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–The Rev. Mark Stanley
“So many things in life are urgently tugging at us,” my conference leader said, “that we have to make sure we also focus on things that are not urgent but are very important.”
These wise words came at the beginning of a weeklong Clergy Conference I attended in Arizona. The event is called CREDO and it is paid for by the Episcopal Church’s Pension Plan. I feel so grateful for the time to hear presentations on personal health, vocational discernment, spiritual practices, and long-term financial planning.
In all these topics we were invited to begin by ruminating on big questions like, “What are my deepest core values?” and “Where do I sense God calling me?” The answers to these sort of questions don’t come fast (at least not to me) but need time set aside for reflection, prayer, and focused conversation. Part of the gift of this week was being with Episcopal priests from across the country, laughing and worshiping and supporting each other in our interior explorations.
It is a rare experience to have a whole week of structured time and expert support to work on long-term life and work goals. But now that I am back to “real life,” I don’t want to forget that reflection and discernment on life’s big questions is an ongoing process.
May we all try to find time in our busy lives to think about the big questions in life and to focus on things that are not urgent but still vitally important.
Lent can be a difficult time for some because it can seem like a second round of New Year’s resolutions, only with less fun and greater opportunity to feel like a failure. But this isn’t what Lent is meant to be about. In the forty days of Lent we are invited to remove any barriers in our lives that may separate us from the love of God. Lent is meant to be a time of focus and prayer, of acknowledging and meditating on Christ’s sacrifice as a preparation for the glorious celebration of his resurrection. To help keep spirits up during this Lenten season, consider trying out the following exercises:
- Remind yourself each day of why you are participating in the act of Lenten sacrifice. Why is Lent meaningful to you? By giving yourself these little reminders, it will help keep your motivation fresh, rather than leave you feeling like Lent’s just another diet or arbitrary restriction.
- Don’t forget to celebrate feast days on Sundays. Giving yourself Sunday as a mini-Easter and a day of rest not only gives each week a little built-in treat, but it can remind you that time spent worshiping and meditating on the Creator isn’t meant to be a time of punishment or hunger or dreariness—it’s meant to be a time of gratitude, fulfillment, and intention.
- If you’re sacrificing something as part of your Lenten observance, then consider also taking something up as well. Whether it be a designated time to pray or meditate each day, a new sport or outdoor activity, a new hobby such as gardening or writing, the taking up of something new and positive as a part of Lent can be a terrific, daily reminder that Lent is more than simply a time of sacrifice. It is also a time of anticipation and giving back.
- Make extra time for friends and family. Lent can sometimes feel like a time of loneliness or self-denial: the denial of fun, alcohol, desserts, movies, etc. But just because a lot of classic Lenten sacrifices impact our recreational activities, it doesn’t mean that Lent should also equal a sacrifice of our social lives. Don’t let Lent become a reason to stay indoors and away from others. Instead, use it as a time to show others how grateful you are to have them in your life.
- Rather than focus on feelings of guilt during the days of Lent, try focusing simply on self-reflection in general. Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself about both the bad and the good. For many people it’s all too easy to focus on the “bad,” on what they aren’t good at, at the things they’ve done wrong, the mistakes they’ve made. But Lent isn’t about feeling terrible and running yourself into the ground. It’s about coming to terms with oneself and with God, honestly and sincerely, so that you might also be transformed, receiving the grace of new life at Eastertime. So make time for prayer, meditation, and self-reflection, and let truth rather than guilt or self-pity be your guide. As Anne Lamott has so wisely said,
“God loves you just the way you are. But God loves you too much to let you stay that way.”
Many people think of chocolates, roses, and poetry-packed cards when they think of Valentine’s Day. But Valentine’s Day can also be a time when we meditate on our loved ones and on the fact that we ourselves are loved. For those with faith—whether it be in the Christian, Jewish, or any other religious tradition—Valentine’s Day can also be a time to meditate on how this faith can be used to enhance our relationships. Here are a few ways that a healthy spiritual life can help us do just that:
- By entering into regular reflective practices such as prayer, yoga, journal writing, or meditation, you’ll not only help keep yourself healthier, but you’ll find yourself better equipped to help and empathize with the needs of those closest to you.
