Recently my daughter started fencing.
It's been the perfect socially-distanced sport...masked, gloved, and if you come within 6 feet, you get stabbed!
Still in her uniform after practice one day, she put on her helmet, pulled out her épée, and walked outside as I sat on the porch. She began practicing her stance. Noticing it had changed since June, I asked her what she had been doing differently.
"Well, my coach said I would get tired if I was constantly holding my left arm up in a flexed position and he pointed out how I kept rising into the stance. He told me to relax my arm and settle into the stance instead."
Then off-the-cuff she added, "So don't rise to the challenge, Mom, relax into it!"
Rather than "en garde," it caught me "off guard"!
"Don't rise to the challenge, relax into it!"
Her words and the image they created have been in my mind ever since. Why?
Well how often have you heard or been taught to "rise to the challenge"?!
And are you, too, you worn out from all the rising?
So let "en garde" be a reminder.
Be ready for action by relaxing into your stance. Paradoxically, this allows one to better (and more naturally) be in position to meet the challenge, whether it's with épée in hand or not.
How might you "relax into rather than rise to the challenge" today?
Pause for a moment. Notice your breath.
Are you shallow-breathing or holding your breath?
Both are common when in front of a screen. Both are common during times of fight, flight, or freeze.
Our heart rate increases and breathing becomes restricted readying us for whatever action is needed to help us survive a threatening situation. While being in front of a screen is a false threat (our survival is not at stake), it can trigger the same bodily responses.
What we see, hear, and read on screens often keeps threats right in front of us keeping us in fear of what looms around every corner…and it’s certainly heightened this year!
Interestingly enough, the breath is in the spotlight this year—the ability to breathe being threatened by COVID-19, breath being forcibly cut off by a police officer’s knee, fear of being unable to breathe when wearing facemasks, fear of others’ breath who are not wearing facemasks…
Survival breathing can become the norm when our days (and nights) are filled with hypervigilance (compulsively on the lookout for threats). This “survival breathing” can lead to a host of issues from sleep problems to overly consuming food or information, from chronic anxiety to the inability to make wise decisions.
Our bodies, minds, emotions, and souls need the fullness of the breath.
Without breath, there is no life (literally and metaphorically). Poet Mary Oliver speaks of the latter when she writes, “Listen, are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” To live fully, creatively, and wisely, we need the breath.
Earlier this year, I taught “Meditating with the Aramaic Beatitudes.” In Jesus’ native language of Aramaic (which lends itself to various images & layers of meaning), one translation of the very first Beatitude found in Matthew 5:3 reads, “Ripe are those who find their home in the breath (the Spirit); they shall be attuned to the inner reign of God.”
The word for “spirit,” rukha in Aramaic (like ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek), can also be translated as “breath.” What does finding your home in the breath (which is also Spirit) offer you today? How is breathing foundational to your ability to be present to God, yourself, and others? What actions can you take to help others’ “find their home in the breath,” too? After all, we are all connected by the same breath!
Several years ago after teaching classes on “Breathing as a Spiritual Practice,” I created a short, 3-part video series with light-hearted exercises to give our diaphragms needed attention so that a slow, relaxed breath is more easily remembered and accessible to us. Even in times of trouble.
You can find those videos here. I’m going to practice some with my facemask on to remind myself that the mask itself does not need to be a threat! While I hope you’ll watch the videos, you do not have to in order to receive the gift of a full, slow, relaxed breath…it’s available to you right now (just like God’s presence)!
So pause for a moment again.
Whether privately without a facemask or publicly with a facemask, whether in front of a screen or not, let breathing be your prayer today. Breathe deep the Breath of God.
For a related article, see "What do the Coronavirus and the Reign of Love have in Common?: A Facebook Post from June 27th"
What happens when we discount small actions or fear the possibility of humiliation?
We may not act at all.
When we embrace both, we’re free to act.
Any life-giving act, no matter how small, matters.
According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed someone planted or like yeast a woman worked through a large amount of dough.
Both the mustard seed and yeast required action from someone to bring about their potential.
Both seed & yeast, the required action, and even the people may seem small and even hidden.
Both may be small and hidden, but some actions require more (planting a seed is easier than kneading yeast through 60 lbs of dough!)
