Spiritual Practice: Reimagining Lent

 

afterglow backlit beautiful crescent moon

I did not grow up in a church that celebrated or marked the Christian liturgical calendar. Well, I did not grow up in a church at all, but later, when I did attend church, it was one of those big box non-denominational churches that didn’t pay attention to the church calendar. In fact, we skipped right over Lent and Good Friday and went straight to Easter. It was Happy Clappy Christianity, baby. But life is not all roses and it’s good to have time to mourn, grieve, and contemplate change.

When people talked about Lent, it was a mystery to me — still is a bit. It just seemed like a difficult time when people gave up chocolate or alcohol and were miserable. When I first tried lent, I gave up sugar, just in time for a week at camp with college students who were happily eating sugar all week. I. Was. Miserable! And, worse, I wasn’t sure why I was doing it.

christian year

So, let’s break it down and re-imagine what Lent can be. Here is a handy picture of the church year, aka the Christian calendar. On it, you’ll see that Lent is the forty-day period of time when we contemplate the crucifixion of Jesus and prepare our hearts for Easter resurrection. During that time, Jesus knew he was heading to the cross and he was saying the things he most wanted us to hear and remember. “Love one another, serve each other, share food with your enemies…” It’s a good time to re-read those last words.  My pastor, Kris Gallagher, calls Lent, “Christian Spring Training.”

People fast during lent as a reminder of the season and to identify with Christ’s forty- days in the wilderness. It is a time to reflect, review your life, and perhaps prepare to make some changes. It is the season of spring where new life is about to break forth in the earth; we need to be prepared for new growth in our lives too.

If we are giving something up for Lent, Pastor Kris encourages us to ask, “what for?” If you are giving up chocolate or coffee, what is it for? If you eat a lot of chocolate or drink a lot of coffee, you can take that money and give it to someone who is struggling. That’s a good “what for.”

fasting from pope francis

You can also think of adding something to your Lent instead of merely giving something up. Or both, as in the above list from Pope Francis. Try adding a season of gratefulness or thank-you note writing, or make a commitment to listen deeply to someone each day. I love the idea of adding something new during Lent instead of giving something up. Whatever you choose, it can be a mindfulness exercise to keep you present to God, to yourself, and to others during this season. Who wants to join me in trying something new for Lent this year?

Let me know what Lent means to you and how you are trying to reimagine it this season.

 

Top Photo by luizclas on Pexels.com

Spiritual Practices: Archetypes — The Mother

the mother

We are continuing our study of archetypes as a spiritual practice through the book, Illuminating the Way, by Christine Valters Paintner. You’re welcome to get the book and follow along, or just enjoy the blog and comments. This week we are in the third chapter, the archetype of the Mother.

To review from my last blog, Archetypes are “instinctual and universal patterns of thought developed in human beings over thousands of years.” (pg. xi) “The Mother, in the fullness of her form, is the source of all life and nourishment, of unconditional love and care, the generous flow of abundance and grace.” (pg. 38)

Boy, I thought the Sovereign was a rough chapter. The archetype of the Mother has brought up all of my own mama drama. I had to read the chapter twice.  Mothers are complicated. My own mother was incredibly beautiful and fun and adventurous. She was also a workaholic during the day and an alcoholic at night. As you can imagine, trying to work through the shadow issues I may have inherited from my own mother has been a painful, lifelong work, some of which I’ll share here.

But first, the good stuff. I think it is interesting to look at Mary, the mother of Jesus, as an icon of this archetype. As a non-Catholic, I have not spent much time thinking about Mary, save the yearly Christmas story. I loved the idea that she was there for Jesus birth with her brave YES, and she was also there at Jesus death, with a gut-wrenching NOOOOO.

mary mother of jesus

The idea that the inner Mother helps us call forth a YES to birth new things, new ideas, and creativity, while also holding us during our loss and grief was very comforting to me. I grew up with a very masculine idea of God and I’m eager to press into the feminine side of God. I understand thresholds, having navigated, and helped others navigate, both physical births and deaths, as well as other kinds of thresholds. I love the idea that the Mother is there to help lead us, comfort and guide us over those thresholds.

