Lenten Reflection 2014: Sometimes It’s Not That Complicated

“Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

I seem to forget that Jesus said that. Quite frequently, in fact. Sometimes all I can hear is the call to follow, to take up my cross and get going, to get out there and bring good news to everybody.

And it’s true that Jesus said these things, but I forget that he also said, in his very last days on Earth, “Abide in me.”

The One who had no place to lay his head told us he would be our place. The One who calls us to take up our cross and follow him said he would make our yoke easy and our burden light.

This Lent, Jesus called me to go back to my first love. To find joy and peace just in being with him, like how good friends can sit together, saying nothing, doing nothing, just enjoying each other’s presence.

During Holy Week, I read Psalm 131, which really brought it all home for me.

My heart is not proud, Lord,
    my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
    or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
    I am like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child I am content.

Psalm 131 1-2

God welcomes me when I’m tired, when I feel overwhelmed, when I feel broken. God invites me to bring this to our times together and lay it down, so I can be calm and quiet, like a tiny child leaning on my mother’s shoulder.

Notice that it’s specifically a weaned child. The weaned child is not restless with hunger, fussing and wanting milk. The weaned child can be content just leaning on its mother, enjoying the deeper-than-words bond they share.

I’ve also been reading the book of John a lot lately, the one where Jesus says “I am” a lot. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the good shepherd. I am the way, the truth, and the life.

Sometimes these statements don’t sound very humble. But the more I read them, the more I hear Jesus humbly offering to take care of all our needs. “I will feed you, lead you, light up your life. I will take care of you and satisfy your needs in a way no human person can. Just come rest in me.”

I make my faith about so many other things sometimes. I worry about getting to church on time, about reading the Bible “enough,” about doing the right things for the right reasons. And we should care what we do; we should want to grow and change for the better.

But the real insight of this Lent, for me, was that I can’t do any of those good things, not for long, unless I abide in Jesus. Like I can’t do a good day’s work if I haven’t gotten any rest.

I need to listen to that call to rest. When I try to pour myself out for others, I quickly feel like I have only the dregs left. But when I let God fill me first, that’s when my cup spills over.

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What This Lent Is All About

Now is the time to say to Jesus: “Lord, I have let myself be deceived; in a thousand ways I have shunned your love, yet here I am once more, to renew my covenant with you. I need you. Save me once again, Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace.”

– Pope Francis I, Evangelii Gaudium

I’m Praying for You, Insomniacs

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work or watch or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

I read this Compline prayer from my little prayer-book before I turn off the light.

Sleep’s always come pretty easy to me. Sometimes I joke that I wish it didn’t, given my tendency to sleep through my morning alarm and always want a little more. But these words echo in my mind, and I start wondering who will be awake through the night tonight.

This woman I’ve known for years through church recently told me she hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in fifteen years. She said this so gently, so lightly, that I almost missed it in the flow of our conversation.

Someone I work with told me she doesn’t ever sleep either, that those days are over for her and I should appreciate the luxury of sleep while I have it.

And then there’s my friend whose husband has Stage 4 cancer right now (click here to learn their story and help them out), who has to be awake before he is, ready to take care of anything he needs.

Or my partner’s father, who is often awakened by noises or just by pressing worries and can’t seem to slip back into dreaming.

Or my friend Andres who works as a janitor late into the night, driving home to his family when they’re all asleep already.

I could go on. There are so many people who are awake through the night, and they need prayer. In the quiet, in the loneliness of the darkest hours of the day, they need prayer. I like that this prayer says Jesus himself is looking after the awake ones, and the angels get deputized to watch the sleeping ones.

I need to pray prayers like this. I need to be reminded that God cares for us, waking or sleeping. I need to keep in mind that God cares for everyone, even in the moments when it seems like the whole world is asleep.

I’ll be thinking of you tonight, friends. I will be wishing peace and rest for you, and most importantly, that you will feel Someone out there caring for you.

When I Don’t Know How to Pray

Today is one of those days that leave me wondering if I woke up in a strange mirror universe where no one speaks my language.

I hate those days.

I love communicating things to others, helping them understand. It’s why I love teaching and writing. In college, my teachers didn’t praise my papers for being brilliantly original – and in creative writing, I’m far from a master wordsmith – but gosh darn it, people have told me hundreds of times that my writing is clear.

Apparently that’s pretty important to me, because on days like today, when I feel like no one gets what I’m saying, I get disheartened really fast.

Customers. Coworkers. Church members. Loved ones. I’ve had misunderstandings with them all today, it seems. And since I’m wired to seek understanding, I wonder, Since my words don’t work today… what do I do?

Honestly, I don’t even know how to pray today. I can’t articulate my problems. I don’t even know what to ask for.

So on a day like today, silent prayer is a real blessing.

Because it’s easy to forget I don’t need to use words. God knows what I need before I ask. The Holy Spirit intercedes for me, prays for me when I don’t know what to say.

