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Author: Amelia Richardson Dress

Stop Searching for Security and Start Building Confidence

Stop Searching for Security and Start Building Confidence

If you happen to be up late at night surfing the internet or watching television–or maybe even both at the same time (as one does to relax after a long day), you’ll find yourself inundated with ads like this:

  • “Protect your future, buy gold!”
  • “Protect your home, buy insurance!”
  • “Protect your children, see a financial planner!”

All of these, of course, are accompanied by bleak visions of what happens when we fail to do any of these things. By the end of the evening, you’re likely left with a deep sense of foreboding and a resolution to see a financial planner, an insurance agent and a gold broker tomorrow.

If advertising as tells us anything about ourselves it’s that our deepest desire is to be insulated from life’s ups and downs. We want to rest secure in the knowledge that no matter what happens, we’ll be ok.

Well, here’s the biblical truth, offered in the hope that it will set us free, as the truth is supposed to do:  no one can promise security. Not the announcers on late-night television, not political leaders, not our bank accounts—not even Jesus.

Sometimes Christianity has tried to paint the Christian path as though it is one of security—that faith might insulate us from grief, illness, sadness or even promise “prosperity” but a cursory look at the life of Jesus shows us this simply isn’t true.

Not only does Jesus reject security in pursuit of the more daring life but he calls his followers to do the same.

Now, I want to stress that security is closely linked to survival. It’s literally a life and death matter to have food, housing, health and loving friends or family. We’re not a congregation that’s about romanticizing poverty or economic insecurity. And, in fact, romanticizing life’s hardships is another way that we protect ourselves from experiencing them directly. As long as those struggles can remain “other people’s walk with God,” we’re protected from having to walk that path ourselves.

Take for instance the Beatitudes. We so often read these as words of comfort for people who are struggling. And they are at least that. But we make a mistake when we point them at other people–they are words directed at all of us. Comfort or challenge as the case may be, they are also a call to a new kind of lifestyle, one that embraces “blessedness” over wealth, health or even safety.

In Where the Red Fern Grows, grandpa sets a raccoon trap to catch one of those masked bandits. The trap is just a hole in a log, and in that hole is  a shiny object. The raccoon reaches in, grabs the object but then the opening of the hole is too small for him to pull his fist back out. This is his trap: because he won’t let go, he’s stuck to the spot as sure as if he was actually in a cage.

While there’s much to be said about the virtue of persistence, we want to make sure we’re hanging on to the right thing. I can certainly recount times in my life when I’ve held onto some shiny object of security rather than choosing the adventure and freedom that comes with relaxing my grasp. And so the search for security becomes it’s own kind of trap because we can never achieve complete security in a shifting world.

Now, if you had time to look at the bulletin and noticed that our topic today is confidence, you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with that. What’s “confidence” have to do with “security?” Well, the answer is simple: nothing.

Confidence and security aren’t related at all. Which is exactly the point. As humans, we face a great deal of insecurity. Economic, social, biological even cosmic insecurity. So while it would be logical to believe that the cure for insecurity is security, it’s actually not.

The cure for insecurity is confidence.

Security is outward facing. It’s a set of circumstances. And because we can never actually control all of our circumstances, we can never achieve full security. Confidence, on the other hand, is an inward trait. It’s the inner disposition to believing that we can handle whatever comes our way. For religious folks, confidence is the inner discipline of believing that we can handle whatever comes our way with the help of God.

Now, the importance of this spiritually is that we are called to risk taking faith. As individuals and as a congregation, we’re asked to continually push the boundaries of our comfort zones. That’s what it means to be a progressive Christian–we believe God is on the move, creating winds of change that are blowing us toward a new heaven and new earth. Our choice, always, is whether we’re going to choose the security of keeping things the same or the confidence of stepping out with God.

In her TED Talk on creativity, author Elizabeth Gilbert says, “You should never be afraid to do the work you were put on this earth to do.”

And assuming that we were all put on this earth to co-labor with God, which is of course a central part of our beliefs, then I have to ask: how often are we letting our insecurities get in the way? How often are we choosing not to live fully into the future God is creating because we’re afraid of taking a risk, however big or small it may be?

So, that’s all well and good when it comes to a pep talk from the pulpit but what does it really mean when we walk out those church doors? How do we take this idea–that we should have confidence in ourselves and in God–and make it a reality?

I know from experience that haranguing myself to “have more faith,” or “trust God more” or tell myself, don’t work well in the long run. So I’d like to offer some wisdom inspired by therapist and author David Richo.

Richo categorizes 5 basic fears and some possible responses. I’m calling them our “security response” and our “confidence response.”

  • First basic fear: we might lose everything we have. Security response: becoming less committed and stoical. The confidence response: learning to grieve and let go.
  • Second basic fear: Our expectations won’t be met. Security response: Plan every detail and try to stay in control. The confidence response: accept what happens and learn from it.
  • Third basic fear: We might not get our fair share. Security response: Blame those we perceive as getting “more.” Confidence response: Have an attitude of “you win some you lose some” while working for social justice.  My observation is that there’s a second possible security response: to become competitive. The confidence response here would be to practice generosity of time, money or emotional support.
  • Fourth basic fear: We won’t be able to handle pain when it happens in our lives. Security response: Be on guard to avoid pain. Confidence response: Allow pain that is natural and learn not to add to pain by attempting to control it.
  • Fifth basic fear: We will be hurt by others. The security response: stay away from closeness. The confidence response: Learn to speak up when others hurt us while not retaliating.

