The Transforming Power of Spiritual Practices

I have meditated for several years, sometimes more consistently than at others. I’ve done it long enough to know that it helps open and free my mind to think differently. But I wanted to solidify the practice and make it a regular part of my everyday life. I also longed for rituals and life rhythms that would help me stay focused on living out the life values I professed. So I signed up for a class at Columbia’s Center for Lifelong Learning entitled Call to the Center. The Covid-19 pandemic that had started in the spring of 2020 seemed the perfect time to focus on daily practice. But by the time class ended and it was time to write the essay, we were moving into the holiday season. The rhythms begun during the course turned my reading/reflection and meditation practice into a routine.

As I thought about the work I have done toward integrating what I believe about God and myself in relationship to God, it started to become more apparent to me that spiritual practices are the mechanisms I use to create a container for holding these beliefs as I move through everyday life. This view helped me see that spiritual practices are essential to my journey living into the freedom of God’s love. A few of my old beliefs about transformation were not valid.

2 Corinthians 5:17 (NRSV) was a favorite quote in many sermons I heard growing up. It says, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” The preacher’s implication was a one-time salvation event that would get rid of all my human imperfections. Well, I lived in Central Florida during my teenage years, and when Disney World opened, we went there often. I had seen a sign that read, “the doors will open automagically when it’s time to enter the theatre.” It would be fantastic if we could learn a new framing story about God for our lives, envision a new identity based on love, and automagically erase all the old learning, harmful habitual response mechanisms, and the pain from the old beliefs. However, we still live with the realities of being human alongside our new understanding of having God’s kingdom residing within us.

As I read Cynthia Bourgeault’s book, Centering Pray and Inner Awakening, I uncovered another old belief that needed to be unlearned. Just because the Divine lives in me and through me does not negate the reality of my humanness. God’s creation was good, and being human is not a disease that needs to be cured [1]. The unique human essence is useful and is the “raw material” for creatively living out who I was created to be [2]. Honoring and accepting myself is part of the journey towards being fully alive, living in companionship with God and other people.

The idea that personal transformation is a process resonates with my experience. When I studied practical theology, the study of aligning theological understanding and lived experience, I learned it was based on the praxis of action and reflection. Organizational change management theory includes implementing and reporting or reviewing for evolving and adapting business processes.

Richard Rohr believes in the inseparability of contemplation and action in the process of transformation so much that the non-profit he founded is named Center for Action and Contemplation [3]. Contemplation or “looking thoughtfully at something for a long time” provides the input we need to embody what we believe. After we act, returning to contemplation helps us notice the result, and the cycle begins again.  I’ve found that spiritual practices are necessary to increase my capacity to engage in contemplation, take action, and be transformed over time.

Awareness Meditation and Centering Prayer

I had never seen a difference between awareness meditation [4] which I learned from the Buddhist tradition, paying attention to my breath, and centering prayer. The use of a word to refocus the wandering mind seemed the same as returning to the breath. Bourgeault talks about three types of meditation, each with a specific purpose for the practice. She describes my practice of attending to my breath as providing clarity of mind [5]. It has been instrumental in providing insight into my false self’s actions and making connections to alternate ways of being. It has slowed my thinking mind, reactive behaviors and allows me to notice what is happening internally. I am becoming more present to God’s work in the world.

The practice of centering prayer has an additional function that I had previously not considered. Based on the understanding that God, the kingdom of God, is within me, my attention during meditation moves from my head and thoughts to my heart or soul space where God and I reside together. Within God’s loving presence, I can release all the unhelpful judging, defending, and afraid parts of myself. In the moments when I return my wandering mind to my heart, I am free and fully loved [6]. I can experience these moments whether I am using my breath or a word because it is an internal movement of allowing myself to be without trying to accomplish anything.

I’ve become fascinated with noticing how this practice of visualizing the movement from head to heart and resting in that true self communing with God is unfolding a new sense of awareness. I’ve been more aware of the moments between stimulus and response as I go about my day. The inner observer [7], which I think of as God and my true self, can be heard more often in those moments.  I’ve also observed more clearly some of the false or small ego parts of myself asserting themselves and remember that emotion only lasts about a minute and a half [8]. I can sit with, really feel it for that long before taking any action. Sometimes a little breathing is needed to calm my nervous system, but it works a bit better every time I practice this.

