Christmas decorations (including outdoor lights) remain up at our house for the “12 Days of Christmas” culminating with Epiphany on January 6th. The candles will be left in the windows through Candlemas on February 2nd, but that’s for another post.
Through the years I’ve looked for ways, old and new, to celebrate the rhythm of the liturgical year (the Christian/Church calendar). Our "Christmas Card Prayer Path" is a favorite.
Throughout December as Christmas cards come in, we often take a quick glance before putting them in a card holder on the wall. When Epiphany, also called “Three Kings Day,” arrives on the 6th, we gather the stack of cards and lay them end to end, attaching them with tape.
After all are attached, the kids form whatever path shape they want leading to the nativity with its Christmas star overhead. Some years it has been a swirl, others a zig-zag of jagged turns, and once it looked almost straight! Isn't that the journey of life?!
They choose which Magi to accompany, then for the next 30-40 minutes, we join these learned “Wise Men” from the East on their journey to meet Jesus, Love Incarnate. Their journey (and ours) begins with the first card they are set on. As the Magi move toward the manger, the name(s) on each card are read and a blessing is said for each person, family, or group.
It’s usually something simple like, “Thank you for being part of our journey…
…may you be blessed with peace & joy this year.”
…may the love of God be with you.”
…may you continue to give and receive love.”
Throughout the prayer path, we pause when we hear, “Who’s that?” or “Do I know them?” We get the opportunity to introduce names and faces to each other. There are memories shared and stories told. We discover new friends on the journey. And we get to enjoy the humor and beauty of the cards themselves (deciding that some need to be added to our crafting and collaging materials!).
When we reach the last card, we say a prayer for all of those beyond the cards who are part of our journey and we theirs. Our prayer ends with acknowledging that although we’ve made it to Jesus with the Magi, it’s just the beginning of this year's journey of incarnating Love.
*Magi from Build Your Own Bethlehem by Gertrud Mueller Nelson and The Christmas Star from Afar Wooden Nativity Set and Book
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.
“Must be hard being 10 and already going through dark night of the soul,” 14-year-old, Lainey, said as the two of us drove back from her fencing lessons.
Her comment about her brother caught me off guard.
As a Spiritual Director, I companion adults going through Dark Night of the Soul, but I had not considered how children may, too. I know that children suffer depression which in adults can coincide with Dark Night, but I had not seen Dark Night through a child’s eyes (even though our most memorable moments with God often happen when we are children).
For those not familiar with the concept, Dark Night is a stage in the spiritual journey that Saint John of the Cross experienced and wrote about in the 16th century. He gave words to the “spiritual crisis” that occurs for those seeking union with God or to embody Perfect Love.
Whether happening gradually or initiated through a tragedy or hardship, Dark Night can be felt as emptiness and dryness. Our go-to spiritual practices no longer “work.” Those activities and places of belonging that once brought us enjoyment, no longer do so. We suffer disappointment, doubt, disorientation, discomfort, disillusionment, and even the utter disintegration of our thoughts and feelings about God, ourselves, and life. In experiencing this loss and grief, depression can occur.
We ask questions like, “Who am I?” “Who and where is God?” “What’s going on?” “Why can’t things go back to ‘normal’?” “What is normal anyway?” “Will this ever end?”
This liminal space is entered into many times in our lives as we find ourselves in places and situations we would rather not be (like in a pandemic!). We are in that “in-between” of who we were before and who will be after…it’s definitely uncomfortable. My 10-year-old joins the rest of the planet in this communal Dark Night of the Soul.
He’s asking, “Who am I?” “Who are my friends?” “Do I even have friends anymore?” “Will friends recognize me when I do go back to school?” “Is virtual school even school?” “Will I ever play baseball or basketball again?” “Will I even love sports again?” “Things are too stressful in the world right now, is it always going to be like this?”
Now here’s what makes Dark Night different from depression. When depressed, it’s a good idea to seek counseling and/or receive medication which hopefully helps us emerge from the darkness of depression with great relief. And while there may be inner relief from the suffering (which is something to celebrate), there may not be inner transformation. One may be grateful to simply return to oneself.
During a Dark Night, rather than seeking a way out of the darkness, we are led deeper into it (a Spiritual Director is really helpful in the dark!). This is the place where God loosens our attachments to all we may mistake for God, life, and our true selves.
It can be painful to have these attachments revealed and painful to let go of them. After all, we might really love being known as the athlete, whether spiritual or baseball! We might cherish the feeling we get in imaging and relating to God in a certain way.
