Day 39: Fragrance
I just love this fragrance! It’s a scent you can take with you. Trust is lovely, for a change to be surprised at later.
God loves each of us. Especially when we have the opportunity to do all kinds ot stuff.
Day 39: Fragrance
I just love this fragrance! It’s a scent you can take with you. Trust is lovely, for a change to be surprised at later.
God loves each of us. Especially when we have the opportunity to do all kinds ot stuff.
Day 37: Horror
Imagine my horror when I saw my 3 year-old daughter with school scissors in her hand. She wanted to cut her hair and make it “pretty!” She had cut her bangs off! (Perhaps it is just as well I don’t have a photo.)
If you and I reflect further, God loves us anyway. Even when we do silly stuff.
Thank You, God!
Day 35: Moment
When I think about the word “moment,” the wonderful hymn “Moment by Moment” comes to mind. (especially the chorus!)
Truly, you and I are indeed kept in God’s love. Please, remember that when you are sad, lonely or depressed. God is with us.
Day 32: Grace
I thought of another hymn today!
This is a rollicking gospel song called “Wonderful Grace of Jesus.” The chorus really rolls right along; I love singing it! (even though playing it in tempo is a challenge)
Dear God, Your grace is truly marvelous! Praise Your name!
Day 31: Love
One of my favorite Lenten/Holy Week hymns is “What Wondrous Love Is This.” I truly appreciate the melding of words and music.
This hymn encapsulates much of my Holy Week worship and adoration.
Praise God, I am redeemed.
Day 30: Worthy
“Worthy” reminds me so much of the final chorus from Handel’s Messiah: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.”
I loved singing the Messiah! This worshipful, dynamic chorus at the end of such musical beauty? And then, the Amen after that? Truly, a marvelous experience.
Day 29: Failure
I used to feel like a failure, often. My older brothers were really good at sports! Me? Not so much. (Not really at all.)
I got a new perspective when I found that a batter only needs to make a hit 1 time in 3 to be a great hitter! Imagine, a .333 batting average is great! This perspective helped me to creep out of the former way of self-doubt and second-guessing, into a way of positive self-care. Thank You, God!
Day 28: Fear
When I think of fear, I can’t help but think of our cat #MaryTheCat. She strikes fear into the heart of any moth, spider or other flying thing that comes into our apartment! She keeps us safe from all pests. Thank you, Mary!
I know this day’s entry was rather humorous, but I am glad Jesus keeps me safe, too.
Day 27: Shame
I was a church music major in undergraduate school. I can remember lots of lyrics from classic hymns.
When I saw the word for today, I could not help but remember this hymn. Thank You, Jesus, for taking away guilt and shame. Thank You, Jesus, that I have been redeemed.
Day 26: Guilt
I am fascinated to see how people are affected by guilt.
Some react strongly to guilt, from their families, houses of worship, and sometimes their own consciences.
Thank God that I don’t have to be guilty. I am forgiven, reconciled and redeemed! Praise God!
Day 24: Productive
The following verse from Colossians came to mind: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord.”
From time to time, I stop, think, and reflect upon these words.
Dear Lord, these are good words of Paul. Please, help me to follow them!
Day 22: Alternative
Hmm. Alternative…medicine? Energy? Music? Nope. Doesn’t quite work for me.
How about off the beaten path? Independent? Original? Unconventional? All of those describe me. And, I’m okay with that, God.
Day 21: Wrong
Some days, it seems I can’t do anything right…
I’m running, rushing, going doubletime.
I end up messing up. Doing stuff wrong.
Thank God that God loves me anyway. (Even if I feel wrong.)
Day 20: Diagnose
I’m working in healthcare once again; I am reminded of patients when I hear the word “diagnose.” As a hospice chaplain, the diagnoses my patients have are always very sad.
God bless all patients in hospice; God bless their families and loved ones, wherever they may be. Dear Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayers.
Day 19: Unproductive
Unproductive? Like the fig tree from today’s Gospel reading from Luke 13?
I have had difficulty with this parable for years. For some reason – probably because I am rather dense – the best I can do with it is think of God’s patience with me (and by application, with all of us).
Dear God, thank You for Your patience with me. Help me be as patient with others. Please.
Day 17: Unfolding
With Lent coming as the winter blossoms into spring, I can’t help but think of unfolding in association with early spring flowers.
This photo is from last spring, when my husband Kevin and I went to one of my favorite places, the Chicago Botanic Garden. Unfolding!
Day 16: Formation
Many classes, teachers, mentors and individuals assisted in my formation. Including 4 units of Clinical Pastoral Education. (Shout outs to Revs. Romy, Peter, Caroline and Mary, my CPE supervisors!) And, of course, appreciation to all 4 groups.
Yes, I spent many years in formation, and haven’t stopped yet! Thank You, Jesus, that You haven’t gotten fed up with me, either.
Day 15: Direction
Yesterday was the anniversary of my ordination, March 15, 2017.
What a wonderful day to remember! Certainly, a day for me to affirm the direction my life has taken for the past 20 years. My anniversary, or ordiversary (as the wonderful group RevGalBlogPals says!).
Praise God for direction.
Day 13: Try
I remember Yoda (of “Star Wars” fame), when he told Luke: “Do, or do not. There is no try!”
Yoda’s words are disheartening to me. I honestly believe that by trying, by striving, I am doing the next right thing. Plus, I think God is pleased when I try, wholeheartedly. Thank God!
Day 12: Frustrated
There was a small winged insect flying around our apartment this evening. This was quite exciting for our cat, #MarytheCat! Mary spent the better part of an hour stalking that insect, even leaping into the air. To no avail – how frustrating!
How much is my life frustrating like that? Do I stalk things, and even leap in the air, only to be frustrated at not catching anything? Lord Jesus, help me. Show me how not to get so frustrated, please.
Day 11: Holy
The Greenstone United Methodist Church in historic Pullman (on the far south side of Chicago) stands as an inviting space, its interior high-ceilinged, warm and holy. Such a comfortable, welcoming place of worship. I experienced it as holy, indeed.
Day 10: Already
Already? Is it Friday already? Is it 9:00 already? Is it the end of class already? Is my birthday over already?
Time passes so quickly. Savor each day. Live one day at a time. As Jesus said at the end of Matthew 6, each day has concerns of its own. Consider each day. Live without regrets. Live one day at a time.
NOW is the time we can change: not yesterday, not tomorrow.
Day 8: Promises
When it is March and it is still very cold and snowy (as is forecast tomorrow!), I like to see spring flowers. Photos, paintings, real flowers at the store, it doesn’t matter. Promises of coming spring!
Day 7: Temptation
It’s very tempting for our cat Mary to see chicken, beef or fish on the kitchen counter. She prowls around our feet, just waiting for a scrap of food to fall to the floor! And, sometimes, she is lucky enough to grab a scrap.
Day 6: Satisfaction
My son Peter gets a great deal of satisfaction from being in the kitchen. (He knows a whole lot about cooking, and works in the kitchen at a nearby restaurant.) Thanks for offering your great skills to your parents!
Day 5: Ordinary
When I thought about this word, the first thing that came to mind was Ordinary Time. As in the liturgical calendar. The season of Lent is not Ordinary! The Lenten season is purple, and a reflective, contemplative season.