Welcoming Prayer

Whether you use the Christian terminology of surrender [9] or the Buddhist description of letting go of attachments [10], the process of letting go of thoughts during meditation prepares me for another spiritual practice. My spiritual director has long encouraged me to practice welcoming prayer. Maybe I just wasn’t spiritually ready, or perhaps I just needed a slightly different way to practice it. This practice is an active letting go of the underlying defensive or protective emotion to see more clearly what your next right action should be.

In Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, I found Mary Mrozowski’s four-line litany very helpful for this “letting go” process. The last two lines are most often the hardest for me [11].

“I let go my desire for security and survival.
I let go my desire for esteem and affection.
I let go my desire for power and control.
I let go my desire to change the situation.”

However, when I can practice acknowledging the small ego parts of myself and move back into the heart space where I am aware of God and my creative, loving self within, I can more often break a cycle of behaviors and habits. Bourgeault warns that this is not about fixing yourself or getting rid of parts of yourself that you don’t like [12]. This practice frees us to allow our true self to emerge, and we can be who God has created us to be [13].

Loving Kindness Meditation

For those of us who are just beginning to internalize a new framing story about God, ourselves, and our relationships, seeing and feeling emotions and old habits and their harm to ourselves and others can be overwhelming at times. I know this is very true for me. My reactions vary from beating up on myself to a kind-hearted acknowledgment of the pattern accompanied by a desire to do things differently. I find myself turning to another type of meditation I learned a few years ago to help me turn towards myself with love as I continue my inner work.

I took a compassion meditation course at the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Brookhaven through Emory [14]. I found it builds upon the awareness meditation I practice to internalize the Buddhist understanding that everyone has an inborn desire to be happy and free of suffering. This desire can lead us into those false self or small ego actions that we try to use to shield ourselves from anything that we think prevents happiness or causes suffering. By offering ourselves or extending compassion to others, we can stay with our own humanness and establish a connection to others’ humanity.

Compassion or loving-kindness meditation offers love and compassion for the internal struggle I must allow as I welcome and truly experience my feelings as they arise. The practice provides a process that helps me turn lovingly towards all the parts of myself when my body wants to run or overthink. It also helps me connect with the pain and suffering that is going on in the people around me. Through this lens, I can refocus within the life-giving framework of the kingdom of God in each person. This work of generating compassion and empathy is ongoing and is foundational for continuing my inner work.

Where Do I Go From Here?

 Spiritual practice was not a term I grew up knowing. I got the impression that, for most people, reading the entire Bible every year and kneeling for daily praying was what was required to be a good Christian. My mother was one of the few people I knew who quietly and consistently practiced these things out of devotion instead of obligation. I no longer see the practices I choose to work with as just another item on my to-do list. They are rituals, each with its purpose and intention. I am practicing these things with attention to that purpose and include them in my daily planning [15]. I’ve come to understand that the need for spiritual practices is fluid, and the choice of what I choose to do varies with the circumstances and needs of my life. But, I now understand the need for ongoing and regular methods of actively keeping my mind, body, and spirit engaged with loving God, self, and neighbor.

This understanding has led to incorporating other rituals and practices into my life. I’ve embraced yoga as a means of learning to identify my body’s needs and how the body interacts with my thoughts and emotions. Casper Kuile, in his book, The Power of Ritual, shared a quote from Aldous Huxley that reads, “It is with their muscles that humans most easily obtain knowledge of the divine [16].” I’m beginning to experience this. Writing free-form pages about my life every morning and regularly reviewing them has become a practice with results similar to the examen. It helps me name my needs and feelings and see connections. I’ve seen the effect of telling the truth in my writing as to God and asking for direction and further insight [17]. From Lectio Divina experiences, I have created a writing practice about what I’m reading and exploring new concepts that help integrate what I’ve learned [18]. I use Instagram as a means of recording where I am encountering God in daily life.

Some of these have become habits foundational to maintaining a life lived according to my expressed values. Others come and go as needed or as experiments. Kuile shares that the word spiritual means a pointer to something beyond language. I realized I would like to add visual elements to increase attention during these practices to their spiritual purpose [19]. I want to experiment with lighting candles, preparing the space with a smell, or playing music consistently to “consecrate or dedicate” the time [20].