- A healthy spiritual life often means keeping an open mind to things miraculous, supernatural, or beyond ourselves. This exercise in open mindedness can help prepare us with the generosity, respect, and curiosity necessary to learn about the perspectives and beliefs of others. In this way, we deepen our relationship with God as well as with our friends and neighbors.
- Having faith typically also means that you are an active seeker of wisdom and understanding, leading many people into intimate conversations, intense study groups, prayer vigils, and other such settings. Engaging in these kinds of intimate activities with loved ones can be a terrific way of strengthening bonds of trust and understanding.
- Reading and learning about religious texts and histories is often an exercise in learning about the history of love. For Christians this is absolutely the case, as the Bible is packed full of scripture dedicated to the nature and power of love. Meditating on and sharing these passages with friends and loved ones can be a great way of sharing profound feelings when our own words would fall short. This can also be a good way to enhance our relationships with our children, discussing with them the power of love and all its various forms.
- Having faith is a lifelong process of growth and learning. By continuing to grow and seek God throughout our lives, we can sometimes stumble and find ourselves vulnerable or even embarrassed by or anxious about our own changing beliefs and feelings. But if we are brave enough to share these struggles with loved ones, then not only will we find ourselves drawn closer to God, but we may also find ourselves drawn closer to each other as well.
- For many, having faith also means being part of a faith community. Engaging with a faith community, whether through weekly services, gatherings, or other events, opens us up to make new friends while also giving us a safe, reflective space to share with current friends and family.
- A healthy spiritual life usually also goes hand-in-hand with having access to strong mentors in the form of priests, rabbis, and other leaders. By seeking out guidance from available mentors, we open ourselves up to the fact that there is much we can learn from others while also discovering how to become effective mentors and guides ourselves.
We love because God first loved us.
—1 John 4:19
I’ve been thinking a great deal about death lately. Not only is it the week of Halloween, but I’ve also recently had more than a few friends suffer through major surgeries, vehicle collisions, and severe illness. And so maybe it’s because of these events and meditations that I’ve also been feeling especially grateful to have such a life- and living-centered faith. For although many focus on the torment and violent death of Christ, it is important to also constantly remind oneself of what it was he was dying for. To my mind, Christ was not simply a sacrifice, but a man who died for his dedication to the love, life, and eternity of the world. The legacy of Jesus then, for me, has always been a life-centered faith. A faith where the mysterious God empowers us to conquer death, where all things are interconnected and eternal rather than isolated, linear, and full of endings.
Despite this legacy, however, the Christian Church, like many religions, has left in its wake a tremendously bloody history thanks to the failings, fears, and prejudices of its practitioners over the centuries: persecution of countless men and women as witches, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and many other instances of war, terrorism, conquest, and “cleansing.”
As Halloween is nearly upon us, it strikes me as a strangely ideal time to pause and give a moment of remembrance to those who have suffered and to those who continue to suffer at the hands of people who claim to be acting in the name and service of God.
To aid you in this, I leave you with a prayer from Michel Quoist’s classic meditation, Prayers:
Grant me, Lord, to spread true love in the world.
Grant that by me and by your children it may penetrate a little
into all circles, all societies, all economic and political
systems, all laws, all contracts, all rulings;
Grant that it may penetrate into offices, factories, apartment
buildings, movie houses, dance halls;
Grant that it may penetrate the hearts of men and that I may
never forget that the battle for a better world is a battle of
love, in the service of love.
(Quoist, pg 103)
Photo by Jessica Sexton, OSP Youth Minister
How do you feel the presence of God?
This past spring, The Reverend Mary Luck Stanley dedicated one of our Sunday Forums to a meditation on and discussion of just this question. People dove straight in, giving all kinds of fantastic and unexpected responses, everything from “in the love of family and friends” to “it isn’t something I necessarily have to feel, but experience.” Everyone was being so forthright and brave that I was surprised to find myself suddenly and unusually shy. Because although a very specific answer immediately leapt to mind for me, I was sure that no one else would understand, that it’d be thought of as juvenile somehow (despite all my trust and love for my fellow Old St. Paul’s congregants). This, for some reason, I was nervous to share.
And then, to my great astonishment, I didn’t have to—someone else spoke up and said precisely what was on my mind: I experience the presence of God through the weather.
My heart lifted and I know I felt God’s presence in that, in this bold woman’s admission.
I, also, so often experience the presence of God through the weather.