The church altar cloths and my stole reflect the season of the year. This photo shows green, the color of Ordinary Time.
Day 4: Transformation
One of my favorite places to walk is the Chicago Botanic Garden. As I prayed about today’s word, I am reminded of what a marvelous transformation is taking place at the Garden, through the marvels of the changing seasons!
Day 3: Approval
I attended an Evangelical college for my undergrad degree in church music. Its biblical motto was 2 Timothy 2:15. Even though I have traveled away from Evangelicalism in the decades since, I still try to uphold this verse!
Day 2: Perfectionism
This word brought a sad memory to my mind. When I was young, my father worked as a statistician. He held himself to a very high standard – in part because of the extreme detail orientation of his job. So, this photo shows my immediate, gut reaction to this word. Sad, lonely, withdrawn.
Dear Lord, this memory is a sad one. Help me not to focus on the sad, lonely and withdrawn parts of myself that were so easy to access. Instead, direct me towards the love, warmth and caring of You and Your presence with me. In Jesus’ name, amen. #LentenSnapshots2022
December 24, 2021
Day 27: Communion and Connection
When I first thought about Contemplative Prayer (and meditation, and contemplative kinds of things), I thought it was a solitary practice. And, so it can be. However, as I have seen – and journaled about, in these past weeks – contemplation does not HAVE to be solitary. You can contemplative in connection with others. Others in your prayer group, or congregation, or a single prayer partner or spiritual director.
I’m returning to Richard Foster. (Thank you for ALL your marvelous writing, Richard!) Really and truly, I appreciate Foster so much for his keen insights, his depth of knowledge, and how readily accessible his writing style is.
In his book Streams of Living Water, Foster talks of a number of different streams of the Christian faith. Different faith traditions, that flow from the same Source: Jesus Christ. As he talks about the Incarnational Tradition, Foster describes how foundational the Sacraments are to those who follow at tradition (or, faith stream). Communion, then, is a significant way for fellow believers to join with, worship with, and be with each other. Plus, when followers of Christ are also contemplatives, they can find a whole other facet of their faith and life together in their sharing of the sacrament of communion.
Which brings us to connection. Yes, Foster does talk about the Contemplative Tradition in this book, too. Yes, there is a strength to be found in the disciplines of the spiritual life, and this is well and good. However, another peril of this tradition and practice is neglecting life in community. “The contemplative stress upon our solitariness before God – can lead us into, especially in Western cultures, into an individualism that think only in terms of “God and me.” 
No matter whether introvert or extrovert, shrinking violet or happy-go-lucky, we all as Christians are to have communion – both vertically and horizontally. We are to value connection – both vertically and horizontally. Both features of the contemplative experience are important, Even, two sides of the same contemplative coin. Thank you for the reminder, Richard, as I strive to experience the Contemplative way of living and being.
Thank you for taking a trip with me in this Advent season, as I have journaled through experiences with the Tree of Contemplative Practices. Thank you to the website contemplativemind.org for making this excellent graphic available, too! And, I have really appreciated the memories this contemplative trip has stirred up within me. I hope and pray you may be encouraged to try one or two or even several of these excellent practices.
God’s blessings be yours as we enter the Christmas season. May you and your loved ones have a safe, happy and healthy new year, too. Peace be with you.
Thanks to the website www.contemplativemind.org for their excellent image the Tree of Contemplative Practices.
 Foster, Richard J., Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith (HarperCollins: United States of America, 1998), 55-56
December 23, 2021
Day 26: Centering
We get straight to the heart of contemplative prayer today. Centering.
The Quakers “used the term centering down….The idea is to let go of all competing distractions until we are truly present where we are.”  Or, as Richard Foster calls it, recollection. That is, recollecting ourselves until we are unified, whole. I tend to think of it in musical terms: in unison. Many instruments can play a single note together, and if the musicians are good at playing (and playing in tune), the unified sound will sound will be pleasant to the ear. Even, having a distinct resonance.
When I first really tried contemplative prayer, about 30 years ago, I found it so difficult! Sure, I wanted to seat myself comfortably and then slowly and deliberately allow all tension and anxiety drop away from myself. Sure! Except – I had such difficulty actually succeeding. Contemplation and especially meditation seemed like far-away goals. Goals I would periodically try to shoot for, and periodically miss. Over the next 10 years I found myself occasionally – successfully practicing contemplation.
And, Foster absolutely agrees. He talks about the fragmented and fractures lives so many of us live. “We become painfully aware of how distracted we really are.” 
Sure, I have weathered some periodic storms in my life. Regular squalls, too. But with centering down, I allow the Lord “to calm the storms that rage within by saying ‘Peace, be still.’ We allow [God’s] great silence to still our noisy hearts.” 
Is it, perhaps, that God is finally breaking through to me? Knocking down walls or barriers that I have long ago erected, perhaps even to protect myself? Probably so. I should hope that I am letting God in. I hope so. I pray so.
As I come to the end of this Advent season, with but one day left – Christmas Eve – I come full circle. I feel like I am back to the beginning, with centering, or being present, or recollection. Whatever you call it, I think it is central to contemplation. Sure, we have examined many ways to come before God in contemplation and meditation, and even actively stand (or walk) before God. Yet, I get the sneaking suspicion that without centering down, I would be having some difficulty in contemplative prayer.
Lord knows, I do try. Periodically, and not daily. (Yes, the Lord and I have had many, repeated discussions in prayer about my periodic awareness, or presence, or faithfulness. And, I am sure we will continue, because I still do not have a daily practice of prayer. After all these years…)
I hope this journaling through Advent has been helpful for you. It was for me. Still, I have one more day. One more day to continue to witness to the power of contemplative prayer in my life.
Dear Lord, thank You for this past Advent season, for my journaling each day. Thank You for the insights I have received. Help me continue to see You for clearly, follow You more nearly, and love You more dearly, day by day.
Thanks to the website www.contemplativemind.org for their excellent image the Tree of Contemplative Practices.
 Foster, Richard, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (Harper: San Francisco, 1992), 161.
 Ibid, 162
December 22, 2021
Day 25: Retreats
Have you ever been on a retreat? Separating yourself from the daily routine and the busy-ness of the rushed and hurried activities? Sometimes, a retreat at a spiritual house of worship or a Christian camp can be revitalizing – even if it is only for a few hours.
As I think back on several retreats I have attended over the past twenty years, one immediately popped into my head. This happened several times, when I took a personal day of prayer. I spent six hours a day away, at a church nearby (in a different denomination) where a friend of mine is pastor.
Sure, I have had wonderful experiences with others at retreats. Excellent times of worship, meaningful speakers, close friends sharing deep feelings and intimate experiences. Yet, for this time of journaling for the Tree of Contemplative Practices, I knew which retreats I ought to mention.
These were times when I chose to step away from my busy life as a pastor at a small church. (Yes, even though it is small, there somehow are plenty of things to fill up a week’s worth of activities and time.) I purposed to take six hours away, from 9 am to 3 pm, on a Monday. Several Mondays, in fact. I had an excellent guide for the retreats in my devotional book. And, so I began.