It’s all part of the freedom and creativity of the journey.

“So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go.”

Matthew 8:12-14, The Message

[1] Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Kindle (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2004), 105.
[2] Bourgeault, 106.
[3] “Who We Are,” Center for Action and Contemplation, accessed February 27, 2021, https://cac.org/about/who-we-are/.
[4] Bourgeault, 20.
[5] Bourgeault, 119.
[6] Bourgeault, 117.
[7] Bourgeault, 129.
[8] Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Kindle (Boston & London: Shambala, 2012), 12.
[9] Beaugalt, 162.
[10] Chodron, 9.
[11] Bourgeault, 147.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Bourgeault, 149
[14] “Overview | Emory University | Atlanta GA,” accessed March 6, 2021, http://compassion.emory.edu/cbct-compassion-training/index.html.
[15] Casper Kuile, The Power of Ritual: Turning Everyday Activities into Soulful Practices, Kindle (New York: Harper One, 2020), 25.
[16] Kuile, 109.
{17] Kuile, 154.
[18] Kuile, 35.
[19] Kuile, 28.
[20] Kuile, 40.

Inner Work – Asking Who am I Really?

Like most post-modern western Americans, I have spent a lot of time figuring out who I am and how I should change myself and do better. Entire industries are built around this examination, and vast collections of books are available that give us the down and dirty steps for change.  I have tried to change myself. It doesn’t work.

Acknowledging the framework for life as existing because of and through God’s love places me in a different relationship with the natural world, history, and the communities and people around me [1]. I can ask myself questions without judging. What do I identify with because of the country, the region of that country, race, family, and religious structures I have experienced? How does this new framework change those beliefs?

Experiencing myself from within the framework of God’s love gives me the confidence to look honestly at myself. Who am I really? What are the parts of myself that I try to disown but need to bring into the light of God’s love with compassion? Knowing how God loves gives me the courage to engage those aspects of myself and others with that same love.

In his book, Call to the Center The Gospel’s Invitation to Deeper Prayer, Basil Pennington states that the “kingdom of heaven” is within us [2]. The kingdom of God was always something communal and out there for me. The coming of the kingdom would only happen in life after death, in heaven, not in the world of everyday life. I was taught that God’s Spirit lived within us, but Pennington talks about “God’s own Spirit” being “given to us to be our spirit.” This combining of God’s spirit with my own is an even more intimate image of the divine being with each of us [3].”

How I define my identity has changed. My true self is not a kingdom within with a God who rules over me. I have a new understanding of the real me as part of, joined with, a God whose identity is love. Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, describes this view of identity as “the innermost point of truth” that shares the likeness and substance of God’s own being [4].” I can relax and live in the mystery that my being is flowing from God’s.

Thinking about God’s spirit and mine as one opens up a pathway to allowing myself to act from that true self instead of from personas I present to the world. My true self lives in harmony with God. When I acknowledge this new relationship, the focus of life changes. I focus less on what other people are doing and how it affects me and more on my internal connection with God and acting in concert with God in the world [5]. The emphasis moves away from how others might perceive my actions to creative freedom. Surrendering to God changes from giving up what I want or trying harder to do something different from in the past. Surrender becomes what Thomas Keating describes as openness and “consent to the presence and action of God within us [6].”

I could stay theoretical and in my head about this, which is an old habit and one I rely on easily. I have to make the conscious choice to allow God’s love to move down into my body and change my heart, letting new actions flow. I have to be willing to embrace all the parts of myself, my humanness, as well as “embracing the world just as it is [7].” Buddhists call this the Samaya Vow, where we see that “we are bound to reality, bound to everything we perceive in every moment [8].” I become more aware of how I am connected to everything through God’s Spirit, which moves within everything.

My culture didn’t teach me how to stay with reality or how to have compassion for my human failures. Human nature puts us at the center of our universe. When the world was not to my liking, I learned that my choices, when I didn’t see how to change things, were to protect myself from blame, blame others or distract myself. Being grounded in the knowledge that God loves the people around me as well as me, I can let those old patterns of response fade. I can return my mind, heart, and body to that “kingdom of God” within me and offer the love I find there to myself and others.

Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.