I was intrigued that our inner Mother is to be a source of stability for us. She helps us stay in difficult places and feel our hard feelings. She gives us love and compassion and shows us the gifts that come from staying in those liminal places of unknowing. I need that right now. Even though I’m older, I’m in a very “what am I supposed to do with my life” space. It is difficult and uncomfortable.

My own mother was a seven on the Enneagram. She craved new experiences like a junkie craves drugs. She worked as a nurse, a dental assistant, a hairdresser, a real-estate agent, and she owned two different beauty shops. We moved every three years whether we needed to or not, and difficult feelings like sadness or anger were not welcomed in our house. As a sensitive child, I was labeled a crybaby and I learned at a young age to stuff my hurt feelings.

Sorting through these patterns has been a life work for me; to stay with hard feelings and not run from them. I’m learning to practice the welcoming prayer and acknowledge that these feelings are a part of me and learn from their wisdom and pain. I have worked with my husband to create a stable home for my children, ignoring the internal clock that tells me every three years that it’s time to move, change jobs, or run away.

As I did the imagery of sitting in the presence of the Mother, I felt that she wanted to hold me. I was reluctant but as I allowed myself to be held, I received a mother’s blessing, calling me out of my shell to risk again. She called me to create boldly and to hold my head high, walking in the confidence of my sixty years of wisdom, love, and acceptance of others.

I loved this prayer at the end of the chapter,

“May you be blessed with a yes on your lips and in your heart to the holy invitations that come your way. May you find yourselves in intimate partnership at all of the times of birth that you are called to labor through, and may you know yourself held through a thousand losses and times of grief. May the Mother nourish you with lavish generosity.” (pg. 48)

I’d love to hear how you relate to the archetype of the mother in your own life, or how your own mother gave you grist for the mill of your own growth. Feel free to share in the comments below.

Photo Credits. The Mother, Mary Mother of Jesus

Spiritual Practice: Waiting

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Nobody likes to sit in a waiting room. We might not mind for a few minutes while we catch up on favorite magazines, but after that, we get antsy and impatient and start to think uncharitable thoughts about whomever we’re waiting for.

Have you ever been in a spiritual waiting room, the time between one thing and the next when you have no recourse but to wait on God? It can be disconcerting—but it can also grow your faith and character in a way few things can.

Staying Power

The experience of being “between two things” has been referred to as “liminal space” by spiritual formation writers. In an article titled “Grieving as Sacred Space,” Richard Rohr defines liminal space as “a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them.” He adds:

It is when you have left the “tried and true” but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are in between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer… If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait—you will run… Anything to flee from this terrible “cloud of unknowing.”

Liminal space can be caused by many things: a long-term illness, the death of someone you love, the inability to get a job, the need to decide on a major, a bad relationship that you feel stuck in, or a sense that there is no place for you to bear fruit in the world.

As Rohr suggests, our tendency is to run when we’re in liminal spaces, but I’m encouraging you to stay. Someone once told me that often the best prayer we can manage is to stay in an uncomfortable situation. That’s the best waiting we can do too.

What Waiting Requires

So, whatever the reason you’re waiting, don’t try to rush out of it. Instead, ask God to show you what you can learn while you’re there.

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You might also consider employing these six tips to help you through this time.

  1. Find someone to wait with you. As Pooh says to Piglet, “It’s so much friendlier with two.” Of course, no one can fully share the agony of your waiting, but having a trusted friend, mentor, therapist, or spiritual director along with you on your journey can help tremendously.
  2. Keep a journal. You don’t want to miss the lessons of this time, and journaling can help you sort out your thoughts.
  3. Be kind to yourself. Eat right, sleep well, exercise. It’s easy to feel sorry for ourselves when these times come, but falling into bad health habits will not help you weather this storm. Think of the waiting as a spiritual marathon, and keep up your training.
  4. Don’t be a turtle. Sometimes, when things are hard, pulling away from others and into a protective shell can be a natural instinct. But what you really need when you’re waiting is a community. Reach out to your friends. The journey will be lighter with friends to help support and encourage you.
  5. Find some heroes who have endured difficult times. Interview your parents and relatives about what they’ve learned during trials. Study the life of Martin Luther King Jr. or read poems by Maya Angelou.