I purposely turned off my cell phone. As a result, I remember being amazingly focused on the passages from the Bible I read. Time seemed to be sequestered – or I did. Almost as if I was separated, outside of time. I still remember that room in the education wing of the church. Warm, welcoming. Sitting at the banquet-sized table on a surprisingly comfortable plastic chair helped me to focus my mind and spirit on the words and ideas of the Scripture passages I read. And, my mind did not wander. (Much.) Wonder of wonders, I was able to freely journal on the thought questions from my devotion book.
I do have a worthwhile book that gives much more direction for these solo retreats. I didn’t use it for my solo retreats, which were more focused on prayer and the Bible, and how it spoke to me. This additional book is called The Praying Church Sourcebook. It comes from the Evangelical tradition of the Christian church. I’ve spent some time praying with and walking with friends from this faith tradition, and many of them really know how to pray – I am blessed by their prayer!
Several suggested guidelines include: 1) Let the Word of God speak to you. 2) Write your thoughts in a journal. 3) Plan for variety during your prayer time. 4) Be willing to pay the price (in emotional and experiential terms). And, 5) “Take time to listen to the Lord. Let the Holy Spirit teach you throughout the day. Read the Bible, respond to truths that come alive to you, and apply what you’ve learned in your own life.”  Vander Griend has some specific steps he recommends, which look like they would be quite helpful. One profound statement: days of prayer do not just happen. We need to set aside the time, otherwise modern culture, stress, busy-ness and the worries of the world all combine to keep us busy and forgetful. We must break away and intentionally make the time. (And, I am preaching to myself even more than I am writing to you.)
Let us pray: gracious God, thank You for listening to us when we pray. Thank You for times of prayer when it seems like you are right next to us, sitting in a chair or on the couch nearby. Thank You too for those times when we are not sure You can even hear us. Help us to be able to make time, take time to step out of the daily routine. Thank You for intentional times of prayer. Help us to make them, we pray. Amen.
Thanks to the website www.contemplativemind.org for their excellent image the Tree of Contemplative Practices.
 Vander Griend, Alvin J., and Bajema, Edith, The Praying Church Sourcebook (CRC Publications: Grand Rapids MI, 1997) 159.
December 21, 2021
Day 24: Ceremonies and Rituals
This branch on the Tree of Contemplative Practices has a longer name – Ceremonies and Rituals based in spiritual or cultural traditions. Today (this evening) happens to be the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. My friend Nancy and I taped a quiet, reflective service I put up on my church’s Facebook page. Services similar to this one are called a Blue Christmas (or, Holiday) service or the Longest Night service.
This service is an alternative to the bright, “holly, jolly” false faces so many put on at this time of the year. The forced gaiety, the consumerism, the festivities many people just want to avoid. While I know many who look forward to this time of the year, there are others who just want this holiday season to blow away!
The Winter Solstice is another name for today, too. The Longest Night (or Shortest Day) of the year is either marked or celebrated in many cultures and ethnic rituals, going back to neolithic times. I am thinking of both Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland, structures erected long ago along site lines that mark the movements of the sun on the day of the Winter Solstice. The winter time, the famine months were to be dreaded, in centuries and millenia past. It was important for a community to keep track of the movements of the sun, in order to apportion out food over the coldest months of the year.
Yet, this is only part of the reason that the Blue Christmas (or Longest Night) service means so much to me. It is also a return of the Light. There will be more sunlight tomorrow, and more the next. We are lighting the darkness tonight. There is a reason that so many celebrations and commemorations in different cultures and religions feature light so prominently.
And, in more recent times, the Blue Christmas service is specifically an alternative service for those for whom the holidays are a difficult time. This year more than most, with the pandemic continuing, and with a diminishing of hope, griefs and losses of all kinds, and fear and anxiety running rampant. What a necessary thing, to have a Longest Night service available for those who are challenged by this time of the year.
May this Contemplative Practice be helpful to you or your loved ones. I hope so. I pray so. Amen.
December 20, 2021
Day 23: Yoga
From time to time when I pray, I think of the words of Henri Nouwen: “To pray means to open your hands before God.” In his little book With Open Hands he begins with the image of clenched fists. “When we are invited to pray we are asked to open our tightly clenched fists….You find yourself saying, ‘I would like it to be different, but it can’t be now. That’s just the way it is.”
I have practiced prayer (quite imperfectly) for several decades. I appreciate Fr. Nouwen’s telling image of coming to God with closed fists. Another way I think about it is coming to God with head lowered, arms clutched angrily across my chest. (like a stubborn, unwilling child) Because, that is precisely how I am and how I feel when I come before God in prayer. Sometimes.
When I started to attend the yoga classes at my local YMCA, I knew very little about yoga. Yes, I had a basic understanding that traditional yoga involved spiritual practices like meditation, and releasing the mind from anything worldly or centered in this modern world. However, I also knew the very beginnings of a physical component to yoga, beneficial for stretching and exercising the body.
So, it was with this open, questioning mind and some expectation that I began yoga, once a week. I would also do cardio and weight training, but I added yoga to my routine.
As I became more accustomed to the moves and positions of my wonderful teacher Ina, over the months I began to still the mind, to keep a mindful awareness yet still, calmness as I moved through the various positions and moves called for by my instructor. (Did I mention that I just love my yoga instructor? A retired hospice nurse, and so knowledgeable about the physical body.)
I slowly came to sense myself calming as I began yoga practice. As I wondered about it, and thoughts about what yoga practice was doing for my body, my muscles, my tendons, and my general flexibility, I realized that this mindful awareness that I was learning to practice was very similar to the contemplative practice that several of the wonderful teachers on prayer and meditation told me to try to accomplish.
As Fr. Nouwen and others have said, I find my mind, heart and spirit unclench – when I practice yoga. I not only feel these beneficial effects upon my physical body, but I am also aware of the freeing nature of this contemplative mindset that yoga encourages me to practice.
And one last thing. Yes, I am aware of the spiritual and religious (non-Christian) nature of certain kinds of yoga practice. No, I do not practice these ancient philosophical or religious traditions. Just as certain groups of people from other places in the world practice various kinds of meditation or contemplation does not mean that I follow them lock, stock and barrel, as well. However, I believe God is pleased with the mindful, prayerful awareness and contemplation that I have begun to practice when I practice yoga at the same time.
Many blessings to you as you practice mindful, prayerful awareness and contemplation, too.
 Nouwen, Henri J.M., With Open Hands (Ballantine Books: New York, 1972), 4.
December 19, 2021
Day 22: Labyrinth Walking
Have you ever walked a labyrinth? Or, seen a labyrinth? If you check out “labyrinth” on your laptop or smartphone, chances are you will find the labyrinth set in the floor of the Gothic cathedral in Chartres, France. (I would love to make a pilgrimage to that cathedral and walk that labyrinth. But, that is another branch on the Tree of Contemplative Practices.) This particular labyrinth (similar to a maze, with a circuitous path) is based on a circle with a winding path to the center.
I was introduced to labyrinth walking by a professor at my seminary. In my second year, I took a spiritual formation course on prayer and several other spiritual exercises. All of us class members gathered together at a retreat center to immerse ourselves into prayer practices.