Hopefully you recognize yourself somewhere in these 5 responses because that means you’re on the growing edge.

Confidence only comes when we conquer insecurity.

We can’t grow in confidence in either God or ourselves if we’re not venturing into the place we’re feeling insecure. We all have at least one shiny object we’re learning to let go of. But with practice, and with the assurance that we don’t walk this path alone, we might find that we learn to let go just a little bit sooner each time.


Sermon given at United Church of Christ, Longmont on August 27.

My “security vs. confidence responses” are mostly drawn from David Richo’s book The Five Things We Cannot Change and How to Embrace Them, although he doesn’t frame them this same way.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Making Peace with Prayer

Making Peace with Prayer

Martha McMarthason (not her real name) was the queen of prayer in my small hometown. “I’ll pray for you,” was her answer for everything. I don’t know whether she did–although I always suspected she didn’t. Instead, she wielded these words like a weapon, shutting down everyone who said or did something she didn’t approve of.

“I haven’t seen you in church in a while. I’ll pray for you.”
“I saw you eat an extra cupcake at the school party. I’ll pray for you.”
“I saw your child eat an extra cupcake at the school party. I’ll pray for you.”

I tried it out myself for a while (mostly on my siblings) and am both exhilarated and ashamed to report that “I’ll pray for you” is the most effective way to end an argument.

“You borrowed my red sweater without asking!”
“You should learn to be more generous. I’ll pray for you.”

There is a tremendous amount of power that goes along with this phrase. However, even my adolescent self recognized that it was a low-down move, the ultimate in unfair fighting, a way of co-opting God to prove your holier-than-thou status.

Uneasy with this power–and the implied judgement–I stopped sharing my prayers with people. The phrase, “I’ll pray for you,” simply had too much baggage. Even as a chaplain and then in my first church, I choked over the words. “I’m thinking of you,” was so much easier to say.

I could, after all, pray for someone without necessarily telling them about it–thereby sparing myself and them the embarrassment of wrestling with this loaded phrase. Better still, I could quote the Bible while I did it.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room, shut your door and pray to the Father who is unseen.

It was only later that I realized that boldly proclaiming our prayers can be an act of comfort and love, not just an act of superiority. Naturally, I learned this the same way I learned the first lesson–through personal experience.

If you’ve ever had someone pray for you–really, truly pray for you–you know what I mean. There are some people who say “I’ll pray for you” and this simple utterance feels like being wrapped in a soft blanket. The words themselves become a prayer, a promise that they value you enough to use precious time with God talking about you.

Rather than the sense of certainty that Martha McMarthason imposed with her judgemental prayers, real prayer is laden with risk. When I dare to say to someone now, “I’ll pray for you,” the power comes not from my superiority as a praying person but from my vulnerability as a person of faith. Every time I dare to offer prayer, I am reminded that ultimately I don’t know if the prayers will be answered, if the person I’m speaking to will want my prayers or even if God exists. These are all questions that touch on the great mysteries of life and faith–which is why offering to pray for another is such a powerful act of love. When we do it sincerely, we put our whole selves on the line.

And when someone takes you seriously enough to risk an act of faith on your behalf, that’s great love indeed.

I spend a lot of time talking with folks who have been wounded by church and the topic of prayer is a hot one. It seems I’m not the only person who had a Martha McMarthason in their life–someone who wielded prayer like a sword instead of a balm. Those wounds cut deep. And often, it seems, our response is to distance ourselves from the entire act. We stop sharing our prayers with each other because we associate it with judgement, not love.

But I believe this is precisely why we need to reclaim all this prayer business. We need to reclaim it as an act of faith: risky, vulnerable and built on love. I know, the idea makes some of you shudder. Acts of faith are that way. And I don’t really have anything riding on whether you pray or not, I’m just offering this invitation: once I experienced real prayer, in real praying communities, I discovered a new depth of faith and relationship.

I still feel that old hesitancy every time I offer prayers for someone but now I take it as a good sign. After all, prayer shouldn’t be flippant, or easy or–least of all–judgmental. Those of us who know this may be the best people to take on the task after all.

The Fine Art of Presence

The Fine Art of Presence

“You have nice teeth.” Ellen peers into my mouth with the studiousness of a scientist. “Who’s your dentist?” She asks. I explain, again, that my dentist’s office is in a nearby town. She responds, again, that she doesn’t know him but her husband was a dentist right down the street.

Ellen is a hospice client I’ve been visiting. I know her only through the veil of her dementia, which caused her to be sullen and angry much of the time. On this day, though, she’s in good spirits.

“You have nice teeth.”

“Thank you.”

“Who’s your dentist?”

We repeat our lines as though we’re practicing for a play and then I try to redirect. “Oh, look, the cherry tree is beginning to bloom.” I say cheerfully.