However, when we emerge from Dark Night, we not only find relief but we are also transformed. We no longer see or exist in the world in the same way we did prior to the darkness. In other words, we do not return to ourselves, but are a new, truer Self!
An expanded heart is the fruit of the Dark Night. We see God, ourselves, and the world in deeper and wider ways and we are free to love God, ourselves, and the world in deeper and wider ways.
A different 14-year-old girl shared an image that came to her during our Girls’ Group-time of listening to the instrumental song, Unfolding. It offers a beautiful and striking image of what it’s like to come through Dark Night of the Soul:
I saw a newborn fawn.
The fawn had outgrown the only world it knew and she was witnessing the moment of it breaking free of the old and opening its eyes in the new one. As her words convey, the birth process is messy--so is being “born again” into a new way of being and seeing! This is my hope for our world. In the words of Matthew Fox, “A pandemic is a terrible thing to waste.”
In the meantime, we have the birth pains.
Last night I talked with my son about his struggles and the possibility of counseling. With his permission, I share what he said: “Mom, I don’t think I need counseling right now, I have no problem discussing my feelings with you and Dad. And yeah, I’m learning new things about myself, but I’m mad and nothing helps. I hate sports right now. Lainey’s discovered a sport and mine are gone. I can't do anything right. I don’t know when it will end, maybe it never will. But I don’t need any other voices right now, what I need is you.”
At 10, he’s being led deeper into the dark and I’m going to sit with him there, as a Spiritual Director and Mom. Together, in this womb-like darkness, we’ll wait and trust that the God we cannot see or feel, is truly Emmanuel, “God-with-us.”
I was supposed to be traveling today to Saint Meinrad Archabbey for a yearly 4-day Silent Retreat.
It's one of my favorite places. I am always excited about facilitating this deep dive into the gift of Silence. Words don't do it justice.
BUT the pandemic threw a wrench in my (& everyone's) plans. So, I decided that even though I won't be facilitating a retreat, I can share with you the theme that I picked out for it last year and we can enter into it wherever we find ourselves.
We can still pray:
"Make me an instrument of your peace."
If there's ever been a time to pray this prayer that was written in the spirit of Saint Francis of Assisi, 700 years after his death by Father Esther Couqerel of France in 1912, it is now!
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace
Where there is hatred, let me sow love
Where there is injury, pardon
Where there is doubt, faith
Where there is despair, hope
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy
O Divine Master, grant that I may
Not so much seek to be consoled as to console
To be understood, as to understand
To be loved, as to love
For it is in giving that we receive
And it is in pardoning that we are pardoned
And it's in dying that we are born to Eternal Life
"Blessed are the peacemakers," said Jesus, "for they will be called children of God."
To be a peacemaker does not mean:
To be a peacemaker means we not only pray and enjoy peace, but we actively work for peace. For everyone. Not just ourselves. However, receiving inner peace enables us to extend outer peace...hence, the silent retreats.
Silence offers an opportunity to slow down, to quiet the outer voices that we may look within and discover the inner voice of the God of Peace.
Will you join me in reflecting, meditating, walking, dancing, stretching, playing, singing, resting, and working with this prayer over the next 4 days?
Praying it first for yourself and your internal world:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace toward myself...
Then praying it for those outside of yourself. Praying it on behalf of not only your family and nation, but the whole world.
Praying to embody the words as you come in contact with the world--from those in your own house to the grocery store and social media.
Let's breathe in and out the words of the "Prayer of St. Francis" and in so doing, may we become instruments and children of the God of Peace.
A couple of weeks ago, I walked into the bedroom, closed the door, and collapsed on the floor in tears.
I was done in that moment. My inner storm clouds were too heavy and calling for release.
There's a lot going on in our world, isn't there? For many, there is a lot going on in their personal world as well.
Adding virtual school to my mix and constantly hearing, "Mom!" so many times that I've begun to hear it even when no one's calling, was my breaking point.
Conversations with others who are feeling the weight of the world and going through their own personal crises have revealed a "grin and bear it" attitude. Trying hard to ignore the tension and anxiety they continue on even as they feel the inner storm clouds growing more and more each day.
One thing I've learned from my indoor cat is that if she doesn't get her playtime in, she doesn't get her anxiety out which leads to other issues (i.e. not using the litterbox). She's got to release the tension of the day through leaping, running, and chasing.