Both contain big potential to benefit an entire community, offering nourishment in a variety of ways:
All of this from two small actions!
If we're going to be sowers of seed and kneaders of the Bread of Life, know this...
Action is never humiliation-proof.
According to Fr. Richard Rohr, we're to pray for one good humiliation a day!
What a way to stay humble and inevitably learn that humiliation is often a gateway to transformation! I promise you, especially if you, like me, are white (& an Enneagram One), it will happen as you enter into the on-going work of antiracism.
Last fall, my daughter and I went to a weekend seminar to hear Nobel peace prize nominee, Fr. John Dear, talk about “Jesus as Peacemaker.”
It’s been a constant part of our conversations ever since, becoming richer with insights from others. Earlier this year, Abby Buter pointed out the difference between being a “Peacekeeper” and a “Peacemaker” during the “Meditating with the Aramaic Beatitudes” class. The distinction is important…Jesus was the latter & said it’s the latter who are blessed.
Fr. Dear gave my daughter a new language of nonviolence and she’s been quick to point out when I’m not (& other Christians aren’t) following in the footsteps of the nonviolent Jesus…oh the blessings of having a teenager in the house!
But she’s right. And having it pointed out can be humiliating.
When my children saw the video and photos of George Floyd, they were distraught.
The conversation around Jesus and nonviolence needed to be taken to the next level.
I decided to begin with my own faults and humiliations so they would learn not to fear their own.
Around the dinner table, I told them stories from my own life of how I have thought, said, or did things that contributed to racism and upheld racist beliefs and systems. We talked about the reality of having inherited racist ideas as a culture and how Western Christianity’s own “superiority complex” has added to the problem by often making us overtly or covertly feel like we are definitely on the “winning team” and others are not.
I told them of when I was a youth pastor and met with a community organizer after having spent time in Mississippi with Dr. John Perkins who encouraged me to do the same kind of community and racial reconciliation work with our students in our Missouri town rather than go elsewhere. Conversations with a couple of black pastors in the area led me to talk to the black community organizer. After telling him what I wanted to do, he laughed, and I felt humiliated.
He pointed out how it was fine that I wanted to bring my students from the north side to the south side to help paint or whatever, BUT, it still didn’t change the fact that what the predominately black kids on the south side were using as a community center was an old building that no one else wanted (but the kids were still happy to have) while the predominately white kids on the north side enjoyed a brand new top-of-the-line sports complex. It was an eye-opening conversation.
Noticing my humiliation and naivete, he said, “I like you” then continued to challenge my white privilege.
Doing “good work” and being a “good person” weren’t enough. At the end of our time, he still put me in touch with those who could help me line up service projects and then he sent me on my way (which included crossing a threshold I had no idea I would be crossing when I first walked in there).
It was later that I could see how he was trying to open my eyes to the larger systemic problem of racial inequality and the problem of “white savior complex”--- our white Christian youth group would feel good about “helping” but the larger problems would still exist after we left (& in some cases our help would further uphold the problematic systems).
Looking back, I’m grateful for the humiliation! Why?
Last month the opportunity to join an online discussion group facilitated by a black friend from high school on the book, How to Be An Antiracist, came up. Aside: I've enjoyed listening to author, Ibram X. Kendi, read the audio version; often my kids listen, too.
I knew a good humiliation (or more!) would come as I listened, shared, and became even more deeply aware of my ignorance both in high school and now (i.e. How did I not or how have I continued to not see, know, or consider this before?).
However, experience tells me that humiliation need not stand in the way (and often is the way!).
Do the conversations with family, friends, and neighbors matter? Does the discussion group matter?
Refer to Jesus’ parables on the mustard seed and yeast.
Two resources for ongoing learning, awareness & action:
Conventional language regarding spirituality tends to focus on work-related words. We speak of spiritual practice, discipline, effort, work...
These words distract us from the truth about spirituality. Work is all about earning something, doing something, getting somewhere. But spirituality is all about accepting, receiving, embracing, and surrendering. It is as if we want spirituality to be difficult so as to excuse our not bothering with it.
Better to speak of spiritual play than spiritual work.