Our professor had a canvas labyrinth laid out in one of the large rooms at the retreat center. He had the lights down low, and some electronic candles lit at intervals around the circumference. He had our class read an article on the historical use of labyrinths in meditation and prayer before we arrived at the center, so we all had a basic introduction. We walked both in small groups and alone, during that weekend. I immediately took to this practice of prayer walking and prayer in motion. It is a different kind of praying and contemplation, and I cannot do the same thing the same way all the time. I appreciate having some variety, so I relished learning many different ways to encounter God in prayer.
As I said before, I can’t exactly explain how or why the time in that retreat center was especially graced, but it was. I felt our time away was particularly blessed by God.
When I returned home, I found an outdoor labyrinth nearby my house, at a Catholic property in Chicago. I would walk it occasionally, and it was almost always a breath of fresh air for my spirit. A few times I had more difficulty connecting to the Holy, but I was obedient and continued in the spiritual practice, even though I did not “feel” such a direct connection to God that time. And, as my professor let us know, that was okay. It is okay to be at different places in the spiritual path at different times. Sometimes nearer, sometimes further away.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to make my own canvas labyrinth. Perhaps I will talk more about that in some other post. (The process of making it was greatly satisfying, and great fun, too!) It was about two thirds the size of my professor’s labyrinth, so a little more transportable.
Labyrinths make a wonderful change of prayer and contemplation. People can be so inventive – just look at all the contemplative practices here. Thank God for creativity.
Thank You, God, for labyrinths. Thank You for the opportunities I have had to walk them. Encourage those who read this post to walk them, too.
December 17, 2021
Day 20: Storytelling
Fine, skilled storytellers can capture people’s attention and imagination. I know – I’ve heard a few. Storytelling is an art I wish I had. Extemporaneously, off-the-cuff. I have seen others do it, and I am both wowed and envious, at the same time.
I was intrigued when I saw this entry on the Tree of Contemplative Practices, on the Relational branch. I suppose I had never thought of it before, but storytelling not only is an art, it can be a way to actively approach the Holy. A way to show not only relationship with one another (horizontally), but also relationship with God (vertically), too.
As I was reflecting on this topic (and entry on the Tree), I became sadly aware – again! – of my periodic aphasia. Yes, I had a major stroke when I was a teenager. Yes, it affected my whole right side, which I have regained control over. However, the stroke also caused considerable confusion in my speech center. I gradually, and painstakingly, relearned how to use certain neural pathways. For years, I would often stop in the middle of a sentence because I couldn’t grab hold of the word or phrase I had in my mind in order to communicate a thought. But gradually, this became less and less. It still happens, but not quite as much or as often.
Back to my storytelling story. In my late 20’s, I was serving as a youth pastor at an integrated Lutheran church in the Austin area. We had a large Vacation Bible School that summer, and I was the director of VBS. As I stood in front of between 30 and 40 primary and junior-aged children on the first morning, I realized I had not prepared for this. This opening segment of the daily program. (I had a toddler and a preschooler at that time. The toddler was plastered to my leg all week, I vividly recall.)
Imagine my joy and wonder as I started to relate the story of Jacob and Joseph from Genesis, and I found the words immediately accessible. No stumbling, and no aphasia. The children were excited at my story, at the gestures and different voices (for the different characters). I saved the day in that situation. (Yes, the children eagerly wanted me to continue with the story of Joseph for the next days!) And, I gained some courage, some insight into my expanding limits, and thankfulness that God did assist me.
I feel better about storytelling now, several decades later. I still get lost in the details, more often than not, but I do try to tell effective stories which aid in communicating about God and God’s will and ways.
Dear God, thanks for storytelling, which has been continuing for centuries, in many cultures and people-groups . Thank you for effective storytellers (of which I certain am not!). And help us all to be able to communicate clearly, in a winsome way. Even if our words are halting and our actions good-intentioned but somehow found wanting, Thank You for using us and our voices to communicate stories.
December 16, 2021
Day 19: Deep Listening
Have you recently listened – I mean, really listened to someone?
I really try. I mean, I very much try to be as fully open and as fully available to others as I can be as I listen to them with ears and heart wide open. I am sorry to say I do not succeed all the time. But, I do try. Sometimes, I even succeed. Sometimes.
I reached back in my memory and I found two instances where I worked on practicing deep listening. First, in my first year of seminary. I took a spiritual formation course on prayer and several other spiritual exercises. I really wanted to engage with the exercises as well as my fell all in.ow students, so you might say that I was all in. With both feet.
All of us class members gathered together at a retreat center to immerse ourselves into prayer practices. I vividly remember listening with close attention to my fellow students. I can’t exactly explain how or why the time in that retreat center was especially graced, but it was. I felt my insides open to my fellow students in a particularly deep way. Almost as if our class was particularly blessed by God.
The second memory came from a class during my fifth semester, one where I had the opportunity to take a course at another seminary in Chicago, on the south side, in Hyde Park. I took this course called Spirituality and Survivors of Human Rights Abuse. Yes, it was as difficult and heart-wrenching as it sounds. The course made tremendous impressions on me, and on my fellow classmates, too.
The professor for this very special course was a former overseas missionary who had first-hand knowledge and understanding of this challenging topic. The professor divided the class (around 30 or so students) into smaller circles. We would discuss the readings, the topics of each week, and each one’s personal reflections on the whole course time, that fall semester.
Yes, the course held powerful first-person narratives, in which we were permitted into some horrific experiences. These precious people related their experiences and told how powerfully God had worked through those experiences, and transformed each of them from victims of horror and abuse into powerful survivors. God transformed their witness, as well, as only God can.
In both courses, I drew great satisfaction from both the listening and the learning. Both listening experiences were transformative to me, in somewhat different ways.
The first, the course on prayer practices and spiritual direction, had a soft, gentle feeling, gently and gradually shaping my soul and spirit inside. The second – ah, the circles of hearing and listening, the group experiences of hearing, receiving those first-person narratives – that was transformative in a whole different kind of way. I deeply honored those dear ones who willingly came and shared their lives, and shared their ongoing stories.
As the second course continued, I could feel my person, my soul being radically moved and shaken by these narratives. Again and again we as a class were permitted – allowed – even, welcomed into a space of holiness and compassion. Yes, this truly was deep listening.
Dear Lord, thank You for these precious experiences. Thank You for these precious people, both those in my classes as well as those we were privileged to hear. Continue to work with us, work with our hearts, minds and souls as we continue to walk more closely with You. In our Lord’s precious name, amen.
December 15, 2021
Trigger warning: I will discuss war, prisoners-of-war, and death in today’s article.
My husband and I sometimes spend our vacations in out-of-the-way places. This past spring, he and I went to Shiloh National Battlefield Park in Tennessee. He and I spent the better part of a day on the park grounds. We followed the two days of the battle, driving from place to place on the battlefield. My husband is descended from three direct great-great-grandfathers who fought in the American Civil War (all from Iowa regiments); he has been fascinated with Civil War history and battles since he was a boy.
I also am an avid reader of history, so some years ago I was shocked and saddened to hear about Fort Douglas, a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp located on what is now the near south side of Chicago. Approximately 26.000 Confederate prisoners went through the swampy, poorly-ventilated camp during the time it was in operation. When the prisoners did die in the camp, as some did, they were buried in unmarked graves either on the camp grounds or in the City Cemetery.