Remember, God does some of God’s best work in deserts, cocoons, waiting rooms, and tombs. Don’t fear this liminal space. Embrace the space!

What has helped you get through times of waiting?

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Photo: Waiting Room: From my dentist office waiting room!

The second is artwork called “melancholy: by Albert Gyorgy and can be found in Geneva, Switzerland.

*I originally wrote this article for IVCF and have changed it a bit to fit the language I’m more comfortable with.

Spiritual Practice: Displacement

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Have you ever been in a place where you are the only one who looked like you? Maybe you went somewhere you didn’t speak the language, or the food was unfamiliar, or the customs were confusing. What did it feel like to be in that place? What you experienced is called a displacement experience.

For those who live in the margins, the non-majority folks, displacement is an everyday experience. Being a white, cis-gendered, straight person, I am rarely displaced. I live in a city where I’m in the majority. It is comfortable for me to be who I am here. Why then should I go out of my way to displace myself?

It is important to displace ourselves because this is often the only way to truly know the human experience of our brothers and sisters. How can we have love and compassion if we have never known what it feels like to be “other?” If I am to grow beyond my prejudices and assumptions, I’m going to have to start by displacing myself.

Displacement is the first, and easiest place to enter into honest dialogue about cultural, ethnic, religious and world view differences. If God is the God of all people, and we want to move closer to oneness with God and with each other, we will have to take steps to cross the barriers that separate us.

Here are five easy ways to displace yourself. Pick one, try it and share the results. If you are already from one minority culture, try one from a different group.

  1. One of the easiest ways to displace ourselves is to read a book written by someone who is not like you. Some of my favorites are:

Fiction: The Hate You Give, by Angie Thomas. (especially good on audio)

Non-Fiction: Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum

Memoir: Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians by Justin Lee  

  1. Purposely go someplace where you are not like the majority of people in the room:

Visit an ethnic church, mosque, synagogue, or temple. Places of worship are still the most segregated parts of our society. Let yourself really feel what it is like to be unfamiliar with the culture of the church. There are black churches, Latino churches, Korean churches, Greek Orthodox churches, Muslim mosques, Jewish Synagogues…all will welcome you in, but you may not feel welcome there. This is a good thing to understand as it is often the experience of when a person of color, or a different region, or one of our rainbow family members visits your place of worship.

Take a trip to an inner-city ethnic enclave. Visit China Town or Little Italy; walk through Harlem; go to a gay bar or dance. How do you feel there?

Notice your bodies reaction to this environment: Are you scared? Are you anxious? Can you imagine that some of your brothers and sisters feel those sensations every day at work, or when a police car comes up behind them?

  1. Try a different ethnic food restaurant each month. How does it taste on your tongue? Do you like it? What would it be like to feed it to your baby? What can you learn from different diets? This is a fun and easy displacement exercise!  
  2. Invite someone different out to lunch, or even better, over to your house for a meal (ask if they have any dietary restrictions first!). Then open an honest dialogue as you get to know them. Be a learner, not a teacher.
  3. Watch a movie that is out of your comfort zone. Some of my favorites:

Black Panther (What Africa, undisturbed by European colonization and European cultural dominance, might look like, a sci-fi version of course, but still awesome.)

Love, Simon (When a gay protagonist is the star of a sweet, chaste film, like “Never Been Kissed,” it can open our eyes to the experience of our gay friends.)

The Sea of Trees (Learn about the Japanese suicide culture and deal with the truths of grief in the American culture and how they intersect.)

The Danish Girl (What does it feel like to have one body on the outside and feel like the inside doesn’t match? This will help build compassion for our trans friends.)

I’m still a newbie in this racial reconciliation dialogue but my friends of color have taught me that displacement is a good first step. In light of the things I’ve learned in the last twenty years, I wrote a book that helps put white people into a fictional displacement. It might be a fun and easy on-ramp for you to read. It’s called, Cracker.  