Romans 8:11 (The Message)

[1] Center for Action and Contemplation. “‘Our Story,’” January 26, 2021. https://cac.org/our-story-2021-01-26/.
[2] M. Basil Pennington OCOS, Call to the Center The Gospel’s Invitation to Deeper Prayer, Kindle (New York: An Image Book Doubleday, 1990), 46.
[3} Pennington, 30.
[4] Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening – Kindle Edition by Bourgeault, Kindle (Lanham, MD: Cowley Publications, 2004), 14.
[5] Pennington, 59.
[6] Bourgaulat, 24.
[7] Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change, Kindle (Boston, MA: Shambala, 2012)., 101.
[8] Chodron, 108.

Photo by Bradley Dunn on Unsplash

God is Love

In his Daily Meditation email of January 11, 2021, Richard Rohr talks about the importance of what Brian McLaren calls a framing story [1]. In his book, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope, McLaren points out that stories help provide people with a framework upon which they decide how to lead their lives.[1] I believe that our beliefs about who God is and God’s attitude about us creates the foundational framing story for everything else in life. My framing story about God is different than the one I was raised to believe. It changes everything.

The Character of God

I was never comfortable with the representation of God that I was taught as a child. That God represented authoritarianism, patriarchy, and legalism. I didn’t know all those words then; I just knew it didn’t feel right. I didn’t know then about the somatic impact words have on our bodies; I just knew that I wanted to withdraw to protect myself when God was discussed. There was a disconnect between singing Jesus Loves Me and the message that women were inferior to men because of Eve’s actions. Because of her, all humanity was now innately evil, and men were in charge. Why would a loving God think of the people God created as worthless? How could God love me and be disgusted by me at the same time? Why would God have given me free will and still be directing every aspect of my life behind the scenes? What about the problem of bad things happening even when I “do everything right?” How could I do everything right anyway? It made me crazy, and I twisted my insides into knots as I tried to keep myself from making a mistake.

Joining a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation was helpful. They at least didn’t talk that much about how evil people are and how undeserving we are of God’s love. But it was always there under the surface. It was part of the codified doctrine. We all put our best faces on when we went to church so no one would know how hard and messy our life was every single day. I certainly didn’t want to be judged as not good enough because of my imperfections.

Seminary classes in reform theology and church history helped me clarify the consequences of believing in that kind of God. In other courses, I was introduced to Liberation, Womanist, and Process theology. Ethics, cultural intelligence, and inter-faith inter-cultural classes, and working as a chaplain in an agency assisting those experiencing homelessness helped me begin to form a new vision of God where love was at the core of who God is and everything God does.

A class with Marjorie Thompson introduced me to Thomas Cord’s book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, An Open and Relational Account of Providence [2]. As I read Cord’s presentation of the various understandings about God, I could firmly say, “No. That is not what I believe” about many of them. The logical way he worked through the various theological points of view helped me sift out what I didn’t believe.

Cord’s viewpoint, however, struck home for me. He insists that God’s primary attribute is love, not being all-knowing, all-powerful, or anything else. It felt like puzzle pieces finally fitting when I wrote the paper for that class about how beginning with God’s primary focus of love, everything else flows. Love is open and relational. Love does not inspire fear. From the very beginning, God’s love has been creative and does not restrict or control others’ actions.

Science shows that there is randomness and “unpredictability” built into “laws of nature.” These laws were deliberately set in motion to allow creation’s actions to inform the future (Cord, 128). God is willing to risk that acts of nature can cause harm in exchange for the possibility of new and beautiful outcomes. Even with humans, God is persuasive, not controlling, and has taken the risk that we will not act in loving ways instead of predetermining our actions and the outcomes [2].