I can relax. I can know for the first time today that there’s no danger I won’t express myself well, that I won’t be understood.

I can simply be still and know God is there.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: Afternoon break, in the conference room where I’d tried so hard to articulate myself (and seemingly failed miserably) less than an hour before. How wonderful to embrace the restfulness of silence in that very same space.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

I Must Become Less

When I was a teenager, I’d occasionally dream I was someone else. My dream alter ego was never anyone I knew; once I dreamed I was a stocky, pale-haired young man named Charlie, and I dreamed up a best friend and a mom for myself out of whole cloth, too. When I woke up from these kinds of dreams, my thoughts went like this:

First, Whoa, that was weird.

Then, Wow, that was such a relief!

Especially as a teenager, obsessed with my appearance and how others perceived me, it was amazing to get to be someone else for awhile. My constant preoccupation with myself was a burden I only noticed when it was temporarily lifted.

That’s a part of what prayer is to me, too.

In Christianity, we say things like, “We have to die to ourselves,” or “He must become greater, I must become less.” I know this sounds shocking to some people, like following Jesus involves violence to oneself.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. This is just the Christian way of saying something that many other religions also say, most notably Buddhism. The false self, the ego, the impostor, whatever you want to call it: so much of our constructed identities are actually burdensome to us.

And we don’t realize this until we lay the burden down for a few minutes. When we become less and the Higher Power becomes greater, it’s like the cage gets smashed open or we peek our heads out of the cave to see the world above.

I must become less… not because God wants me to suffer, but because God wants me to be truly free.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: In the conference room at work again. The word of the day was “love” – I know I could meditate on that one for a long, long time.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

Why Silence?

So what’s wrong with praying with words, anyway?

Absolutely nothing. I love to pray with words. I’m a word person. Whether spontaneous or ritualized, prayerful words are always beautiful to me.

Well then, what’s so great about silence?

I’m going to quote my favorite artist again, the abstract impressionist Mark Rothko, when asked once to describe the feather-edged blocks of color he painted again and again in his late career. Could he offer any comment on his art, moving for some, baffling for others?

The artist replied, “Silence is so accurate.”

Silence is a place beyond judgment.

Words are beautiful. They are a tool we can never, should never, completely put down. True words can give life. Beautiful words can restore the soul. And yet, all words are limited. All the more so when the words are about God, to God, for God.

For those of us who have been wounded by religious words brandished as weapons, silence can be a welcome place to rest.

For those of us who struggle to find the right words to say, silence is a way to let the Spirit speak for us.

For those of us who spend our lives analyzing, categorizing, judging (all necessary things sometimes) silence can help us experience the world in a different way.

Silence can help us learn that ultimately, we are not what we do, how we look, how much we know. We just are, and there is so much beauty and value in how we are.

Silence helps us admit that we don’t have the world or time or our Higher Power all figured out. There is so much more to life than we could express in words.

And silence speaks to that.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: First thing in the morning again. Again, my mind found it hard to center, drifting off even more easily  than usual into dreamlike fantasy. But even though I’m not at my best in the morning, there’s nothing like starting my day with prayer. It sends a message to my still-sleepy brain that prayer is important, that it’s real, that it can change my day and my life and my eternity.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

I Am With You Always

I forgot to mention what’s printed on the back of that card Sister Shirley gave me years ago now.

Just one tiny, tiny verse:

I am with you always. Matthew 28:20.

Like most slivers of Scripture that get put in greeting cards, it seems so tame and comfortable, even self-serving.

But what if I really believed that about Jesus? That he was with me… always?

Honestly, that’s kind of a scary thought.

There’s a lot I still don’t like about myself. There are a lot of true things about myself that I still do not want to believe.

I’d rather pretend. I’d rather hide until I’m good and ready. I’d rather never be seen messing up at this prayer thing, this faith thing. If possible, I’d rather already be a saint, thank you very much.

But Jesus is with me now. And Centering Prayer is just my way of acknowledging that, of saying, Yes, I know I can’t hide from you. And I won’t even try. Here I am, in all my ugliness and all my beauty.

You know me. Now I want to know you.

And then, when I’m brave enough to really be there, to bare my flawed self in front of my perfect Savior, is when I hear the true comfort of those words.

Real now, spoken to me: Daughter, I am with you always.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: first thing in the morning, swaddled in blankets with a cat on my lap. I think I may have been a little too comfortable (and sleepy) to really practice awareness. But as I’ve noted before, my cat is great at getting me to stay in the present moment.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

4 Simple Steps to Centering Prayer

Modular

(Photo credit: derekbruff)

About a dozen of us came to the church in the dark, an hour before the Sunday morning service, and formed a circle on shabby folding chairs around our teacher. Our expressions were serious and determined. We wanted to learn how to Really Pray. We figured there must be lots to learn, since Sister Shirley’s class would last for six weeks.