Some comments from reviews:

“Cracker is a must read as it takes you away to a world that we should all see, one that helps you truly open up your eyes to the magnitude of racism and prejudice against gay and lesbian’s. This story not only forces you to face your own thoughts on racism, but it also educates you on the history of oppression creatively through her vivid and strong characters. Cracker will change the world you see and the way you decide to treat people that are different from what you see in the mirror; it opens your eyes and your mind.”

“I recommend this easy to read yet profound book to teens and adults without reservation, and hope that it yields deeper curiosity, trust, and courage to love across difference in every reader.”

“This story made me keenly aware of (and question) my own beliefs in the most profound, imaginative way. Ann’s story riled me up and shocked and shook me to my core. Jacci challenged me and changed my perspective.”

Let me know which displacement exercise you try and what you learn from it!

Photo Credit

Spiritual Practice: Oneness

oneness

My friend Catherine Gregg says the goal of our spiritual growth is “Oneness with God.” I’d add, “Oneness with God and each other,” but I don’t think you can separate the two; they are dependent on each other.

But what is oneness? Is it a pie-in-the-sky ideal, or is it something we can experience here on earth? I’d like to suggest it is what we are working toward every day, and we will occasionally get to experience it. Perhaps we will experience it more and more over time. It takes time because we have to get past a huge roadblock — the space between us. Any space that keeps us apart, the color of our skin, our social economic status, our voting record, our religious or sexual preferences, all of these things keep us separated into us-and-them categories. But, sometimes we can see beyond that into oneness.

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Here’s a story to illustrate:

I don’t go around hugging strangers. I’m warm and affectionate to my family and close friends, but the church I’m currently visiting has a greeting time where everyone hugs each other. It feels very uncomfortable to me, though I’m trying to get past the awkwardness of strangers invading my bubble.

But, recently I went to visit a new hospice patient in her home. I was met by her daughter, who is about sixty years old, and who is also her mother’s caregiver. When she invited me in, she stopped and pointed to a dog bed on the floor with a blanket draped over it. She looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “My dog just died.” Before I could even consider what I was doing, I had her in my arms and held her while she cried. In that moment, we were one. We were not strangers meeting for the first time, we were humans, together in an experience of deep loss that we could both relate to. Even though we had just met, the otherness of her was swept aside by our common pain and shared experience. That is what I mean by oneness, or unity; it is a goal for the human race to be that with each other and with God. It is developing the ability to see beyond our differences to our shared human experience.

But most often we are dualistic, like the way I feel at the church I’m visiting. I am me, and you are you, and why are you getting into my space? This is also true of much of our thinking, it is either/or, black/white, us/them, in/out. I’m not saying it’s always bad to be separate and have boundaries, I’m just saying our long term spiritual goal moves us away from the things that separate us toward a unity of being, with each other and with God. In the words of the Quakers, we “look for that of God in each other.”

A prayer that I often pray before my day begins is, “God, give me your eyes today. Help me see people the way you do.” I challenge you to try this and see if it makes a difference. Let me know what you find out.

Photo images: Sculpture, Hugs

 

Spiritual Practice: Blessing and Releasing

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Photo by Alise AliNari on Pexels.com

We’ve all had relationships that changed from healing and helpful to damaging and unhelpful. Many of us have had these kinds of relationships within our own families. Some of us have worked at jobs that, because of toxic cultures, were sucking the life from our souls. Some of us have attended churches that became so controlling we were dying on the vine.

How do you extricate yourself from this kind of damaging relationship, job or church? There are good ways and bad ways to make the exit.

You try and you try, but when you really need to leave, when that is what is best for your soul, it’s important to leave with as much peace as you can. I love the wisdom that says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18)

And that is where Blessing and Releasing come in. Is there a way you can draw a firm and healthy boundary to separate yourself from a toxic person or environment and yet live in peace?

May you have the courage to listen to the voice of desire
That disturbs you when you have settled for something safe.