Some years after the war, all of the graves in the City Cemetery were moved. (The area where the cemetery was formerly located is now one of the high rent districts of the city: Lincoln Park.) All of the unmarked Confederate soldiers were gathered together and buried in mass unmarked graves around Confederate Mound, in Oak Ridge Cemetery further on the south side of the city.
In the summer of 2020, my husband and I made a short trip to the south side of Chicago. We went to visit Confederate Mound, which is part of a large group of Civil War-era cemeteries across the country.
I know there are many reasons people go to war, and as many reasons why nations and regions enter into war. As someone trained as a chaplain and involved in pastoral care as much as I am, I find myself wondering why individual farm boys from rural areas or young men from small towns decided to go off to the far-away war. My husband has read some of the actual letters, transcribed – primary documents – where some of these young men talk about the reasons why they went to war. Sometimes, a group of friends would enlist together. Other times, some would be swept up by patriotism, or others by a call to join in a righteous cause.
(I consider this discussion of war very sad, disturbing, and finally, destructive to all kinds of things. So hurtful to individual lives, families, livelihoods, souls and spirits; crippling all manner of physical, mental and emotional aspects of so many who fought and died, and those who fought and survived.)
I could not help but compare our trip to Confederate Mound with the longer trip to Shiloh. I felt Confederate Mound was more tangible, somehow. Here were bodies of more than 4000 men buried in mass graves. In trenches, under my feet. I could not help but bear witness to the humanity buried not even a few dozen miles away from where I am now sitting.
Each one was an individual, who grew up, lived, loved and died. Some died horribly in Camp Douglas, with only the bare rudiments of sanitation, ventilation, basic nutrition, and medical care. And then, to be buried in a mass grave, with hundred of their unnamed fellows. Such a sad ending.
Yes, I felt myself bearing witness as I stood in silence, for the unnamed Union soldiers buried there, as well. Some might question me, and say that it has been over 150 years since they died. Why concern myself with such ancient history? But, they were fellow human beings – now in unmarked burial mounds.
I am so grateful for the fact that the National Park Service still honors all those who served. No matter where, or when, or in what capacity. God bless these unknowns buried at Confederate Mound.
December 13, 2021
Day 16: Activism and Volunteering
When I hear the term activism, I imagine a lot of things. I can see some friends and acquaintances marching against gun violence or against racist policies in local or national government. I can see my friends Rev. Marilyn and her co-workers advocating against food insecurity and opening their community kitchen every day (365 days a year!). And, I think of the many times I drove the church bus for a prison ministry at a church I attended, before and during the time I went to seminary.
Some Christians today just don’t get involved. They don’t speak up, or step out, or drive, or welcome, or do any of these loving, caring activities. Sure, it involves some effort! And, sure, it shakes Christians of today out of their comfort zones. Social justice and righteousness is a divine mandate.
This is the message of Jewish prophet Amos. “God demands something more revolutionary than festivals and sacrifices and worship songs. And that ‘something more’ is social righteousness, impartiality in judicial decisions, equity in business dealings, justice for the poor and the oppressed.” 
From what Amos said, the Lord did not want God’s people to stay sequestered in their religious silos. According to this prophet, social justice goes hand in hand with liturgical life and practice. This is further echoed in the gospel of Matthew 25:40. The Son of Man says to the gathered people about acts of compassion, kindness and service: “This is the truth: whenever you did this to anyone— whenever you cared for anyone ignored or cast aside—you showed that same kindness to me.”
When I drove a bus to take children and families of incarcerated moms to the penitentiaries downstate in Illinois, I felt a direct connection to the strong words of Jesus. Our Lord told us – in no uncertain words! – that we all have a responsibility to take care of prisoners; to show succor, compassion and welcome.
The extravagant welcome clearly stated in the United Church of Christ is another way of stating what Jesus told His followers to do. In activism, volunteering, and in words, too. Just do it.
Dear Lord Jesus, this is a challenging thing to do. For some people more than others, some will find it more difficult, or scary, or completely out of the realm of what they have ever done. Please, Lord, help all of us be willing. (Or, be willing to become willing.) Thank You for Your urging, Your caring, Your encouragement. Help all of us to step out, reach out, and sing out – for You and in Your name. It is in the powerful name of Jesus we pray, amen.
 Foster, Richard J., Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith (HarperCollins: United States of America, 1998), 151.
December 12, 2021
Day 15: Pilgrimages for Social Justice
I have never been on a pilgrimage to a far-away place. I have wanted to go, for a long time! But, it never seems to happen. I never have had the opportunity.
However – I have made short pilgrimages. I have stood up for people who were oppressed or endangered because of the religion they practice.
I can immediately think of two situations. Both were in support of two neighboring houses of worship. Both were mosques. One in the community where my church is located, and the other, the next suburb to the west. I have a number of friends and acquaintances at the mosque in my church’s suburb. I consider myself blessed to count several as dear friends.
Several years ago, the nearby mosque had a situation where they needed to heighten alerts while services were going on inside the mosque. I joined about thirteen or fourteen others to stand alongside the curb, to stand in silent witness and solidarity and support. We stood there all during the service, just in case anyone should stop by to hassle any members of that house of worship.
Yes, I wore my clerical collar as I stood with a candle, as a visual witness to all those who drove by the mosque. And yes, I was very grateful when one of my acquaintances from the mosque invited us in afterwards, to share a meal with all the congregation after the service. Such a blessing, all the way around. For me, taking a stand and standing in witness, and for my friends and acquaintances, realizing that they were supported and cared for by others in the community.
When I attended seminary, I was in a spiritual formation group my first year, meeting weekly. It was not only a formation group, but also an accountability group. One of the chapters we read, talked about and prayed over was “Practicing the Compassionate Life: The Social Justice Tradition.” We were responsible for not only reading and praying, but also doing. That was an integral part of the whole.
A quote from this workbook: “The best way to start your task this week is to begin with this simple prayer: “Lord Jesus, show me someone whom I can serve.” God loves to answer this prayer.”  Oh, my. Yes. I feel so strongly about Matthew 25, where Jesus details compassionate service for the least, the downtrodden, the poor and forgotten. God does indeed desire all followers to “give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.” (Psalm 82:3).
I feel this so deeply in my heart. Yes, please God, I will. Dear God, thank You for Your love for each of us. Help us to show Your love to others. Help us to reach out in service for others, no matter what color, ethnicity, social standing, and – yes – religion or faith tradition. Thank You for giving me such wonderful opportunities , to live this social justice tradition regularly. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
 Smith, James Bryan and Graybeal, Lynda, A Spiritual Formation Workbook (A Renovaré Resource for Spiritual Renewal), (HarperSanFransisco: United States of America, 1993), 54.
December 11, 2021
Day 14: Contemplative Arts
This creative entry on the Tree of Contemplative Practices brings me back to a gentle, bittersweet memory of a Saturday morning Lenten retreat planned by my then-spiritual director (may she rest in peace!).
Such a kind, compassionate woman of God. Always had her ears and heart open. Always had abundant and directed wisdom to share. Wonderful, loving presence.
She was an elder in a Presbyterian church where I used to attend, as well as serving on the national staff for a Christian organization. This was a periodic spiritual offering she made to her directees as well as the women of the PC(USA) church. I would attend when I could.