“It is, isn’t it?” She says this in a half-hearted way. It’s the same tone parents use when they’re only half-listening to their children. Then, more excitedly–as though she’s trying to redirect me, “You have nice teeth! Who’s your dentist?”

By the time I left the senior living home that day, we’d had the conversation so many times I’d lost track. It’s a special kind of challenge to stay present in a nonsensical situation. Parents know it well; it’s why so many of us struggle with activities of “let’s pretend,” where the rules are always changing and the game has no apparent goal, or when there’s endless word games and silly questions.

In Jan Richardson’s book Sacred Journey’s: A Woman’s Book of Daily Prayers, she reflects on the work of being present. She calls this the art of “with-craft.”  

Like any art, I believe the art of with-craft must be practiced. It comes more easily to some than others but we all grapple with it in our own way. We grapple with spending hours in pointless conversation when time is limited and tasks are not. We struggle to prioritize people over projects, or someone else’s needs over our own. We wrestle with simply slowing down enough to sit with another.

Practicing presence requires the same slow attention that meditation does, the same deliberate breathing, the same centeredness. It requires, too, the same willingness to embrace paradox. In with-craft as in meditation, we learn an amazing secret: that the times in which we appear to be doing the least–sitting, talking, breathing–are really the times in which we’re doing the most.

Ranier Maria Rilke says it well, “I have often wondered whether especially those days when we are forced to remain idle are not precisely the days spent in the most profound activity.”

So it is when we find ourselves tied up with “meaningless” interaction–the conversations that have no storyline, the childish games that have no winner, the conversations that meander. These moments carry with them the most power precisely because they lack purpose. They are transcendent, defying words and resting purely on the Mystery that drew us together in the first place.

This is the antithesis of our typical interactions. Too often, our exchanges are purely transactional. We communicate in order to get something. “Please get your shoes on.” “Can you do the dishes?” “When will that project be done?” Even our “how are yous” are often rushed through as a means to an end.

Practicing with-craft means learning to see relationships as ends-within-themselves, not the means to an end. This seems simple but it’s a bit revolutionary. After all, we’re people who hold networking events, which are after all nothing but relationship mining. In the business world, we even refer to people as “resources,” which of course we must carefully allocate.

With-craft demands another way. In practicing this powerful art, we learn that presence has power. I don’t know what, if any, good I accomplished for Ellen that day. I’d like to think that for an hour or so she experienced the pride of her younger years, before her independence was robbed along with her mind.

But I know that she did me good.

There is some ineffable joy that comes from sitting with another, just being people on a journey together. This is why I think that with-craft isn’t primarily about us helping others, as though our attention is an allotment that should be carefully doled out. It is just as much, if not more, about us being open to their presence. It’s about the amazing mystery of the incarnation: that God is with each person we meet in a new and unique way, which means each and every encounter is an opportunity for grace.

Transformation Begins in Slowing Down

Transformation Begins in Slowing Down

Well, it’s over.

By the time you read this, you might have eaten 6 weeks worth of chocolate or binge watched Netflix or put away whatever spiritual practice you took on. Me? I plan to put Easter decorations away and finish projects that got set aside the hubbub of Holy Week.  

Life will be back to normal, hallelujah and praise be to God.

This is, of course, exactly not the point of Easter. Every year I do this, though–invest all my energy into the preparations so that by the time it’s over I have no energy left for the actual transformation. Someone (perhaps N.T. Wright, although I can’t place it exactly) writes about this phenomenon. They make the point that Lent isn’t meant to be the main show. And yet, year after year, we exhaust ourselves “doing Lent right” or at least “getting ready for the Easter holiday” and forget about living Easter right.

It’s like gorging yourself on appetizers and leaving no room for dinner.

On Maundy Thursday, our church held a service of lament. Using Jesus’ last words from the cross, we cried out our pain and suffering, naming all of the ways our hearts are heavy for this world. We had plenty to cry out. Bombs are being used, water is being polluted, children are starving and the things seem very dark indeed.

We are desperate for transformation–literally dying for it.

So on Holy Friday, I devoted my prayer time to this question: how do I move forward from this place? How do we all move forward into Easter, not just as the celebration of a holiday but as a way of life that can transform the world? How do we keep believing that the world is being transformed, when the news cycles and our personal stories too often point to the contrary?

Per usual, God didn’t hand me The Great To-Do List, with all of God’s plans clearly laid out. This is always frustrating for me but after years of experience with it, I’m getting better at handling my irritation. So instead of leaving Easter with all of the answers to life and death, I’m leaving it with only a sense of longing.

But then maybe this is the answer to my prayer for transformation. Maybe instead of running around desperately trying to fix all the things, we need to get comfortable with the heartache. Indeed, I wonder if our desire for the “quick fix” is the thing standing between us and God’s reign.

Last week, many Christians immersed themselves in a story that quickly move from the cries of a happy crowd to the shouts of a blood-thirsty mob. It’s hard to overlook the fact that a grand desire for expediency drives the entire narrative. We love Jesus as long as he’s promising to take on the empire but our disappointment runs deep and vengeful when we realize his plan involves a lot of sitting around with the poor. And the authorities fall into the trap too–trying to solve a problem too quickly, rushing through late night meetings and ignoring the advice of the more savvy members of their staff and families. Resorting to action that is swift, decisive and violent.