Play can be no less intense and engaging, but it doesn't hold out the hope of a prize. You play for the sheer fun of playing. When your spiritual life is done for joy, your life will be filled with joy.
-Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Hasidic Tales: Annotated & Explained
Need some spiritual play in your life?
Let's talk about all you've been juggling and ways you can surrender to joy!
Do you know the difference between Self-Comfort and Self-Care?
Yesterday I presented “Resilience for Spiritual Caregivers,” a slideshow from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology (I attended their online webinar in May).
It's so important for those of us caring for the souls of others to not neglect our own. Yet it’s all-too-common for neglect to happen, especially during times of anxiety/trauma/crisis.
One insight from The Seattle School’s Resilient Leaders’ Project was the differences between the coping behaviors of “Self-Comfort vs. Self-Care”---
Both are very much a part of our specific stories (what we turn to for comfort and care differ for each of us).
Both have their place.
Self-Comfort behaviors are…
-short-term solutions which are often detrimental to our long-term health.
-often isolating, done in private.
-support our long-term well-being.
-increase our sense of connection to self, others, & God.
Binging on Netflix all day may help me cope for a short while by forgetting my own story. But losing myself in the stories of others while sitting on the couch is not what my mind, body, and soul are deeply craving.
It may be okay in the short-term; it’s not a good long-term solution. In fact, self-comforting behaviors can turn into unhealthy patterns (addictions) if not recognized.
A pandemic and the current political climate will certainly bring out the need for self-comfort (which can be a cause for self-shaming)! Rather than criticize ourselves, we can try being curious and compassionate instead. We might ask questions like:
-Why do I try to comfort myself with food (or where did I learn to comfort myself in this way)?
-What gets in the way of me doing what is healthy for myself?
Two self-comforting strategies that had turned into unhealthy distractions for me:
The first I argued was a way to keep me connected to others but honestly, it had become more of a life-draining rather than life-giving habit. My 9-year-old encouraged me to remove it, so I did. I’m reaching for my phone less and present to my kids more without the pressure to narrate my days with posts & photos.
The second offered a way to zone out alongside my spouse once the kids were in bed but kept me riled up until the point of exhaustion! So rather than the news, I’m now taking the hour before bed to read fiction and draw with color pencils...my whole being (& my family) is affirming this choice!
I still need my time watching Masterpiece dramas as well as baking (& eating) fun desserts, but I recognize these are self-comforting strategies. Binging on either day-after-day will have negative consequences!
Art, Zumba, Centering Prayer, poetry, juggling, delighting in healthy meals, dancing to 80s music with my kids, chats on the porch swing with my spouse, socially-distanced socializing with friends, talking with my Spiritual Director on the phone...when engaged in healthy and not legalistic ways, are self-caring behaviors that support me as I walk in the way that leads to Life.
May you be curious as to the ways you comfort and care for yourself. Since everything is interconnected, the ways you care for yourself (or don't) will impact those in your care!
I’m happy to join you in discerning what will best support your journey (especially during this time of global anxiety). Schedule a 30 minute or 1 hour session of Spiritual Direction &/or Dreamwork.
Learn more about The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology's Certificate in Resilient Service (going online for the first time!).
Facebook's "what's on your mind?" prompt has been taunting me, so here's what's on my mind. It begins with a conversation...
“You know what’s strange? Most people I see who aren’t wearing masks are Christians,” a friend who was standing over 6 feet away said to me. We both shook our heads.
Interconnected. That’s what we are with everyone & everything.
In not recognizing it, we are what the prophets lamented, “foolish and senseless people who have eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear.” Which leads to little understanding of how God is present and at work in our world. After all, one way Jesus described the Kingdom of God is “like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough" (he also used the image of yeast to describe leaders’ hypocrisy).
The Reign of Love, like coronavirus, spreads in hidden ways.
We had Thanksgiving dinner at my brother-in-law’s parents’ home this past year. They live less than 5 miles away. Both were diagnosed with COVID-19. His dad died this week. My husband’s grandma was diagnosed with COVID-19 this week, too. And we await the test results of a dear friend as to whether or not he has COVID-19.
The politicization of COVID-19 and seeing people not taking it seriously infuriates me.
I can’t help but think of words found in Deuteronomy 30, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life that you and your descendants may live.”