I remember the Bible passage she chose for this particular retreat: Psalm 23. As the women dispersed to go to various corners and rooms of the church education wing, I took the several sheets with the printed psalm, a photo of a lamb on a hillside, and some direction of what steps to take for the morning. As I followed the different steps and prayer prompts, I felt myself internally letting go of the rush-rush, hurry-hurry that had been gripping my insides.
What a relief! What a blessing, too.
One of the last things on the agenda for the morning was an open invitation: a suggestion to create an art project of some kind. My spiritual director had several different art stations. Crayons, art pencils, colored tissue paper, scissors, glue, cardboard, and other supplies available. Yes, I am artistic. And, yes, I felt drawn to some coloring sheets. I picked up colored pencils, and started to draw and color.
I still have that particular coloring sheet. It was a design of a Tiffany glass window – or rather, two windows, side by side. I colored one window in muted gray and brown tones, looking quite like the weather and the view outside on that gray, February day. The other window on that sheet? I colored it in warm, soft, welcoming pastels. The sun shone in the blue sky in the second picture, instead of the sky having all dull grey-toned clouds in the first window.
This hope-filled portrait of the two different sides of my life and spirit seemed to be a natural outgrowth of my morning’s prayer, meditation and contemplation. Yes, I was still in a gray place, even at the end of that morning. However, I could see my way to approaching the place of color, of vibrancy, and warmth.
I am so glad I had the opportunity to create that drawing. I felt that picture so deeply. I appreciate my spiritual director. And, I pray that I might be able to provide opportunities for others to reflect, pray and contemplate, just as I did.
Dear Lord, thank You for my dear spiritual director. She walked with so many people during her life. She touched even more lives through her work and ministry. Help me to remember the abundant gifts she blessed me with. Help me – help us to listen to You and to be creative, when offered the opportunity. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
December 10, 2021
Day 13: Journaling
I love journaling. (That’s what I am doing right now!) Seriously, I have journaled off and on for decades, ever since I was a teenager. Sometimes angsty, sometimes saccharine, sometimes theological. But, always deeply felt and deeply personal.
Since I grew up in a house of books, and my parents (both college-educated) very much valued books, reading and learning, I naturally gravitated toward reading, learning and the written word. I loved to journal (still do!) and soon found myself impelled to put down my ideas, thoughts, and ponderings in written form. Especially when thinking about God, the Bible and theological things. For years, in fact, for decades.
I loved using Scripture in prayer and meditation, and I learned how to do Ignatian prayer (using the Bible passages as jumping-off places of prayer, using a Godly imagination). I’ve been doing Ignatian prayer for 20 years, off and on, and have had such rich experiences! And – always, I journaled my way through.
One of my favorite books on contemplative, Ignatian, lectio divina, and Word-based prayer is The Word is Very Near You by Fr. Martin L. Smith. I love the way Fr. Smith breaks down the process for approaching God, praying, meditating, and then writing about the experience. This is one of my favorite prayer helps. I have spent many a session in prayer with the help of Fr. Smith.
In his instruction (and description) of lectio divina, his words have made such an impression on the whole way I approach God in prayer and attend to Scripture. After the reading: “Express to God in the simplest way the impression the words have made on you. You may want to thank God for the gift they convey, ask the questions they have stirred in you, put into words the longings or needs they have brought up. ..Your prayer may move into contemplation, a simple being in Christ with God in which all you are aware of is that you are being attracted towards God like the needle of a compass finding the north.” 
I do not always make it all the way to contemplation. But when I do, it is sweet. All in all, using the words of Scripture is such a wonderful time of prayer. And journaling is a natural outgrowth of this whole process of prayer. Thanks to Martin Smith for adding to my enjoyment and enrichment of journaling.
Let’s pray. Dear God, thank You for words. Thank You for the ease in which I can express my thoughts, my questions, my yearnings, as well as biblical and theological understandings and insights. I know You have made each of us differently, and some find it easier to write than others. I don’t know anything else. Dear Lord, thank You for giving us the Bible, Your Word. Thank You for giving us Jesus, Your incarnate Word made flesh. Help me – help us to incorporate Jesus into our daily lives, too. Help us to crave Jesus, the living Word just as much as we crave food and drink, and pursue the Bible just as much. Thank You for helping me take in the Word of God through journaling. It’s in the name of Jesus, the Word made flesh, that we pray. Amen.
 Smith, Martin L., The Word Is Very Near You (Cowley Publications: Cambridge MA: 1989), 120-21.
December 9, 2021
Day 12: Improvisation
Television shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? and Curb Your Enthusiasm are wonderful Other shows (Parks and Recreation and Community come to mind) have a large part of unscripted improvisation, too. Comedy improvisation can be freeing, collaborative, immersive, and totally fun.
Twenty-three years ago, I providentially happened to start comedy improv classes at IO (formerly, Improv Olympic), with co-founder Charna Halpern. She taught me a tremendous lesson: both/and. Or, rather, she gave me words for something inside of me that was yearning to be expressed. Not either/or, and certainly not a restrictive approach, but showing the extravagant welcome  I find in the United Church of Christ. Improv released this tremendous mindset that the program of recovery also encouraged in me: that of affirmation, celebration, reconciliation, and the freedom-to-be.
On this Tree of Contemplative Practices, Improvisation is found on the Creative branch. And yes, I absolutely agree! It is so creative! I can still remember skits and games we played and acted out in that two-year period. Twenty-two and twenty-three years ago. So vivid, so much fun! And the concept of group mind as a totally collaborative, integral part of the whole is something I will never forget.
Sure, the Improv I did was at a “secular” place. Yet, I can totally see how it helped me to get closer to God. Closer to my fellows in Improv. And, yes, more in touch with my inner child – or klutz – or clown – or philosopher.
I would love to do improv again! I would do it, in a shot! Perhaps, one day soon…please, God.
Please, pray with me. Dear God, thank You for laughter. Thank You for joy, and fun, and giggles, and just plain roars of laughter. Thank You for limericks and for pratfalls and for mime. Thank You for all the ways Improv artists have used all of the above to bring about joy and laughter and truth and even pain and suffering – and turn it all into something utterly wonderful. Help us all to learn from these marvelous games and skits. And, help us all to be ready to laugh. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
December 8, 2021
“Those who sing pray twice.” This quote is attributed to St. Augustine. What a marvelous sentiment! Especially for someone like me, who loves music.
From the early teenage years of my walk with God, the deeply meaningful lyrics of so many hymns have drawn me in. They have spoken to my heart and soul. At the Lutheran church of my childhood and teen years as well as the sawdust trail Revival hymns and gospel songs of my late teens and early 20’s, the greatly theological lyrics (paired with gorgeous, uplifting hymn tunes) have held me fast. They’ve been one of the major foundations, the underpinnings of my belief.
Fast forward a few years. Imagine how my heart sang when I discovered some spiritual writers on prayer (whom I respected very much) stating that singing was a marvelous way to pray!
During Epiphany and Lent 2021, I taught a weekly Bible study that was out of the ordinary – for me. Instead of focusing on a Bible passage, or book of the Bible, or Bible character, I focused on the familiar hymns of the Church. One excellent resource I used for this study had the wry name 28 Hymns to Sing Before You Die. Written by two lifelong Presbyterians, John M. Mulder and F. Morgan Roberts, this marvelous book delved into the history behind the hymn texts, and the history of the authors.