Why it Matters

I won’t pretend that I think that this is all there is to say about God. I will keep exploring and learning about God, but I know God is bigger than I could ever conceive. However, with this understanding that God is essentially and foremost love in mind, I am free to join God in a collaborative adventure where, as Cord describes, “new possibilities, forms, structures or ways of being” are possible [3]. Ways of being and doing I haven’t even imagined yet open up. But some significant changes have occurred already in my life:

  • The option of accepting the consequences of human limitations and releasing expectations for perfection permits me to relax to move more slowly and intentionally through each day.
  • Submitting to “God’s will” is transformed into listening to God’s loving persuasion or guidance towards what is best for us and our world.
  • When I turn my heart towards God, my mind can become still, present, and aware of what is going on within myself and others.
  • I can release habits of authoritarian control mechanisms, collaborate with others, de-centering my self-interest, and use my moral imagination to bring about what is best for the good of all [4].
  • I will not cut people out of my life and stop caring about them when their actions displease me but continue to love and try to “empower” them to do good (Cord, 159).
  • I will risk loving knowing that, even if others do not make the choices I feel are best for them, I should not coerce them [5].
  • Even though God doesn’t have to choose to love and knows it is the way to meet our unique needs [6]. I have to actively choose to love and do my best to do it appropriately every time.

My job is to love God, myself, and my neighbor. To keep me, mind, body, and spirit, in God’s loving “flow of energy willingly allowed and exchanged, without requiring payment in return [7].”

“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are . . .

Romans 8:15-16 The Message

Photo by Jez Timms on Unsplash\

[1] “‘Our Story,’” Center for Action and Contemplation, January 26, 2021, https://cac.org/our-story-2021-01-26/.
[2} Thomas Cord, The Uncontrolling Love of God An Open and Relational Account of Providence, Kindle (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 155.
[3] Cord, 148 and 199.
[4} Cord, 160.
[5} Cord, 159.
[6] Cord, 134.
[7} Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, And Believe (New York: Convergent Books, 2019) 171.

Knitting (aka Life) Lessons

Looking back over 2020, I found this essay I wrote in March, not long after Georgia went into lockdown in an attempt to slow the spread of Covid-19. I had just finished a knitting project that had taken over five years to complete. It was supposed to be a shawl, but it’s big enough to use as a lap blanket. How did that happen? Here’s my reflection on life lessons I learned as I learned to knit.

I started this knitting project the summer after my husband died in 2014. I have friends that knit, and it looked like it might be a way to slow myself down from the kinetic frenzy of workaholism that had been flying around in my body for years. My daughter was living four hours away for her first year of college. I was suddenly living alone in a large house and needed to create new ways to do just about everything. I thought knitting would give me something to do with my hands so I could reflect on the enormous changes that had occurred in such a short time.

And, besides, yarns are so pretty. So many colors and they feel soft and fuzzy. I picked a yarn that appealed to me and then started to figure out what to do with it. It was fun to choose the pattern, buy the tools, and envision myself in a beautiful multicolored shawl.

You need to know that I have never knitted. I had done a little crochet but mostly embroidery. My friends made knitting look so easy. I was confident that I could learn. My teachers, accomplished knitters, assured me that it would be a breeze and promised to help me along the way.

Thinking back on this time, it felt like the beginning of a new adventure. I was full of confidence and optimism. How could I fail? I had a plan. I had the tools I needed. I had resources to call on if I needed coaching. But, it turned out that a knitting project is very similar to any other project in life.

Lesson #1
Learn the basics first.

The first thing I faced was my lack of hand-eye coordination. The yarn had to be held a certain way in my hand. The needles had to move in concert. Over and over again. Then my mind began to wander. I laid down the project and went to get something to drink. When I would pick it back up several hours later, I had no idea which direction I was supposed to be knitting.

My friend said, “Look at the stitches, and you can tell.” Really? They all looked the same to my beginner’s eye. I grew frustrated and thought I would never figure it out.

I realized that I had not done my homework to understand the relationship between the needles, yarn, stitches, and keeping track of the pattern. I could not see where each stitch began and where the next one started.

I ripped everything out. We switched to straight needles instead of a circular needle, thinking that would, at least, help me keep track of the direction.

I muddled on.

Knitting Lesson #2
Pay attention to the details as you go.

After another knitting session, my friend picked up my project and looked it over. “Oh,” she said. “You’ve dropped some stitches.” They were several rows back and, as we kept looking, there more even further back. There were so many. What was I doing wrong now?

The tension I held on the yarn was too loose, causing a loop from a lower row to appear to be my next one to pick up. Sometimes it looked like I just hadn’t been paying close enough attention and grabbed any old random thread. How in the world was I going to fix this?

My first reaction, much the same as it always is when initial success escapes me, was to decide knitting just wasn’t for me. Instead, I ripped the whole thing out and began again. After all, yarn is expensive.