The “you” being addressed is an entire nation of people. A nation is made of many individual “yous.” So the choice is both personal and communal, they’re interconnected. And they also impact not only those we see right here, right now, but generations to come (we’re seeing this truth with our nation’s racial injustice crying out to be healed).
Granted, the choice doesn’t always look or feel like life at the time. The path of/toward Life often does not.
In the middle of May, we decided that until the virus’ spread trended downward for 2 weeks or we could assure social-distancing measures, we needed to do our best (knowing we wouldn’t do it perfectly) to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” So we cancelled our vacation and we have not let Alex play on his travel baseball team (the latter decision harder than the former).
Does it make any difference? We don’t know. But those are a couple of ways our family has and continues to choose Life. Given our awareness of our interconnectivity to everything and everyone else, including all of you, we can do no less.
My 13-year-old daughter started animating the morning after a tornado blew through our town of Mount Juliet, TN, leaving a path of heart-breaking destruction. At first, it was a way for her to express her feelings. It then became a way for her to speak to others affected by the storm and direct people to give to The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. When she first showed me her completed animation, I was amazed by its heart and simplicity.
One scene in particular continues to stay with me. When the boy grabs hold of the extended hand, he bursts into tears. Rather than stifle them, the touch allows his tears to flow freely and the animation stops right there.
It doesn’t end on a sunny note (even though she wrote earlier in the video, “It’s going to be okay…We’re in this together.”). Having the promise of things inevitably being okay does not mean we are (or someone else is) okay in the moment. It does not mean we need to stop our tears or think there’s nothing to cry about (even if someone does have it worse).
There is a time to leap into action, to encourage each other that all will be okay, to gather in churches to sing praises and offer thanksgiving, to share Scriptures and words of hope to find strength for the road ahead.
There is also a time, especially as the shock wears off, to allow for tears, both individually and communally, and stop right there.
"Look deep into nature, and then you
will understand everything better."
This may very well be one of the reasons Jesus prayed outside so much!
Whether on a mountain or on the side of one, in the wilderness, desert, or garden, Jesus found quiet places in creation to be alone with God the Father. He also encouraged people to observe nature to discover the deeper messages and invitations of God, instructing them to "notice how the lilies grow" or "look at the birds in the sky." (Matthew 6:25-34)
All of nature is speaking! Whether individual parts or the rhythms and cycles of creation, if we observe using all of our senses and spend some time reflecting, we can discover what nature knows.
With notebook or journal in hand, you might try the following prayer exercise and see what the Spirit of God has to say to you about your particular worries, stresses and concerns. What wisdom for your life is to be discovered in a single acorn or the falling leaves? Find out!
How would you describe your November and December?
Now shift your attention from your own experience of November and December to nature's experience.
Give thanks for God's gift of (and the wisdom found in) nature! If there's a way to bless and care for creation, do it!
Imagine walking into a doctor's exam room, telling the doctor your symptoms, showing the doctor what you're concerned about and then... turning around and leaving without letting the doctor respond!
It may sound far-fetched to you but we do it all the time in prayer.
Soren Kierkegaard the 19th century Danish philosopher, theologian and poet once said,
"If I were a physician, and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, how could one hear it with so much noise? Therefore, create silence."
How often do we turn to the Great Physician with our concerns, yet offer no opportunity for a response? With no response, how are we to know what we really are to say or do, especially in the face of tragedy and difficult circumstances?
Oh, we may think we know what to say or do.
Our ego self or what the Apostle Paul called "the flesh" always has an answer! This part of us likes to self-diagnose (and diagnose others!). It's usually quite sure of itself, quick to demonize those who do not agree, and usually lacks creativity, like choosing apathy. Apathy is quite different than active waiting, for the latter keeps vigilance while the former has "fallen asleep," sure to miss God's invitation to action when it does come!
If we read I Corinthians 3:4-5 and simply turn each phrase of what love is to what it isn't, we get a quick and easy way to recognize when the ego is trying to take charge!
The ego often...
is not patient.
is not kind.
is easily angry.
keeps a record of wrongs.
It's hard to stop talking, look inside, and give up all of these ego-driven things in order to create space to listen to the One who truly knows the next word or action needed.