Following her lead, I've tried to be mindful about moving anxiety out of my body, too—shaking, squeezing, twisting—through at-home Zumba, barre workouts, and yoga. This release is helpful but one thing is missing...cleansing.
Crying is physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually cleansing.
It needs to be added to our personal self-care practices. It already is an ancient spiritual practice for individuals and communities called lament (though you may hear of few congregations who practice it).
It's as natural for us to cry as clouds to rain. So why do we often "hold it in"?
When I offer Distance Reiki, in the majority of my sessions, I have tears come to my eyes at some point. As parts of a client's body release, I feel a rush of energy in my own body, causing the common "lump in my throat" followed by tears. What was released inside is ready to be released outside. Upon mentioning it to the client afterwards, they always shake their head, "yes." For they either began to cry during the session or felt the lump in the throat, knowing they need to give themselves permission for a good cleansing cry sooner than later.
I once had a client that wept and shook mightily during an in-person Reiki session (with eyes remaining closed but tears streaming). Afterwards they had no idea they were shaking so much but said they weren't surprised, for they came desiring long-held trauma to leave their body and it had.
So is it time for a good cleansing cry for you? Or will you continue to hold it in and put it off?
Imagine clouds getting heavier and heavier and refusing to let go and rain...can you feel those clouds in your body?
After a rainstorm, everything feels lighter.
That's what happened for me. An hour after light crying with intermittent gut-level sobbing, my head was clear, my body relaxed, I felt at peace. I opened the door, now ready to walk out and tend to whoever called, "Mom!" first.
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, 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?
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:
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.
A poem I wrote right after a time of listening prayer six years ago. It recently came to mind as I was thinking about meditation. Meditation can calm the mind. In doing so, perhaps it offers an opportunity for the soul to remind us of what it's known & trusted since we were ages five and one!
God, I pray that Lainey
and Alex come to know
They already do.
Okay God, then I pray they
come to trust
They already do.
help them not to
Who are you not being or what are you not doing because you fear how you will appear in the eyes of others?
What reputation are you trying to uphold?
I've spent tons of energy on my good, Christian girl image for as long as I can remember.
And being in ministry my whole adult life has not provided relief. At times, this has intensified the inner critic that reminds me that I have a reputation as a Christian leader and spiritual guide to uphold.
Quite frankly, I've given way too much thought as to how things like changing my theological stances to not-every-Sunday-church-attendance affect my reputation (case in point, I just gave way too much thought in writing this sentence!).
I have often chosen rule-following over following my heart. And the many times I have boldly followed the still, small voice within, my inner critic who abides there as well, has often stolen, killed, and destroyed the freedom found in the following. Fearing outer criticism causes such unnecessary inner turmoil!
Some say we begin to care what other people think in middle school.
My daughter started middle school this year. She told my husband and I that she wanted us both to be at the bus stop with her. I thought after the first day or two she would probably like us to remain at a safe distance. I was wrong.
She wants us there everyday and even wants a hug before she climbs into the bus! Part of me loves this. And I have to admit, even though she feels not a hint of embarrassment, a part of me feels a twinge of it for her as I see the other middle schoolers looking out the window of a full bus. Maybe I'm feeling over-protective (if she won't protect her image, I will!) or maybe it's the middle school girl in me still caring what others think. Why risk it?
One morning last week I sat at the kitchen table after an all-night headache with little sleep. I told her, "Your dad will have to go with you to the bus stop, I don't think you'll want me along." She said, "Why not?" I said, "Look at me, I'm still in my pajamas!" She replied, "You had a hard night, of course you are, but I don't care, it's not like I have a reputation I need to defend!"
I looked at her bewildered. Have I ever not thought I had a reputation I needed to defend?!
Then I held up my hand and said, "You need a high-five because you'll be good to go if you can keep that sentiment through middle school." She laughed. Oh the freedom to authentically be who you are and do what your heart desires no matter what others think!
We both walked her to the bus stop (although I did change out of my pajamas).
After she climbed on the bus, I looked at my husband and said, "Who is that child?" Then I told him how her response immediately ambushed my weary heart, speaking into my own life of places where I've been overly concerned about how I appear in the eyes of others.
If a middle school girl can wholeheartedly choose what is inside over what others think of her on the outside, then perhaps I can, too. Oh the freedom! God knows it's time.
By the way, the next morning she pointed to us and said, "I may not have a reputation to defend, but let's not do this again!" We had unknowingly put on matching t-shirts to walk her to the bus stop! I appreciated her authenticity. Both of us cringed as the bus drove past.
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.