So maybe this year transformation starts with rejecting the quick fix. Maybe it starts with spending more time in prayer and less time in planning meetings. Maybe it begins when we  embrace ambiguity and let go of urgency. Maybe it even starts when we agree to stay small, and make time to see God in other people, and do good where we can.

Maybe transformation happens for us all when we stop looking for our to-do list, and start looking for our center.

I don’t know. These are all maybes. But I do know that the tragedy of fast action and quick decision making has been playing out for at least 2000 years, not just in politics but in personal lives.  And so maybe, just maybe, it’s time we tried another way.

What We Mean When We Talk About Sin and Salvation

What We Mean When We Talk About Sin and Salvation

Holy Week has arrived with all of its theological baggage.

Now, don’t get me wrong—I love Holy Week. It’s one of those times in the year when we immerse ourselves in the stories, discovering that no matter how many times we tell and retell them, there’s always more to discover. But for many people, Holy Week also brings with it memories of guilt-laden, gore-filled teachings meant to impose the sense of seriousness and moral responsibility necessary to fully appreciate the grace of Easter. Sadly, for many, this leads to the arrival of Easter with a sense of dread and confusion rather than a sense of joy and celebration.

I’m going to be completely blunt: a theology that emphasizes the suffering and death of Jesus as the central event in God’s salvific work is weak theology. It’s theology meant to justify a horrible act and to relieve us from any responsibility besides simply “believing in it.” Jesus did suffer, excruciatingly. And yes, I believe that hearing and understanding this story is crucial to fully appreciating Easter—but not for the reason of proving our faith is “the right one” or boosting numbers of converts saved from certain hellfire.

That being said, the Easter story is undoubtedly one of sin and salvation, for those who followed Jesus then and for those who follow Jesus now. So as we move towards Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I’m unpacking some of the things we say this time of year. My hope is that by placing these ideas in the broader, richer context of Christian tradition we might experience Easter in a way that is fresh, unencumbered and transformative.  Here goes:

Jesus died for our sins.

The story of Jesus betrayal, arrest and crucifixion is absolutely a story of human sinfulness. It’s the story of people seeking power over justice and security over mercy. From Jesus’ friends who failed to stand with him, to the people who shouted “crucify him,” to the authorities that conspired in the night to execute an innocent man, all participated in the crucifixion. And when we look in the mirror and confront our deepest truths, we know we’re still part of the same systems. We might not have participated directly in that event 2000 years ago but we participate every single day by the choices we make and the harder choices we refuse to make. To the extent that Jesus is with the oppressed, as he himself says he is and will be, he continues to die because of our sins.

We are saved by Jesus’ death.

Often when we talk about salvation we’re talking about salvation from hell after death. There is certainly some biblical instruction that supports this but it’s an incomplete view. When we look to the broader context of the biblical teaching, we see that salvation begins now. It begins with learning to be people of hope rather than people of fear. The fact that this path can lead to death is a sign of the seriousness of choice we must make when we decide to follow Jesus.

I don’t know what happens after we die but I can say this: I’ve experienced the deep love of God in Jesus. Because of that, I trust that whatever happens, it will be consistent with a God who is good and loving and merciful.

Jeus is a sacrifice/God sent Jesus to die and/or God came to earth in the person of Jesus in order to die

Jesus did not come to die. His life wasn’t lived out simply so that he could be a “pure sacrifice.” Jesus came to show us the Way and to invite us into deeper living. His life stands on its own. Now it certainly seems that Jesus knew that his way of life would lead to his death. (He’d have to be crazy not to know this—people who challenge power don’t live long.) The sacrificial nature of Jesus’ life isn’t that he was led to slaughter like a lamb but that he chose to follow God’s way even when it became dangerous. 

The Resurrection proves that Christianity is the Right Religion and/or proves that Jesus was God and/or proves that Jesus was God’s sacrifice and/or proves anything else we try to prove

Look, the Resurrection doesn’t prove anything because we can’t prove the Resurrection. There was time in my life when I would fight tooth and nail to argue that a bodily resurrection happened. And then there was a time when I would fight tooth and nail to prove that a bodily resurrection didn’t happen. Now, I tend to stay out of the debate all together, not because I don’t care about the Resurrection but because these debates are too often a distraction from the actual Good News.

Somehow, in some way, Jesus’ followers experienced him alive again. And with that experience came a renewed commitment to following him. But the wonder of it all doesn’t stop there because ever since then, Jesus followers have continued to experience him alive again.  We don’t have to understand this but we do have the joy of learning to trust it.

My frustration with all the ways we tie ourselves in knots about the Resurrection is that it robs us of the joy of simply experiencing it and being transformed by it. That’s the mark of this Easter faith—that we trust something as completely ridiculous and completely unprovable as the idea that God is moving in ways we cannot fathom. And that part of God’s promise to us when we choose to follow the revolutionary way of love and peace is that while it may very well be dangerous, death is not and will not be the end.

