify boundaries because you can’t physically see them, or erect them. But they’re just as important as any fence in your backyard.

When you set up personal boundaries, deciding what to do and what to avoid, you are protecting both your time and your heart. When you have healthy limits, your daily burden lightens.

Keeping boundaries in place does take constant vigilance. People will always ask for something, hoping for your time, talent, or advice. It’s so tempting to say yes to everyone, because saying ‘no’ sounds so…unhelpful. But if you say yes every time, the resulting responsibilities will drain your energy. Soon your happy attitude will disappear too, as you begin resenting the work you do, even it’s for a good cause, because you’re tired and over-scheduled. That’s no way to go through life.

The ability to confidently define your boundaries, to decide how much time you have to give, and how much you have to keep, is one of the best gifts you can give yourself. Being at peace with your day and with yourself is is a great grace, and it is also a great desire of our hearts.

Boundaries aren’t just a sign of a healthy and balanced way of life, they are also a sign that you respect yourself, and honor your hearts desire.

You have the power to make balanced, life-giving choices in the course of your day. Use that power to lead you to a well-rested, healthy lifestyle, serving your family and community in the best way you can.

And don’t forget that serving the ‘community’ includes you too.

 

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