Eugene Peterson wrote the foreword of this book. I was as moved by his words as I was by the stories behind the hymns. Particularly this paragraph, in light of our Advent contemplative prayer focus: “Each of these hymns is an act of worship that brings us into an awareness and receptivity to the life of the Trinity – the operations of all the persons of the Trinity in a participatory way. But the conditions in which [the hymn texts] were composed and sung were more often than not pain and devastation, sickness and poverty. And yet, somehow beauty and elegance were distilled out of conditions of doubt and hopelessness.” 
Oh, my. Eugene Peterson has hit on exactly what I have been feeling all these years. I felt the deep emotions of the authors of these hymns, without knowing exactly what their circumstance were when writing. Over the years, I have wept over these hymn texts, and rejoiced, too.
Although many people today do enjoy modern worship songs – and I have found some I enjoy, too – I am thinking of the traditional hymns of the 17th, 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. These hymn texts may have older or archaic wording, yet at the same time so theological. Giants of hymn texts, like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley and Fanny Crosby come to mind.
I also love the written word. The words of hymns strike a balance between the dry, dusty theological tomes and the sometimes warm, sometimes striking experience of the heart. I pray you might consider these words from the marvelous hymn “He Leadeth Me, by Joseph H. Gilmore.
He leadeth me, O blessed thought!
O words with heav’nly comfort fraught!
Whate’er I do, where’er I be
Still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
God continues to hold my hand (and, your hand, too.)—”since God through Jordan leadeth me.” Until the end of our days; and finally as trusting children, we cross that river Jordan, too.
Dear Lord, thank You for such marvelous words. Thank You for such wonderful opportunities to sing in congregations, with choirs, and to hear anthems in worship. Thank You for those times when the line from a hymn came to mind, and expressed exactly what I wanted to say to You. And, thank You for the gift of these words, crafted out of pain and heartache, as well as joy and praise and the whole gamut of emotions. Thank You for such a treasure within our hymnbooks. May we never lose the wonder and the worship that comes from these prayers in song. Amen.
 Mulder, John M. and Roberts, F. Morgan, 28 Hymns to Sing Before You Die (Cascade Books: Eugene, OR, 2014), xii.
December 7, 2021
Day 10: Music
Music makes my heart sing. Seriously.
I was classically trained as a pianist when I was a child. My family was the odd family in my neighborhood. My parents actually listened to classical music – and enjoyed it. My father was an excellent pianist, and played Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Debussy (among others). So, I grew up hearing my father playing in the living room as I went to sleep on the second floor of our little brick house in Chicago. He would often leave the windows open, and give the neighbors a regular concert, almost every night.
I had older brothers and sisters, and they all were musical, as well. The music of band and orchestra instruments as well as piano filled the house. What a wonderful thing, to have a house full of music.
As I grew older, I found my way into the church – the Lutheran church. What a glorious thing, to have Johann Sebastian Bach as one of the greats of church music! I loved hearing the instrumental music of Bach played in the church. Our church had an excellent organist, and she would occasionally play organ recitals. (Sadly, the church only had a small choir of amateurs. So, very little vocal music of Bach.)
Intuitively, I deeply felt the soaring melodies, the magnificent polyphony, the glorious harmony of church music – even before I was well into high school. And, as I took more and more music classes and realized what it was I was hearing, my heart rejoiced as I opened my ears and took the music in as a prayer. Yes! I was only vaguely aware of praying as I listened, but in retrospect, I often found myself immersed in prayer as I would listen to church music. And, not always with lyrics. Sometimes (often!) instrumental, too.
I realize as I prepared to write this reflection that I could find next to no references that spoke of instrumental music. That is, music without lyrics. Just about every reference to music concerns vocal music or hymn singing. (Which is a whole separate topic, fully worthy of its own reflection!)
After checking out some twenty different books of prayer, contemplation and meditation, I finally found a short reference to music, in general, by one of my favorite authors on prayer: Tilden Edwards. “Beethoven once said…music is a fuller way to God than words….Such intrinsic sound qualities have a way of opening us deeper into God’s mystery, before which all our words fall short.” 
This is just a brief mention from Edwards, but such a sentiment! This is the way it was for me, even as a teenager. Then, as I got an undergraduate degree in church music, my appreciation of church music became so much more well-rounded.
Since I am intuitive, and feel things deeply, I think I understand what Edwards was saying about music and sound being part of God’s mystery. Prayer, contemplation and meditation can all take place for me as I listen. As I play, too. My finger skills and technical facility have gotten rusty with lack of practice and age, as well as the onset of arthritis. But, I still enjoy producing music on the piano and organ!
I know the music that delights my heart is not the music for everyone. And, that’s okay! Perhaps you can find some music that delights you, that makes your heart sing before God. I hope and pray you can.
Please, pray with me. Dear Lord, thank You for music. Thank You for the melody and harmony of so many pieces praising Your name. Thank You for the music that wordlessly invites people into Your presence, too. Help us to be able to come before Your presence, when we are singing, or when not. It is enough to simply be in Your presence. Thank You, dear Jesus.
 Edwards, Tilden, Living in the Presence (Harper Collins: San Francisco, 1995), 34.
December 6, 2021
When I saw the Tree of Contemplative Practices and realized how many and varied these prayer practices were, I had difficulty even grasping that idea! Oh, the height and depth and length and breadth of the practices! The multitude of variety, too!
Another way of saying it is. these many different ways of contemplation just blow my mind.
Visualization is today’s variety of prayer. When Tilden Edwards mentioned visualization in his remarkable book Living in the Presence, I realized this was yet another way to use my imagination. (Yes, I do have an active imagination!) Edwards started his explanation with mentioning the powerful symbol of light, God’s radiant, loving truth. Yes, the Bible does mention the different physical manifestations of God’s glory! I chose the verses “God is light” (1 John 1:5) and “walk as children of light” (Eph 5:8). 
So, I tied my imagining cap on as I prayed in this way again, just now. I sat in a comfortable position, and closed my eyes. Almost immediately, I was aware of the soft light behind my eyelids. Persistent light, but soft! Gentle. Godly. That light surrounded me, and yet bathed me in a loving, gentle way.
What do you think God’s light would be like? Would it be the same every time? (I don’t think so. I have not experienced it that way, myself.) Personally, I do not think God would be so static, so predictable. That is the way it is, with our Lord. He is surprising. Loving and caring, and just and true.
This is one of the few exercises or prayer practices where I usually do not receive a word-y response. Does God talk to you? How would it be if Jesus quietly surrounded you with His presence? Discouragement, despair, bewilderment – gone. Except, I am filled, I am bathed in the light of God. Amen! Thank You, Lord Jesus.
Dear Lord, even now, when I close my eyes, I can still see a hint of Your light, Your brightness. Thank You for this experience. Thank You for the gift of an active imagination. I haven’t thought about my imagining in such a way, not for a very long time! What a sweet, gentle experience. I needed that, right now. Thank You. Thank You. Amen, dear Lord. Amen.
 Edwards, Tilden, Living in the Presence (Harper Collins: San Francisco, 1995), 53.