Prayer Stations for a Families

Prayer Stations for a Families

Last Sunday we used prayer stations in worship, something we do every couple months. If you’re not familiar with prayer stations, they’re simply tables set up with different prayer ideas. People wander to each station as they like, spending time wherever they feel most drawn.

I like them because they lend themselves to intergenerational worship, giving both kids and adults the space to connect to God at their own pace. Like the labyrinth, walking prayer or prayer beads, they also introduce a physical element to contemplative practice, which is helpful for kinesthetic pray-ers of all ages. While they’re certainly not the only way to build participatory worship experience, they are one way of doing so.

For all of these reasons, I’m discovering that prayer stations are also a great way to “do spirituality” at home. Most of the time when I share ideas for family worship, it’s a project or litany that everyone does together. (Like the gratitude jar, New Year’s Eve ritual or the home Tenebrae service.)  But since families include many of the same elements churches do: different ages, different ways of experiencing spirituality or different energy needs, offering a couple ways of praying can be an opportunity for the family to create sacred space while still respecting each person’s individual spiritual needs.

So, here are the prayer stations we used on Sunday, adapted for family use. Just copy and paste the directions for each station, print them for easy reference for everyone and set them near the appropriate prayer station. Try setting them up on each side of a kitchen table, with candles in the middle and dimmed lighting for a vespers-style family night. Or, take them outside for a completely different experience. Pre-readers will need help but can engage pretty well with a bit of direction. And the beauty of prayer stations is that even toddlers can join in. They’ll get the experience of family connection and begin to appreciate time set aside for prayer and inner reflection.

You’ll need:

Legos (or Duplos if you have a baby or toddler)

Puzzle pieces (You know that old Elmo puzzle that’s missing three pieces already? This is your chance to put it to good use.)

Paper hearts—at least one per person. (Use that scrapbook paper you bought back when you were going to learn to scrapbook to cut out hearts of different colors and textures.)

1 or 2 small mirrors

Directions for each station, below

 

Directions for each station:

Legos

For preschoolers and younger elementary kids: Build a tower of legos. Count how many you have. Can you think of that many things you like about yourself? Thank God for giving you those gifts.

For older elementary and middle school kids: What kind of person do you want to be? As you build with the legos, imagine building your spirit. What would you add? What would you take away? Ask God to guide you as you grow.

For  high school and adults: Think about your actions this week. What did you build in your life? Where did you put your energy? How are you building things that really matter, like meaningful relationships and time with God?

Puzzle pieces

For preschool and early elementary: Choose a puzzle piece. What do you like about that particular piece? How is it different from the others? Thank God for making so many different things in the world, including you!

For older elementary through adults: Choose a puzzle piece. What do you notice about that particular piece? How would the puzzle be different if this piece went missing? What’s missing in your spirit? How can you find the missing piece?

Hearts

Take a heart. On one side, write the name of someone who has hurt you. Ask God to help you forgive them. On the other side, write the name of someone you’ve hurt. Ask God to help them forgive you.

Mirrors

Look into a mirror. Study yourself. What’s it like to really see yourself? If you could see into your heart, what would you see? Spend some time praying over that idea. What do you think God sees in you? Ask God to help you grow into the person God created you to be.

(Kids in older elementary to high school may find the experience of studying themselves in the mirror to be uncomfortable. They may use the time to adjust their hair, comment on the size of their nose or simply avoid this station. This is true of both boys and girls. You can gently encourage them to refocus on the prayer if they get too sidetracked but don’t make it big battle. They’re thinking about the questions more than they let on!)

I’d love to hear from you if you try these at home! And if you’re looking for more ideas for building family rituals, take a look at Traci Smith’s blog and her new book Faithful Families, which is full of ideas. You’ll get to hear more from Traci when she stops by the blog in a couple weeks–I can’t wait to have her here.

3 Questions for Your Lent Journey (Even if you don’t do Lent)

3 Questions for Your Lent Journey (Even if you don’t do Lent)

So, how’s Lent going for you? Like this?

Hiker on top of a mountain

 

Or more like this?

Climber struggling to get up mountain

Did you give something up? Take something on? Scrap the whole idea?

I sort of slipped into the season. I got a head start by taking on my spiritual practice a little before Lent officially started. But then things went downhill. By Sunday, I realized I’d already lapsed. Five days in, for those counting.

Naturally, I was tempted to throw in the towel then and there. If I couldn’t make it FIVE DAYS, how was I supposed to do 46? But I didn’t and here’s why:

Lent isn’t a rule book, a test of our character or a mark of our individual holiness. It’s simply an opportunity to experiment. It’s a chance to discover a deeper relationship with God at each stage of our lives. 

Even in progressive Protestant traditions, we struggle to remember this. We either approach Lent as some obligatory stage we have to go through to get to Easter or we throw it out as an archaic, irrelevant tradition. Both approaches miss the real point.

Lent “works” because it makes space for prayerful self-reflection. That’s it. There is no other Lent magic. It’s not about who can give up the most or who can pray the hardest. It’s about practicing something that we think will help us grow in our spiritual journeys.