John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings


Here’s how to know if it’s time to Bless and Release:

  1. Take a piece of paper and draw a line vertically down the middle of the page. Label one side “Pros” and one side “Cons.” Then write honestly about the thing or person you are considering leaving. If the Con side is heavily weighted, it might be time to bless and release.
  2. Go to a mentor or spiritual adviser, someone who knows you well and yet can be objective. Ask for their honest opinion about leaving. If you have two or three folks who can help you with that kind of wisdom, get more than one opinion. This will help you know if it is time to bless and release.
  3. Pay attention to your body, mind, and spirit. When this person calls, do you cringe? When it’s time for work, do you get a heavy feeling of dread in the pit of your stomach? Is your inner voice screaming at you to “get out?” Our body wisdom is important to listen to when deciding to bless and release.
  4. Sit comfortably in a chair. Let yourself believe that you have already made the decision to leave. Feel it in your body as if it has happened. How does it feel? Do the same exercise as if you have decided to stay. Compare and contrast. This is a good way to get in touch with your true feelings to know if it is time to bless and release.

Then, if it is time, picture the person, job or church cupped in your hands. Slowly open your hands and offer them to God. Pray a blessing over them and let them go. Follow through with whatever it takes to make this happen in your life: a change in relationship, quitting a job, leaving a church…

You might need to hold this person or place before God and let it go more than once! It is so important to bless and release, rather than break off and curse. If we break off relationships and curse those left behind, we become bitter and angry. It hurts only ourselves and leaves a trail of brokenness behind us. To bless and release will put you in a much healthier place as you move on to what is next. And what is next is sure to be a softer, wider and more spacious resting place for your soul.

Have you tried blessing and releasing? I’d love to hear how it went for you.

Spiritual Practice: Rule of Life

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When I hear the word “rule” the rebel in me instantly reacts. Most of us can’t keep a New Year’s Resolution, let alone a list of rules to live by. But a Rule of Life is not about making a list of rules, it’s more about discovering what is important to you and building a trellis upon which those values might grow.

The Rule of Life came out of the desert mothers and fathers from the 3rd and 4th centuries. Interestingly, I recently did a Vision Board with some friends and found the process of working through the Rule of Life very similar. I once hired a business coach, (she’s amazing; here’s her link) and she also took me through a very similar process to find my goals for my business as an author. So, as with many spiritual practices, this wisdom from so long ago has entered many different areas of our world today.

An important caution about creating a Rule of Life is the need to take your time. What you’re looking at are the different areas of your life: Your spirituality, your family, your work, your health, your friendships and how you give back to the world. When you find your core values in each area you can see everything else more clearly. It’s a clarification exercise. When you find out what is most important, you can make better decisions about what you want to keep and what you want to let go. Your Rule of Life can help you get back on track when you find yourself lost on a rabbit trail.

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Here are two different ways to start.

  1. Brainstorm a list of fifty values that are important to you. Then narrow the list to only ten. Try living with that list for a week or two, looking at it daily. You may have to drop or add values to your list until you come to your top ten most important priorities.
  2. Another way to begin includes a visioning exercise. Sit comfortably in your chair and breathe. Picture yourself on a bench somewhere safe and comfortable. Have Jesus or a spiritual leader you respect sit next to you. Tell that other person what you value most and how you want to live faithfully in the world. When you are finished, listen to what they might say about what is important. (This idea comes from www.SSJE.org)

Once you have clarified your top values for each area of your life take your own pulse in each area. Are you doing what you really value with your time, energy, resources? Be gentle and loving with yourself here. This is not a “beat yourself up” moment,  rather it’s a time to free yourself from unhelpful things and help you focus on the gold.

Recently I was walking under a big tree that was dropping its leaves for fall. The leaves were stunning, red, yellow, orange…and I thought, “What a beautiful waste. Why does something so lovely have to be discarded?” I knew the answer of course; the tree had to make way for new growth in the spring. Often, we have to give up good things to make room for better things. That’s what a Rule of Life can help you do.

Once you have refined your list of important values you can make a set of statements or goals to keep and place it somewhere visible. That list is your Rule of Life. Of course, it can be revised over time as priorities change, but its essence will probably not change much.

Have you ever done a Rule of Life? I’d love to hear how it has helped you.

Photo Credit: Rose Trellis
Man on Bench

Try more spiritual practices here: The Retreat: A Tale of Spiritual Awakening