I muddled on.

Knitting Lesson #3
What appears to be a mistake is an opportunity for creativity.

I was so frustrated, thinking that I would never finish the shawl. I pulled out rows, redoing them, and started over several times, and I decided that I needed a creative solution to my dropped stitches. Working with crafters years ago had taught me that sometimes you could turn a mistake into something extraordinary. And beads would be a lovely addition to a shawl. Embellish it with beads!

So, I bought what seemed like a million of those little plastic circles someone invented to indicate knitting mistakes. Every time I saw an aberration in the stitches, I just marked it with one of those markers and moved on. That problem was solved!

I muddled on.

Knitting Lesson #4
You have to stick with it.

Now and then, my friends would ask how my shawl was coming. My reply was usually something about somewhere I had gone, a movie I had watched, or the amount of reading and writing required for my Master’s degree program. My knitting project spent most days tucked into a cute animal print tote bag I found in New Orleans.

As each autumn rolled around, I would think about how fun it would be to have the shawl in cooler weather and pick up my needles to stitch a few rows. I would even knit on road trips with my daughter (I had discovered that I don’t get car sick when I knit, and it kept me from side seat driving).

I muddled on.

Knitting Lesson #5
Sometimes you just have to do it.

Summer of 2019, five years after I started the project, I finished knitting. My friend took me to a bead shop in Milwaukee. The excitement and creativity were back. So many colors of beads and sizes and shapes. How many beads did I need? I had no idea. Picking a shiny multicolored metal bead, I bought more than I thought I needed.

Back at her house, I spread the shawl out on the floor and began to replace the plastic markers with my beads. The beads were tiny. The beading needle was skinny and sharp and stabbed into my finger every other minute. Threading it was a pain even with bifocals. I managed to sew on a few beads and decided to lay the project aside. Besides, my back hurt from sitting on the floor, leaning over this gigantic shawl.

Back at home, I thought I would certainly finish sewing on the beads before New Year’s. My knitting friend and I were going to Savannah for a holiday, and I could show it off. Nope.

Then there was a January class and another paper to write. Enough! It was the first of February, and, damn it, I was going to finish sewing on those beads.

I muddled on.

I did finish the beads that weekend and wrapped the shawl around myself.

It seemed a little large, more like a blanket.

And, oh, by the way, it was as big as the throw blanket on my chair. But the beads looked nice.

Oh damn, I needed to make some of the threads look a little neater.

WHAT? ONE END IS WIDER THAN THE OTHER! (Refer here to Knitting Lesson #2 above.)

This crazy beaded blanket/shawl experience is a metaphor for my life during the previous five years. Looking back, many of the same lessons I learned while knitting also had to be learned as I knitted together a new pattern for my life. So here’s my take on the life lessons I learned from knitting:

Life Lesson #1
Learn (or Re-Learn) the Basics

When you’ve lived life as a partnership, and you’re suddenly single, a new pattern of living life emerges. Even my everyday activities had to be reworked to fit new spaces. I sold my house and moved to a condo in Decatur. I started seminary. The academic rhythms and activities felt foreign after close to thirty years away from school. Many days I felt like I was flailing around trying to reactivate muscle memory in my brain on how to read and retain for exams. I had to revisit writing basics for the academic world instead of the crisp, to-the-point marketing copy I usually wrote.

Life Lesson #2
Pay Attention to the Details

Because I was goal and task-driven, I have never been very good at noticing where my body is in the world. I was in my head most of the time, thinking about the project plan’s next step. After hours at my desk, I’d “wake up” and suddenly realize I’d been sitting there all afternoon, without moving, and it was dark outside. The ability to focus is a great thing, but becoming overfocused caused things like running red lights on the way home!

I’ve had to learn how to do things like time blocking and setting timers to take a break. Mindfulness training has helped increase self-awareness. Having my head in the same space as my body has allowed for deeper relationships with my daughter and friends. Giving myself space to be still through meditation has made me more aware of God working in me and the world.

Life Lesson #3
Mistakes are Space for Creativity

When my daughter came back to live with me, learning how to listen to my body and the Spirit came in handy while trying to discern new and imaginative ways to be together. We were both determined to act like grown adults. Both of us wanted the outcome to be creative and life-giving.