So no matter how you arrived at this point in the season (1 week down!) embrace it as an opportunity for examination. Give yourself some time to pray, think and ponder. What does this season mean for you? What’s your intention? What do you need to give up or take on in order to experience God more deeply? And how is that working?

It’s the practice of self-examination that will change your life in Lent, not merely the observance itself. The yogis out there might relate this to the difference between practicing yoga as a spiritual practice and doing it for exercise. While both approaches have mental, emotional and physical benefits, the spiritual component comes in when we set an intention for our daily practice. It’s when we take time to set our focus on something bigger than “losing weight,” or “getting stronger” or “havig sexy abs” that we find the practice moves from exercise to spirituality. 

Setting an intention or dedication for your yoga practice acts like a metaphor to translate your practice off your mat and into your life. It is a vehicle that makes yoga an aspect of your lifestyle, rather than something you do just for exercise. Ahlia Hoffman at Mind Body Green

The same is true for Lent. Being conscious of our goals and attitudes is what makes the difference between going through the motions and growing in the season. Here are the steps I find helpful when examining my Lenten journey:

  1. Set your intention each day as you recommit yourself to this experimental season. What are you hoping to get out of it that day? Are you hoping to learn to trust in God by giving something up? To experience gratitude by paying attention to all that you have? To experiencing the commitment of keeping a daily prayer time? Or to being grace-full with yourself as you discover your imperfection? Keep in mind that each day’s intention may change–or not. But simply making the time to check in with yourself will be the thing that anchors your Lent.
  2. Ask God to bless your intention for the day or lift it up to God in some way. Light a candle, write your intention in your journal, pause for a quick prayer before you get out of bed.
  3. At the end of the day, review your Lenten practice. How did it challenge you today? How did it comfort you? Where did you see God in it? Or where was God hard to find? If you journal, it would be fascinating to review the answers to these questions once Easter comes. But even if this doesn’t become written record, it will still guide you into deeper understanding of yourself and God as you move into Easter.

The beauty of this is that it works even if you failed that day. In fact, it might be even more important on the days you failed. Examining what happened for you, what shifted your intention, what caused you to veer from your goal might tell you more about yourself than you’d learn through success.

I, for one, have learned some interesting things about myself and my priorities through the examination of why my commitment to a deepened prayer practice slipped so early. That was hard. And good. May your Lent be blessed with some hard, good things too.

In her book Reset Your Child’s Brain, Dr. Victoria Dunckley notes the high number of 11 year olds who feel stress over building a personal brand.

Yes, you read that right—11 year olds are feeling the pressure to brand themselves, to develop an “image” that sets a tone for their lives. Now, Dunckley is writing this from the angle of a psychiatrist concerned about the amount of time kids spend connected online, which isn’t my main focus. We share the concern, though, over the pressure for kids to spend time building an online presence.

People with successful personal brands, the personalities, writers, sports heroes, politicians, consultants who have strong “personal brands” spend an inordinate amount of time carefully curating what they post, responding to comments, using Instagram to drive traffic to their website and their website to drive traffic to their Twitter and their Twitter to drive traffic to their Instagram, all in the name of increasing engagement and thereby somehow “become known.”

And the goal of “becoming known?” Well, at the end of the day, it somehow ties back to money. There’s the hope of becoming known as an expert in the field with the goal of landing a dream job sometime in the future. Or selling advertising on a website or blog. Or developing a writing voice or a platform for future books. For many people, this is just a reality of the world we live in.

For 11 year olds, though, it’s not. When 11 year olds start developing a concern for a personal brand, it’s a strong condemnation of our culture. Developing a personal brand is essentially about being for sale. And while I’d wager that most kids don’t realize that this is what they’re doing, it is. The message has become so ingrained in us that we somehow believe that the only reason to be known is in order to make money.

Of course this isn’t at all the message of Jesus, who might have lived in a time before the struggles of online citizenship but still knew a thing about people vying for social position. His answer, always, was to remind people that the kingdom of God is upside down. Who you know, what you know, what you have—none of these things matter. In fact, they may even work against you—after all, the last will be first and the first will be last.

So what does all of this talk about personal brands and crazy social trends have to do with reclaiming Sabbath?

Our ability to understand our relationship with God is directly related to the time we set apart. We can’t immerse ourselves in a cultural push to always be “on,” and then expect to stay centered in the idea that our “on-ness” isn’t what matters. If we want to teach our children that their worth is grounded in their relationship with God then we have to give them space to experience this relationship. Not lecture them about it, not force them to join in family prayers, not even gently say to them “God loves you just the way you are,” but to experience the freedom that comes from just being them.

I’m afraid that for children these days, there’s very little antidote to the world’s constant push to prove yourself, to do more, to be better. This is a soapbox of mine and I could list examples for days—increased testing, diminished playtime at home and at school, lack of family time, competitive sports starting younger and younger, activities that fill schedules to the point where no one has time to breath, computer games built around addictive reward cycles, stressed out parents who don’t have time to connect…all of these things are teaching our children that they have to compete for status and attention.

I have a very real fear that true spirituality—the ability to listen to God through our internal selves—will disappear for many of our young people.