When I’m walking through my neighborhood and feel a breeze that has me looking up at a tree in bloom, a tree I wouldn’t have otherwise noticed, or get to take off my jacket when the clouds part for a great bolt of sunshine, I’m reminded to be thankful—reminded to acknowledge the presence and hand of God in these small but life-filling pleasures.
When I’m sitting at home writing and rain pounds against the windows, I’m reminded to be grateful not only for the rain that feeds the Earth, but also to be grateful for my mother who loves the rain (but rarely gets it where she lives). I’m reminded to be grateful for having a home at all—a dry, safe place to go to when I need shelter from the wet and the storm. And I’m reminded to lift up a prayer for those who do not enjoy the same blessing.
When the sun’s out in full yellow force such that I have to go around my apartment flipping on the window AC units to cool things down again, I’m reminded to appreciate the way my body naturally responds to the world—getting chills or sweaty or tired or energized. And I’m likewise reminded to be grateful for my apartment and those window AC units, knowing how many people go without these life-preserving comforts each year, and I’m reminded to pray for them.
Whenever the weather is just so…
I’m reminded of my childhood in North Carolina, picking strawberries with my brother.
I’m reminded of spending a May week with my mother-in-law in Whidbey Island, WA where together we walked along a chilly beach and were grateful for each other.
I’m reminded of Christmases at home in Texas with my parents, brother, and little niece who I miss/worry about/am proud of/am excited about every day.
I’m reminded of my husband and the pumpkin patch we hunted through this past autumn.
I’m reminded of my husband and the time he kept us both safe while driving home through the one honest blizzard I’ve ever been in.
I’m reminded of my husband and of the walk we took together in remembrance of Freddie Gray.
And I’m reminded of just how few people get to relax enough to appreciate these weather elements as they walk outside, knowing how many women have been attacked or harassed on streets all over the world, knowing how many gay people and people of color have been attacked and harassed, knowing how many differently-abled people find navigating outdoor pathways painful/frustrating/unfair, knowing how many people are forced to live outside and expose the intimacies of their life to the weather in all its moods.
I experience the presence of God through the weather—a pervasive, constant force that fuels the world, touches every life every day, and helps keep me mindful, grateful, and praying.
(Photo by Evan Mead-Brewer)
“The cross that comes at Ash Wednesday is a reminder that you are dust and to dust we shall return, that we share that dust with every other human being who has ever walked this planet, that we share that dust with the stars and the planets, that we share that dust with all that has been created. We are made for relationship with creator and creation.”
Lent has long held special meaning for me, even if I haven’t always treated it with the respect it deserves. For me, Lent serves as a reminder of the tremendous mysteriousness of my creator and of just how small I am in the vastness of God’s work, of the universe’s many galaxies, planets, peoples, and creatures. Bishop Jefferts Schori captures this sentiment so well: the cross that comes at Ash Wednesday is a reminder … that we share that dust with all that has been created. It’s a
truly humbling thought, an amazing thought, and it’s one that I plan to remind myself of every day throughout this Lenten season both through the practice of my own art as well as in the appreciation and exploration of the art of others. Art and the practice of art often helps me feel better attuned to my world and my soul, knowing that I am using the tools my creator has blessed me with to try my hand at the act of creation as well. It feels like a sort of daily communion with God, a daily devotion that helps keep me on a healthy, reflective track. One way I’m hoping to achieve this and keep myself mindful and meditative this winter, is by following the online project, “Intent: A Daily Digital Devotion.” It’s something that anyone with an email address can sign up for, and it sounds like it’s going to be a terrific way to help keep myself focused this Lent. “Intent” is a project created by “young adults from several worshiping communities in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts … inviting one another into Lent this year with a daily dose of their own art, poetry, stories, photography, music and maybe even a cartoon or two” (Episcopal News Service, Tracy J. Sukraw). For more information on this effort and how to sign up for it yourself, just click here.
Pablo Picasso is credited with saying, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” And while I understand this sentiment, I’ve come to think that the opposite might be true: Art illuminates the mysteriousness and beauty of the dust of everyday life. The dust that connects us all. Art can help us to carry this dust, to acknowledge it and accept it without being hindered by its weight or our fear of it.
What do you think? Do you have any quirky methods or ideas in mind for how to keep yourself mindful and reflective this Lent? What arts do you most enjoy experiencing, seeing, or practicing?