My friend, Betsy, recently shared with our Centering Prayer group the Jewish practice of "100 Blessings a Day" (as mentioned in the Talmud). It's a way of cultivating gratitude (& awe!) by finding 100 things you are grateful for each day.
I can’t help but think of The Tonight Show’s Jimmy Fallon and his weekly “Thank You Notes” segment! Whether weekly like Jimmy or daily like the Talmud, our own practice can be just as fun and meaningful. We might even choose some background music for our “100 Thank-Yous (if you want Fallon’s music, one fan has put it on a 14-minute loop).
Says Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer, “True prayer is a bursting forth of the soul to God. What can be more natural and more human than turning to God’s listening presence with our thanks and our burdens?”
As we get ready to say goodbye to 2020, most of us would agree it has been a year of burdens for all of us (some of us more impacted than others, some burdens heavier than others). But before it leaves, pause with me and see if you can "burst forth" with 100 things (no matter how small) for which you are grateful.
My little family of four decided to do this (without music for now). So in no particular order:
Once we started, it was hard to stop!
“Whoever does not see God everywhere does not see Him anywhere,” said the Hasidic Kotzker Rebbe. It's also true that whoever sees God everywhere can see God anywhere...even in 2020!
May we enter 2021 with the gift of 100 Blessings (our Thank You-Notes to God).
It's Never Too Late
So you didn’t see the Christmas Star.
And your plans for Advent fizzled with the busyness of your schedule.
Your own to do list continued to grow as the need around you continued to expand.
And now it’s two days before Christmas!
But you still have the deep longing to connect with God.
Are you disappointed? Feeling guilty? Angry?
It’s true God’s mercies are new every morning, it’s also true that they’re new every moment.
The majority of people I met with in Spiritual Direction this week thought their spiritual preparations for Christmas were a bust.
“We have this moment,” I reminded them.
Here’s what happened…
Some looked over the last few weeks and discovered ways God had been with them the whole time! Even in the daytime chaos, even in the quiet darkness of their insomnia at 3am, God was there!
Through guided prayer, some were surprised at who appeared in their imaginations to speak words of wisdom or simply remind them that they were not alone.
At the end of their sessions, I heard:
“Wow, I thought I’d lost any chance to get in touch with God in a deep way before Christmas!”
“I feel like I just received a Christmas gift before Christmas!”
“Knowing how God has been with me even when I haven’t been aware has changed everything for me.”
“This has been so meaningful, I have missed being at church through Advent but now I realize that I’ve never truly been alone. The Communion of Saints feels real to me and I feel so much relief and hope.”
All was not lost! The guilt, anger, and disappointment disappeared in a moment.
If you’re reading this, you’ve got this moment, too. Here are a couple of ways to enter into it:
Light a candle & or listen to the sounds around you as a way of becoming present to this moment. Now…
Every moment is a gift.
No matter how much chaos surrounds you, no matter how much is left on your to do list, God's mercies are available.
Peace & joy to you this Christmas.
Discovering God in the Dark
“Are you afraid of leaving your congregation alone in the dark with God?” I asked a pastor who simply could not understand why I would blow out all candles during a Longest Night Service.
He’s not alone. We tend to rush to bring light into darkness in the same way we rush to fill silence with sound.
Pastors, especially so.
They feel the weight of proclaiming and reminding. Wanting to make sure people know there is hope and “Jesus is the Light,” they constantly talk about hope, repeat Jesus’ name, and keep the lights on, candles burning.
Honestly, they’re just as afraid of the dark as most.
As a Spiritual Director, I’ve had plenty of pastors on silent retreats and plenty who don’t want to come at all because silence is scary. It seems unproductive and too revealing…which is more frightening?! Given my years as a church staff member and years working with church staff members, both are equally so. So much so, some never dare to come or they walk away from the discomfort never to return to a silent retreat.
But discomfort is a doorway to deep transformation. And pastors can be like helicopter parents trying to shield those in their charge from the awkward and uncomfortable feelings that come with silence and darkness.
But, have you ever experienced God in silence? In darkness? I have. I’ve also watched and listened to stories of how others have experienced God in silence and darkness. And guess what naturally arises? Hope. And guess where people discover the Light of Christ? Arising in their midst, even from within their very selves!
After all, God is everywhere--within and without.
The Psalmist proclaims in Psalm 139:12, “Darkness and light are alike to You.” Then he goes on to talk about God forming him in his mother’s womb (another place of darkness where God is present and at work). No lights needed. God is there. And are we not born from our mother’s womb and continue in the womb of the God in whom we live, and move, and have our being?
Light and dark are part of every life and God is with us equally in both.
Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is in our midst, even within our very being (Luke 17:21). So we do not have to be afraid of the dark, the inner light never goes out. It just may take some time (& discomfort) to become aware of it.
14th century Persian poet, Hafiz of Shiraz, echoes this reality when saying, “I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.”