This is where Sabbath is important for children. Now, I know that the idea of enforced rest isn’t popular for kids. Remember my reaction to the idea of a Sabbath day? But there are plenty of ways to help kids learn a rhythm of rest that can form a basis for their spiritual development. Here are a few ideas:

  1. Build in daily family quiet times

We have so little silence in our lives. And the less we have, the more uncomfortable we become with it. There is actual noise everywhere—the radio in the car, the TV at home, chatter in group settings. Plus, there’s a draw toward mental chatter, the kind that comes from surfing the internet or even reading quietly. We are so afraid to be alone with our thoughts and we’re passing that fear onto our children.  A simple, counter-cultural practice is family quiet time. Set aside five minutes each evening before bed to simply breathe. If five minutes is too much, do three. Or one. You can always build up from there. The trick to making this work is to give kids something to focus on. I love the Calm app, which is just a visual of a circle expanding and deflated in a breathing rhythm. At a conference I attended a couple weeks ago, the presenter recommended giving kids a pinwheel to blow, which focuses breath and is fun.

  1. Play

Play meets many of the criteria of Sabbath. It’s purposeless. It’s countercultural. It deepens our relationship with each other. Build in times for family members to simply be silly together–no competitive games, no individual screens drawing your attention, just time for connection and laughter. Maybe it doesn’t feel “religious,” but as one part of a move toward reclaiming Sabbath time, it’s an important start.

  1. Designate a certain time each week as family time and stick with that schedule. It will be hard. It will also teach that it’s ok to say no. Tending to our families and our inner lives is every bit as important as attending BBQ’s, sports games, even homework or school events. Again, start small if you have to. Make it an hour on Sunday afternoons or a time when you’re already relatively free. (And if there’s no time when you’re already relatively free, then that’s an excellent reason to create one.)

While these are small steps, they are the beginning to building a culture of rest within your family. I’d love to hear how your family observes times of rest together!

Sabbath in the Modern World

Sabbath in the Modern World

A lover of all things “old-fashioned” as a child, I read and re-read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Most of it struck me as idyllic and charming. Getting water from the well? How lovely. Playing ball with an inflated pig’s bladder? How sweet. Watching as Ma and Pa stood watch at night while the wolves howled outside? How brave.

My infatuation with their pioneer life was tempered by only one thing: their draconian observance of the Sabbath. I read Little House in the Big Woods with horror as Laura described a whole day filled with sitting quietly:

Every Sunday Mary and Laura were dressed from the skin out in their best clothes, with fresh ribbons in their hair. They were clean, because they had their baths on Saturday night. On Sundays Mary and Laura must not run or shout or be noisy in their play. Mary could not sew on her nine-patch quilt, and Laura could not knit on the tiny mittens she was making for Baby Carrie. They might look quietly at their paper dolls, but they must not make anything new for them. They were not allowed to sew on doll clothes, not even with pins.

Thank heavens I was born into a modern family with a spotty record of church attendance. I was free to spend Sundays just like every other day. When my family later joined the local Congregational United Church of Christ church, I was relieved to discover they’d changed quite a bit since Laura’s Congregational days–my high school self might have appreciated a day of sleeping in but not the legalism of requiring it.

This view persisted well into adulthood. Really, it persisted up until a few months ago, when I began to feel an internal craving to “get away.” It didn’t feel like stress or overwork. I didn’t want a vacation or even a lazy day of lounging. I thought about those things, I did. But they went down the way it does when you’re desperately thirsty and someone offers you soda. They didn’t quench the thirst. What I needed was something real. I needed rest.

This wasn’t a craving for physical rest. I’ve been physically exhausted before, this wasn’t that. I needed a rest for the soul. Mainly, I needed a rest from a cultural and internal pressure to “produce.” I needed it particularly around my writing.

Like so many creative endeavors, writing started for me as a hobby. It was, in itself, rejuvenating. I etched out my first article in 20 minute bursts while my toddler napped, or in the margins of pages when work meetings became unproductive. For my birthday in 2009, I lugged my laptop to a coffee shop and spent the day pounding out my thoughts. I composed an email to an editor, hit send and came home exhilarated.

But there’s a thing that happens when you try to turn a hobby into a business. Suddenly, the hobby is a job, which takes an entirely different mindset. Surprisingly, the place where I was starting to feel pressure was around this blog—which is tiny, in the grand scheme of the internet, and isn’t monetized in anyway. There was no earthly reason to feel any pressure around it. And yet I did. The very thing that had once been a form of rejuvenation for me had become a chore. What was once a hobby I yearned for had become a goal I had to achieve; instead of increasing my happiness, it was decreasing it.

It had become about production.

So on a whim, I started out 2017 by deciding to take a break from writing and all writing-related activities, including research and maintaining social media accounts (which I don’t do particularly well but always worry about how I should do more). I would go on sabbatical, which is rooted in the idea of Sabbath—a faithful discipline of rest.

In Sabbath as Resistance, Walter Brueggeman highlights the countercultural mandate of resting every seven days. It’s not, as I always thought, so much about “God rested so we have to as well.” Instead, it’s more like, “God got to rest so we get to as well.” God stopped producing. And we, too, small humans, can stop producing.