I still have the little card she gave us, the one with the instructions. It’s lived for years in my threadbare first Bible. Essentially, Sister Shirley told us, Centering Prayer is as simple and hard as this:

1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within.

2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word.

3. When engaged with thoughts, return ever-so-gently to the sacred word.

4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

Turns out, there wasn’t much more to teach us. The six weeks were more like a support group, meant to get us in the habit. Sister Shirley checked in with each one of us, gently, about how faithful we’d been to our prayer practice over the previous week.

We struggled. Our lives felt too crowded and urgent for silence. Some days, we forgot all about the Centering Prayer thing. Often, we tried to pray and fell asleep instead.

“When that happens,” Sister Shirley instructed, “just thank God for the rest.”

I’m still grappling with these simple instructions. It seems so hard to do so little! And I’m way out of the habit now. I’ve found room in my life for so many more things than just sitting there in thankful enjoyment, in quiet relationship with God.

Which is why I’m glad you’re reading. Sister Shirley knew: these kinds of simple things, it’s hard to do alone. We need each other.

And if you want to use these four simple steps to follow along at home, I’d be delighted. Leave a note in the comments if you’d like to share your experience.

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: taken on my lunch break, in the training room. Crazy, dreamlike thoughts floated through my mind and I tried not to get stuck in them (with limited success). I think I actually did fall asleep for a minute. When it was over, I mentally conjured Sister Shirley’s expression of patient encouragement.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

The Reasons Why I Shouldn’t Do This

I’m getting over a chest cold, which means “Just relax and breathe!” seems more impossible than usual right now.

I live in a studio apartment with another person and a cat and work in a very crowded office, so “Go into your room and shut the door” isn’t as easy as it sounds either.

I work full time, write on the side for fun and profit, organize a fundraiser for my church every year starting right about now, just started a new volunteer job, and am learning Biblical Greek in my spare time. (Yeah. Really.)

And all those Christmas presents won’t make themselves.

And then there are those pesky things like dishes and cooking and actually spending time with my loved ones.

So I really don’t have the time, or space, or mental energy to sit there and do nothing. Even for 15 minutes. I am booked. I am double-booked.

But then I realize something: how I spend my time determines who I am.

And really, what do I want people to remember about me at the end of my life? My efficient fundraising? My spotless kitchen?

Do I want them to remember me as harried and overworked?

Or do I want them to remember me as someone who exuded a quiet joy because she took the time to soak up God’s presence?

To that last one: yes, yes, yes.

And taking the time means making the time. So this month’s motto will be “do it anyway.”

Today’s 15 minutes of prayer: snatched in the conference room at work, which was actually free for once. Mostly spent just trying to let go and get quiet. But it’s not about how I feel, it’s about doing it anyway.

I’m spending this month blogging with other Faith and Inspiration writers at The Nester’s 31 Days challenge. Here’s the complete list of my posts for the month so far.

31 Days of Centering Prayer

Candle by Nadia SzopinskaHi everyone! I’ve decided to do a fun little blogging challenge for the month of October. For 31 days straight, I will do Centering Prayer for at least 15 minutes, at least once a day, and I will blog about my experiences here. Hopefully it will be encouraging to others, because let’s face it: a daily prayer habit is hard, particularly when our lives seem to get busier all the time. Yet it’s definitely a habit I feel is worth cultivating, so this will be my attempt to put my money where my mouth is.
I’m excited to share my month-long experience with you all. Check back later for more updates!

The graphic I made is based on a photo graciously provided by Nadia Szopinska.

Day 1: The Reasons Why I Shouldn’t Do This

Day 2: 4 Simple Steps to Centering Prayer

Day 3: I Am With You Always

Day 4: Book of the Week: Sister Wendy on Prayer

Day 5: Step One: Choosing a Word

Day 6: Step Two: Sitting Comfortably

Day 7: Step Three: Letting Go

Day 8: Step Four: Concluding with Silence

Day 9: Why Silence?

Day 10: A Great Prayer by a Great Contemplative

Day 11: Book of the Week: The Cloud of Unknowing

Day 12: Thoughts on Prayer and Time

Day 13: Prayer and Healing

Day 14: Distracting Thoughts: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Day 15: Words Vs. Silence

Day 16: Burdens Lifted

Day 17: The Fruits of the Spirit Don’t Fit in My Shopping Cart

Day 18: Book of the Week: New Seeds of Contemplation

Day 19: The Real Secret about Prayer

Day 20: My Top Distracting Thought During Prayer and What It Means

Day 21: The Most Amazing Portable, Free Prayer Tool

Day 22: I Must Become Less

Day 23: The Necessary Luxury of Prayer

Day 24: When I Don’t Know How to Pray

Day 25: Book of the Week: Manifesting God

Day 26: A Helpful Mnemonic for Centering Prayer

Day 27: When I Think to Myself, “Why Pray?”

Day 28: I Need More Salt

Day 29: Getting Ready to Close the Door Again

Day 30: The Humblest of Miracles

Day 31: The End is the Beginning