For some reason this scares us, so we look to pastors to talk to us about the Kingdom rather than experience it for ourselves.
However, when a pastor (or anyone!) dares to sit in the discomfort of darkness and silence, allowing uncomfortable feelings to emerge and giving themselves permission to rest from all the doing, they begin to radiate trust.
This trust allows them to entrust those in their care to the discomfort of silence and darkness because they know God will meet each person in whatever way is needed.
Right before an overnight silent retreat a person came up to me after dinner and in all seriousness said, "I'm on the verge of a panic attack the closer we get to going into the silence, I don't know if I can do this." I replied, "I can see why it's scary to you. Know there is a nurse here if needed. And, you're free to leave, but I hope you'll give the silence a try." The person stayed and now they sign up for almost every silent retreat!
In befriending silence and darkness, the discovery is made that rather than be afraid of them, they in fact, can be a gift—an opportunity to be still and know that God is everywhere, in our mist, within our very being.
A few weeks after talking to the one pastor, another emailed me and asked if her Presbyterian Church in North Carolina, could use my liturgy for their Longest Night Service. Mine had been the first liturgy she had come across that included blowing out candles and letting people simply be with God in the dark. She thought it would be powerful, especially this year, to let her congregation experience God’s presence in the darkness.
I could not help but smile.
Restless in the Womb of God
Advent is a time of gestation. Much like the discomfort and anticipation of pregnancy, we wait on the arrival of what is deeply hoped for and anticipated.
A few weeks ago I was in a sensory-deprivation tank floating on 1500 pounds of salt. It's supposed to be (and usually is) relaxing but that day I kept squirming around...like a baby in the womb.
Last year I went to a Benedictine Sister for both Spiritual Direction and healing touch at a monastery where I would be facilitating a retreat the following day. During the time of laying on of hands, when she got to my abdomen she said, "We are in the womb of God who is birthing us. Birth pains are difficult, but we WILL be born."
I teared up as I heard these words of deep hope, because I had been restless then, too.
In liminal space, I felt the strain of being "betwixt and between," especially in relationship with my own religious institution where the leadership continued pulling back from engaging contemplative practice with each passing year. Knowing the transformative power and wholeness found in contemplation and action, I continued to hope. What this hope looked like in regard to my faith community, I found myself full of questions with no easy or sure answers.
Her words of hope spoke to my soul but did not take away the struggle.
Contrary to idealistic views of hope, theologian Jurgen Moltmann (known as the theologian of hope), writes in Experiences of God, "...whenever faith develops into hope it does not make people serene and placid; it makes them restless. It does not make them patient; it makes them impatient. Instead of being reconciled to existing reality they begin to suffer from it and to resist it."
The Sister's words of hope gave me deep permission to accept the struggle and discomfort as part of the process of rebirth.
When I realized that it was not wrong, but natural, to be squirming in the float tank, I found myself smiling with a newfound acceptance. Instead of trying to be still, I playfully allowed my arms and legs to stretch and move however they wanted. It felt freeing.
If I could allow this restlessness in the float tank, how about other in places of my life?
After all, Saint Paul reminded the people in Athens of the perennial truth of their own Greek poets when he quoted, "For in him we live and move and have our being."
Sometimes we rest, sometimes we walk, sometimes we wriggle in the womb of God.
We've got magnetic, chocolate, and cheese Advent calendars and we've just started lighting our Advent candles, but something my daughter said stopped me in my Advent tracks.
"I hate taking down our fall decorations, I feel like I missed out on enjoying them as much as I could have."
To which I replied, "But you're in the house all day, everyday!" (She's doing virtual school the entire year.)
To which she replied with a smile, "But I'm worrying a lot, so am I REALLY here?"
We both laughed.
But I heard her longing and it got me thinking about how we often miss the gifts that are right in front of us like beauty, rest, fun...
She is often busy with virtual classes during the day and often does homework right before bed. We're often busy with work and household chores during the day and often are on our phones or falling asleep watching Netflix. Days and evenings can easily come and go in a whir of busyness and distraction.
So a few hours later, I said, "I have an idea. Every evening before bed beginning December 1st, let's put down phones and homework, shut off the television, and turn off all the lights except for Christmas lights and candles. Let's sit in silence together for the number of minutes matching the day it is, which means we begin with 1. You can sit or lie down, eyes open or closed, and just take in the surroundings. What do you think?"
My daughter and husband were on board immediately, my 10-year-old son nodded slowly but with some skepticism (which makes me particularly excited for him!). So I'll set my Centering Prayer timer for 1 minute tonight and we'll enter into the Silence.
A new Advent practice. Doing nothing. But present to everything.
Whether in the morning, during a lunch break, or before bed, whether the 1st or 14th, you might experiment with Silence as both a way of entering into and a companion during this Christmas season.
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.