December 5, 2021
Day 8: Beholding
When I took the course Introduction to Prayer my first year of seminary, I was introduced to many different types of prayer. Some of these I was familiar with. Others, not at all. Including, beholding. Or, as some who practice this type of prayer say, gazing.
I learned about this type of prayer while gazing at icons. In class, we took the opportunity to go down the hall to the chapel, where there was space to spread out and take the time to enter fully into the gazing (or beholding) experience. But, I am getting ahead of myself.
Marjorie Thompson in her oh-so-helpful book Soul Feast gives some direction on contemplative prayer. She only introduces gazing or beholding, but what she says is a good starting point. “Simple objects or images can also be the focus of contemplative prayer. A single flower, leaf, or candle may become a pointer to divine presence. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, icons (images of Christ, Mary, and the saints) are a focus of contemplation.”  Thompson suggests Fr. Henri Nouwen’s book Behold the Beauty of the Lord as a helpful introduction to praying with icons.
I had an immersion experience with Nouwen’s book. (Seriously, that is what it felt like – being immersed in warm, gentle prayer.) I had never prayed with icons before, and our professor had several large icons of different types. As the class was instructed, and as we read through Nouwen’s short book, we approached our chosen icon with reverence and gentleness. (At least, that is what I totally felt.) Out of several icons, I felt an openness, almost a beckoning from Andrew Rublev’s icon of Christ, the Savior of Zvenigorod. What an experience.
As I beheld this icon, I felt the damaged portions of the figure of Christ so deeply. Repeatedly, I thought of how our Lord Jesus can feel-with, can not only sympathize, but empathize with me (with us!), as imperfect, hurting, wounded humans. He comes alongside of us, sits with us as we behold the icon. Gazing, feeling His loving, caring, reaching-out presence.
And, all this I experienced from beholding. Amazing experience. I have also prayed in this way with a single flower floating in a simple glass bowl of water, and with a burning candle in a darkened room. But, none of these experiences were quite as moving as my several times of prayer with the Savior of Zvenigorod.
I even have a small icon. When I bought it at a Christian bookstore, I saw quite a number of different icons. At least twenty, most small, and a few larger. The icon of our Lord with children drew me, ad so I bought it. This icon has a special place in my apartment. I pray that you may consider praying in this way, or perhaps read Fr. Nouwen’s book Behold the Beauty of the Lord, to get an appreciation for beholding – gazing – in prayer.
Dear Lord, thank You for the marvelous ways individuals have found to come before You. So many different ways, from so many varied cultures and points of view. Dear Lord Jesus, thank You for Your nearness, Your gentleness, and Your approach-ability. Help us to seek You and find You, in all Your wondrous beauty. It’s in the marvelous name of our Savior we pray, amen.
 Thompson, Marjorie, Soul Feast (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, KY, 1995), 48-49.
December 4, 2021
I love contemplation. And, I really love reading. When I have done contemplative reading of the Bible, it seems to be especially gifted with Godly presence.
I have several books on prayer that I have used, and prayed through. They have been marvelous helps to me, in my journey with God through these different kinds of prayer, meditation and contemplation. One of my favorite go-to books for contemplative reading, lectio divina and Ignatian prayer is The Word is Very Near You, a not-so-recent book by Episcopal priest Fr. Martin L. Smith. As he introduces the whole idea of meditation on Scripture, he mentions the “image of feeding on Christ and taking in the nourishment of the life-giving word…the prophets had vision in which they were given books to eat.” 
I can just imagine Ezekiel having his vision of eating the scroll that tastes just like honey. And, Psalms 119 and 34 both talk about God’s word being even sweeter than honey. To my joy, I have experienced this! I’ve used Fr. Smith’s book on a regular basis, a large number of times over the past twenty years. As I have followed his step-by-step instructions, I have felt stories, parables and other (more visual) sections of the Bible come to life when I listened to his directions and read the Bible passages aloud. I have been blessed by Smith’s book and by his suggestions, countless times. (Yes, I am a fan-girl.)
By this time, I suspect you realize that I love Psalm 119, too. Every verse of this long, long psalm has a mention of God’s Word. Descriptions like “hiding Your word in my heart,” “I am a stranger on earth,” “my soul is weary with sorrow,” and “the earth is filled with Your love” – all poetic, and all so poignant. I can ruminate on any one of these verses for a long time!
Just knowing that God is present with me, as I am reading, can be a stunning realization. (Really and truly.) I hope and pray you can experience this sweetness of contemplative reading, too.
My sweet Lord, thank You for Your Word. Thank You for the poetic descriptions and turns of phrase I find in the Scriptures – in both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament. I experience You through Your Word so readily. I realize that different people experience You in different ways. Help all of us to truly be encouraged to pick up Your Word and read it on a regular basis. Thank You for the Bible.
 Smith, Martin L., The Word Is Very Near You (Cowley Publications: Cambridge MA: 1989), 115-16.
December 3, 2021
As I read today’s entry on my list of contemplative practices, I remembered that Compassion and Loving-Kindness are two foundational characteristics of God. Attributes of, or adjectives used in describing God. What an awesome thought, that this Tree of Contemplative Practices mentions us – you and me – with the same adjectives that describe God.
(Yes, I am going to geek out at this point, and talk about the Biblical text. I love sinking my teeth into the language and meaning behind the words.)
One of my wonderful go-to books on prayer, Prayer by Richard Foster, talks about compassion in prayer. We – you and I – are urged to show compassion in prayer, just as Jesus did. “Always! The Gospel writers frequently mention that Jesus was ‘filled with compassion’ for people.”  In both Hebrew and Aramaic, the root concept of compassion is inward parts. The King James Version calls this bowels of mercy. In other words, reaching down to the guts of a person! That is how much our contemplative practice is to reach down inside of us!
Psalm 103 mentions compassion as a Godly attribute. Verse 8: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” And, Foster equates God with a loving Father in verse 13: “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” But, that is not the end of compassion, Not by a long shot!
Psalm 103 highlights loving-kindness, too. I just love the rich, multi-layered Hebrew word chesed, which is variously translated, but in this situation is loving-kindness. Verse 8 mentions the Godly hallmark of “abounding in love,” or, as I translate it word-for-word (with my poor Hebrew skills) “abundant-of loving-kindness.”
Wow! Double wow! These are two Godly adjectives that I consider so far above me, so far above my pay-grade, that I cannot wrap my head around them. Yet, Richard Foster says that we are to practice these Godly attributes on a regular basis as we pray healing prayers with each other. This is the same way I prayed with people as a hospital chaplain, for years. (By the way, you don’t have to be a “professional Christian” to do this kind of praying.)
We have moved beyond interior-gazing and are now going outside of ourselves. Yes, this is contemplation, and yes, this is action-oriented. A way to practice compassion and loving-kindness in the wild. In the world.
Join me in prayer, will you? Dear God, thank You for the two awesome adjectives about You and Your work in the world. About You and Your relationship with Your creation, Your creatures. (That includes us.) Help me – help us to step out, step forth, and practice compassion and loving-kindness. Help us use these gifts with love, with caring, with action. In the kind, compassionate name of Jesus we pray, amen.
 Foster, Richard, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (Harper: San Francisco, 1992), 208.