When the inevitable struggles to learn to live in the same space came, I often felt like I’d fallen into that tote bag of yarn balls and couldn’t see my way out. “Be still,” God said. And if I stayed on the meditation cushion, a few steps of the path ahead appeared. I could see what I needed to adjust within myself and learned to ask to have my needs met. Slowly, I learned to value and prioritize spiritual practice to create a container that could hold everything I felt.

Life lesson #4
Stick with It

My first two years at seminary opened my eyes to just how much I didn’t know about God, myself, and others. I had much to unlearn that wasn’t serving me very well in everyday life. In learning how to care for others, I was learning how to care for myself. After two years, I knew I needed to stay longer in that space to move from unlearning to creating new learning. I signed up to study theology and ethics for another two years. People ask me what I’m going to do with what I’ve learned, and I often say, “Try to be a better human.” The more I learn, my curiosity grows, and I want to learn more.

Life lesson #5
Stop Procrastinating and Just Do It

Most of all, I’ve had to learn to move forward even when it felt risky. I had to lean into those uncomfortable places of being vulnerable and trying new spaces. Sometimes, I must ask forgiveness and start again until I know I’m moving in the right direction.

Like knitting projects, life doesn’t always end up being what you thought it would be. But it can still be wonderful. Even when you have to use every creative move you can think of to bring beauty from tangled threads, just do it. Keep trying new things and listening to the signs of what’s working and what’s not.

You might end up with a slightly wonky-shaped, soft, beautiful beaded lap blanket/shawl.

The Visit of the Magi – A Parable for Following God’s Call

I only remember reading the Bible story of the wise people from the East who came to Israel looking for a baby at Christmas. Even then, it is usually a single song or reading at a Lessons and Carols service or a fun part of a Christmas pageant. As I grew older, sometimes churches would celebrate Epiphany Sunday. When I read Matthew 2: 1-12 as a separate story from the birth of Jesus, it reads like a parable on responding to the call of the Spirit.

In the Message (you can read this version of the scripture at the end of this post), the wise people are called scholars, people who are educated and love learning. Were they studying the stars as part of an astronomy class or actively looking for something new in the sky? They were curious enough about what this new light might mean to leave their homes and academic pursuits to find out more. How often am I so task-oriented, so busy pursuing my personal goals, that I miss seeing the spark of something I have never seen before that will open my mind to a whole new realm of understanding?  

When the scholars arrive in Jerusalem, we hear about how Herod took the news that they were looking for a baby that would be king. Herod did not take it well, just as I often do not respond very well when I get an inkling that something is about to upset my comfortable, well-defined world.

Herod was afraid. I can imagine his mind racing down all the “what if” rabbit trails of what it all might mean for him. How many times have I felt a call and was instantly afraid of what that call might require of me? Like Herod, I want more information before I agree even to consider my next move.

Herod did what in his day was a Google search. He called his own crew of priests and scholars to get more information.

But Herod’s advisors gave him information that he did not like. They gave him facts from a source, the Hebrew scripture, that he could not ignore. But Herod was just like me. He began searching for a way around, a way to maneuver to keep his position and wealth.

Herod told the visiting scholars the truth about the prophecy but only pretended to want to pay homage to the baby. What are the ways I choose to be dishonest with myself and others about my motives? What am I afraid of having to give up if I am open to pursuing the Spirit’s call?

Wise and Loving Spirit,

I want to be like the scholars from the East that were following the star. I want to remain curious and open to following the call you place in my heart without knowing where it leads. I want to let go of any fear that might drive me to harm myself and others in body or Spirit like Herod. I want to hold loosely and not let attachments keep me from sharing your love.

As I follow the glimmer of my heart’s longing, help me pay attention to the people I encounter during the journey’s starts and stops to truly experience the joy of each precious moment of the journey. Assist my efforts to stay open to feeling the joy of the process of living and learning. Strengthen my desire to share that joy and my gifts, without anticipation of a return, with those around me.

Thank you that you keep providing signs and guidance through your presence all around me every day as I discern what is mine to do: today and every day.

In all the holy names of God,

Amen

Matthew 2:1-12 (The Message)

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”

When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”

They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly: It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land, no longer bringing up the rear. From you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”

Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”

Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!

They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.
In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.’

Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash