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! ##lentensnapshots2022
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.
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!
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.
The suburb where the church I serve is located happens to be one of the most diverse, multicultural, multi-ethnic areas of the Chicago suburbs. The two high schools that serve that suburb are among the most diverse – in terms of languages spoken, countries of origin and ethnicities – in the country.
All that is to say that the place where I serve is a marvelous place and space for intercultural and interfaith dialogue. And, I’ve done my best to reach out to diverse friends, neighbors and community members in the years I have been pastor at St. Luke’s Church in Morton Grove.
In November 2016, I was invited to be a panel discussant at an interfaith discussion on Empowering Diverse Voices at the Muslim Community Center in Morton Grove. This was shortly after the national election of 2016, and many people in our area were very shaken by the heightened rhetoric and attitudes of different groups, nationwide. At that panel, I offered an opportunity for interfaith friends to come together in what I called a monthly gathering for prayer and mutual support.
I was so humbled and gratified to have a diverse group of between 12 and 16 people gather for the next 12 months at the church for these Interfaith Gatherings. These were folks from different groups, diverse faith communities (and a few with no faith affiliation), and of multiple cultures. They gathered to talk, to listen, to support each other, and to pray. For some meetings, we had a definite focus. For others, merely an opportunity for warm fellowship and sharing.
Since I had previously served as a chaplain at a busy urban hospital in Chicago (which was also in quite a diverse, multicultural area), I felt comfortable in such a setting. I suspect my comfort and less-anxious presence aided the open sharing and caring that quickly developed in this Interfaith Gathering group.
Several positive outcomes developed from this Gathering. St. Luke’s Church hosted two community Iftars: one in June 2017, seven months after the beginning of the monthly Gathering, and another in May 2018, several months after the Gatherings concluded. These Iftars were opportunities for the wider community to come together, to learn together, and to enjoy breaking bread with a diverse group of people. I made some lasting friendships from those many months of coming together! And, I was honored to serve as host and facilitator for not only the Interfaith Gatherings, but also the Community Iftars and Outreach Programs in both 2017 and 2018.
I’ve done a number of interfaith events before and since. I do not know what or how God will direct me in the future. I am saying, “Here I am. I am available.” And, I really mean that.
O Holy One, thank You for Your marvelous diversity in this wonderful world. Thank You for bringing these diverse cultures and ethnicities together in such places like urban settings. But, wherever it is, wherever different people encounter each other, bring forth a comfort level and less-anxious presence. Thank You for open sharing and caring among different people. And, thank You for Your creative diversity, within all You have created here on earth. Thank You for everything.
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.
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.
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.