Brueggeman says it this way:

That divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, b) that YWHW is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.

We all have different things we love, different work we do and different productivity traps we fall into. Whatever it is for each of us, a regular observation of Sabbath times reminds us that the world doesn’t depend on our production levels. The sun doesn’t rise or fall on whether I blog, whether I submit my allotted articles a month, whether I reach my designated word count. It doesn’t even revolve on whether I weigh in on the political hurricane we’re watching. (And believe me, I have mental pages and pages of things I’d like to say about that. In fact, the closest I came to breaking my sabbatical was out of a desire to save the world with my words—an idea that is embarrassingly arrogant to write down.)

Sabbath puts us in our place.

Sabbath reminds us of the simple truth that we’re not God. As people of faith, this seems obvious. All religious traditions, simply by proclaiming that there is a God also assert that we are not it. We say it all the time. But until we really challenge ourselves to put it in practice, we’ll keep putting ourselves at the center of the universe.

This is why a regular time of ritualized rest is so important. Disciplining ourselves to rest regularly gives us the opportunity to literally embody our faith. For a brief period of time, we get respite from the pressures to “do” something. We get to simply experience what it’s like to “be.”

This is perhaps more in line with what the prophet Isaiah says:

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;  then you shall take delight in the Lord

It is not that God will punish us if we don’t observe the Sabbath but that the observation of prayerful rest will lead us into deeper faith. If we learn to practice simply “being,” rather than in producing, our delight in God’s grace will grow and grow.

So I’m not sure how my practice of Sabbath will move forward. What I am clear about is that it does need to move forward. I’d love to hear how practices of prayerful rest take shape in your life—all words of wisdom are welcome here!

Ideas to Steal for a Family New Year’s Eve Ritual + 5 Prayers for 2017

Ideas to Steal for a Family New Year’s Eve Ritual + 5 Prayers for 2017

In some churches, a Watch Night service is held on New Year’s Eve. While the service likely originated with the Moravians, it has strong roots in the Methodist tradition. However, it gained new life in Black church communities in 1862 as traditional Watch Night services gave way to a literal waiting and watching for the dawning of 1863, when the Emancipation Proclamation would take effect. So strong is this association that some have associated the invention of the Watch Night service with this event.

Since we can’t attend a watch night service this year, I’m creating my own ritual for our family at home. It’s brief, because that’s just practical. While Watch Night was traditionally held to coincide with midnight, much like our secular celebrations to ring in the next year, I plan to do it shortly after nightfall. Mainly this is because I’m battling a cold and probably won’t be staying up late myself. (Who am I kidding, I’m not a late night person even when I’m operating at 100%!)

My plan is pretty simple: light a candle, read a Bible verse, do a family reflection/goal setting time and close with a prayer.

For our reading, I plan to use Isaiah 65:17.

“See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.”

(Since one of my goals is to help our daughter become more familiar with the actual, physical Bible, I’ll be having her look this up herself instead of printing it out like I usually do for better flow.)

I created this printable for our reflection time but there’s a bunch of great printables out there. Last year, I compiled these. I like the opportunity to think about the things we liked about 2016 as well as looking forward to 2017. It’s a great opportunity to think about what goals we want to let go of as well as what ones we want to keep.

Here are 5 prayers I like for New Year’s Eve.

A Prayer at the End and Beginning of a Year

Lord, give me I pray:
A remembering heart for the things that have happened.
An attentive heart to what I have learned.
A forgiving heart for what has hurt.
A grateful heart for what has blessed.
A brave heart for what may be required.
An open heart to all that may come.
A trusting heart to go forth with You.
A loving heart for You and all your creation.
A longing heart for the reconciliation of all things.
A willing heart to say “Yes” to what You will
– Leighton Ford

 A Prayer for the New Year

God, thank you for a new year. May everyone in our family be willing to begin anew with a clean slate. We know that you are always ready to forgive us. Help us to be willing to forgive ourselves and to forgive one another.

As we begin a new year, remind us of our truest values and our deepest desires. Help us to live in the goodness that comes from doing what you want us to do. Help us to put aside anxiety about the future and the past, so that we might live in peace with you now, one day at a time.

Looking Forward 

In this time we turn our thoughts to how we can
touch and be touched,
love and be loved,
forgive and be forgiven,
heal and be healed,
so that the goodness of our lives is a shared blessing.

-Marta M. Flanagan

For Making All Things New

Lord, You make all things new You bring hope alive in our hearts And cause our Spirits to be born again.

Thank you for this new year For all the potential it holds. Come and kindle in us A mighty flame So that in our time, many will see the wonders of God And live forever to praise Your glorious name.

A Prayer for the New Year from Marianne Williamson

Dear God,
May my life be of use to You this year.
May my talents and intelligence
help heal the world.
May I remember how much I have
by remembering how much I have to give.
May I not be tempted by smaller things
but serve my larger mission of forgiveness and love.
Thus shall I be lifted, God,
and know joy this coming year and beyond.
Bless me and work through me
to bless the entire world.

 

Thanks for reading along in 2016 and cheers to a new year!