Don't think it's difficult?
Words often arise from those very places when it comes to the difficult person or situation. BUT, if you can allow that part of the ego (the part that is impatient, for instance) to step aside or tone down, this creates space for silence where there's room for the Physician to speak.
In the doctor's office, the doctor gives you instructions on what to do (or not to do) and the kind of medicine to take. Do you let the words go in one ear and out the other or go home and leave the prescription on your kitchen counter? No! Not if you trust the doctor. There is action involved beyond rehearsing your symptoms and having a prescription in hand.
In prayer, not only is the word spoken to you by the Physician powerful, but the word given to you to speak (or do) carries that same healing power forward.
Says, Henri Nouwen in The Way of the Heart,
"A word with power is a word that comes out of silence. A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it...A word that is not rooted in silence is a weak, powerless word that sounds like a "clashing cymbal or a booming gong." (I Corinthians 13:1)
Our world is in desperate need of wisdom and healing. So many of us say, "I'm praying." What if we said, "I'm listening in prayer." Then, let's actually stop talking, go to a quiet place (like Jesus did), and find out what the Physician has to say.
Today is Halloween and my daughter is dressing up like a crazy cat lady.
In the 13th century she would have been killed.
Sounds ridiculous doesn't it?
It's amazing what fear can do especially when its conduit is religion. Fear and superstition can be passed down for centuries!
How many times have you or another remarked on the black cat that just crossed your path?!
In graduate school, a man studying to be a therapist told me, in all seriousness, that demons took possession of cats so to be wary of them. Years later a woman told me that black cats were associated with witchcraft and satanism so she would never own one. A couple of years ago I told a friend how interesting it was that shortly after being trained in Reiki I noticed how our neighbor's 12-year-old cat began spending oodles of time at our house wanting to be petted. She said, "Well, you know what they say about cats and evil." Clearly she did not trust cats or Reiki!
All of these people are sincere, intelligent people, but their belief (or what they may even call truth) arose out of fear and superstition from around the year 1232.
At that time, Pope Gregory IX wanted unity in the Church so he looked to weed out heretics and heretical beliefs (people and beliefs not conforming to the Catholic faith [now remember there was no Protestant faith at this time]). He also wanted to stop local lords and their mobs from unjustly executing people for heresy before any kind of trial was held. So he initiated the Papal Inquisition thinking it would bring more order to the process and give heretics an opportunity to return to the Church before being killed. He issued the Vox in Rama to Germany's King Henry hoping he would stop the spread of the heretical Luciferian cult. In this papal bull he mentioned some of the cult's devil-worshiping practices, including how Satan took the form of a black cat. And with that document, the demonizing of black cats and their owners began.
Black cats were killed and any peasant woman who owned cats, especially black cats, was automatically suspect. Soon the killing spread to all cats as fear heightened with the Black Plague. Thinking that getting rid of evil cats would get rid of the evil disease, people unknowingly exterminated a needed predator of the rats that housed the fleas that later on many believed were to blame for the Plague.
Choosing the fear-based path can have far-reaching consequences. From generation to generation others follow the fear trail marked out for them.
Here in America, Europeans brought with them their fear-based beliefs about black cats and witches which fueled the Salem Witch Trials in the late 1600s. To this day, black cats' bad reputation continues to haunt them as shelters report that they are passed over for the brighter white and orange cats. And violence toward cats, in particular the black cat, escalates on Halloween.
So let's pause (no pun intended!) for a moment and let black cats beckon us away from the path of fear & superstition. Let every cat and their owner be a reminder that we all hold such beliefs whatever person, people group, or animal we may choose to fear, blame, and even (God-forbid!) exterminate.
In writing this post, I found I wanted to blame Pope Gregory IX but realized I needed to dig a little deeper into the story rather than automatically (and easily) demonizing him! Each time we catch a fear and/or superstition-based belief arising within us (who or what we blame may clue us in), let us become aware of the fork in the road.
We don't have to continue down the same path tread by our ancestors. Yes, it may be harder and take longer but as Deuteronomy and Proverbs urge, we can choose the path of life with discernment, wisdom, and kindness.
Black cats and crazy cat ladies will thank us. Future generations will, too.
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.