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?
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!
A poem written in 2013 about what led me to meditation & other contemplative practices years ago.
All my old ways of
finding God kept failing
And one rage-filled
day I stopped trying
Sat down wondering
if I was worth finding
Let go of seeking
and began trusting
Many are the ways
seeming right to a man
I started recalling
My ways kept putting
me in charge of
who the Psalmist
found futile escaping.
If the image of traffic was too stressful for you last week, here's a gentler way of viewing the distractions that arise during our time of meditation. You'll especially like this image if you are a fan of fall (like I am)!
Picture each distraction, whether it's an external noise or an internal thought, feeling, memory, image, or bodily sensation, as leaves floating down your stream of consciousness.
As we close or lower our eyes in meditation, we turn our attention from engaging what is going on outside of ourselves to an awareness of what is going on inside of ourselves. And guess what? There's usually plenty going on! Should we be surprised?! Besides the movie reel of images, here's a peek at what floats down the stream of my consciousness:
This quiet is so nice!
Is that a leaf-blower?
I need to figure out how to...
I need to email ____, ____, and ____ as soon as I'm done with meditation.
I forgot to drop that card in the mail!
Yes, that's what I'm going to fix for dinner.
Oh, that's how I can do...
Am I breathing deeply?
Why do I feel anxiety right now?
I need to get that event on the calendar.
Should I scratch that itch on my face or wait until it goes away?
I am still angry about what happened last week!
I wonder what they thought about what I said.
He had such a great idea, I'd never thought of that before!
Here's an idea as to how to open that class...perfect.
Why didn't I think of that last week?
That author's theology is way off...
This theological issue is a tough one...
I need to get snacks for the baseball game tonight.
I need to use the restroom, should I just wait or pause the meditation timer?
I'm really enjoying the changing shadows and light from the sun through the trees.
She's really hurting, how can I help her more?
Why didn't she text me back?
My hands feel hot, wonder what that means.
I'm still laughing about what he said.
Why can't I be more peaceful today?
I'm not good at meditation at all!
I should be better at meditation given I'm a teacher of it!
I just felt completely calm for a minute there.
Why can't I have more than a minute of my mind at rest?
And that's just a peek at one 20-minute session of Centering Prayer!
Now some days I let those thoughts, feelings, images, and bodily sensations just float on down the stream of consciousness.
But other days I lean over and pick a leaf out of the stream and begin examining it! Pretty soon, I've left the present moment of calm awareness and am meditating on and mulling over whatever that particular thought or feeling presented.
In that moment, instead of consenting to God's presence and action in my life, I've picked up control again! I'm running back to the past or into the future. My ego mind does not believe I have time for meditation. It does not trust I can survive (or perhaps the deeper issue is it doesn't feel I will be loved) without doing, planning, figuring out, being hyper-vigilant about, actively seeking a solution to, or at least evaluating how I am doing with something...even if it's meditation!
When I become aware that I've left the time of calm awareness and consent (sometimes it takes a few moments before I notice), the noticing itself acts as a release. Setting that leaf back down in the stream, I often "come home" to being with God by gently saying a sacred word. This sacred word or phrase might be Love, Jesus, Peace, Breathe, Thank You, Be Still... For me, my sacred word happens to be Home. This word grew out of a year of reflecting on the Prodigal Son and my own mind's tendency to run away. Other times I "come home" by listening to the sounds in the room or even my own breathing.
My practice looks different every day. The stream may be pretty crowded with leaves while other times I am aware of just a few floating gently by. Some days I find myself leaning over and picking up leaf after leaf. Other days I find there are only a couple of leaves grabbing my attention.
No matter! The leaves and what I do or don't do with them don't represent success or failure (such evaluation is an ego/conceptual mind game!). This is just how my practice looked on a particular day. I may have had forty-seven opportunities to come home again...what a grace! Or, I may have received the gift of contemplation. Resting in front of the deep hearth within, gazing out the window at the beautiful fall leaves floating downstream.
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.
I am grateful for freedom.
And to those who have made my freedom(s) possible.
I am grateful I have the right to vote and worship God how I choose. I am grateful I got to marry who I chose. I am grateful I do not live in daily fear in or outside my home.
And yet in the midst of all of my gratitude this July 4th, I am reminded of Frederick Buechner's words about peace in Wishful Thinking:
"...we are homeless even so in the sense of having homes but not being really at home in them. To be really at home is to be really at peace, and there can be no real peace for any of us until there is some measure of real peace for all of us. When we close our eyes to the deep needs of other people, whether they live on the streets or under our own roof-and when we close our eyes to our own deep need to reach out to them-we can never be fully at home anywhere."
I think the same can be said about freedom. Can there even be real peace without freedom?
Will you join me this July 4th in asking the question, "Who is not free yet?"
Who is not free to worship how they choose?
Who is not free to marry who they choose to?
Who lives in fear inside/outside of their home?
Who has no voice in religious, political, and business institutions?
It shouldn't take too long to identify at least one person if not an entire group of people.
Then with the voice of the Holy Spirit and the entire tradition of the Holy Scriptures urging us on, let's take the next step and do something about it. Like those who gave their lives for our country's freedom.
Then this will truly be "the land of the free and home of the brave."
Remember those moments of synchronicity I spoke about last week?
Well I had another string of "meaningful coincidences" I want to pay attention to and share. At the end of the class on the heart of Jewish spirituality at Congregation Ohabai Sholom, Rabbi Rami Shapiro was asked what practice he would suggest for all of us.
His answer was to enter more deeply into the "Sh-ma Yisrael," also known as the Shema, the prayerful recitation of Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Remember, another Rabbi's answer was the same...Jesus told others to live into the Shema, calling it the greatest and most important commandment of all. Here is the Complete Jewish Bible's translation:
4 “Sh’ma, Yisra’el! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad [Hear, Isra’el! Adonai our God, Adonai is one]; 5 and you are to love Adonai your God with all your heart, all your being and all your resources. 6 These words, which I am ordering you today, are to be on your heart; 7 and you are to teach them carefully to your children. You are to talk about them when you sit at home, when you are traveling on the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them on your hand as a sign, put them at the front of a headband around your forehead, 9 and write them on the door-frames of your house and on your gates.
Two ways of entering more deeply into the Shema that Rabbi Rami mentioned were the mezuzah and breath prayer.
While I plan on getting a mezuzah, I began that night to breathe in and out each word of the Shema. The next day my family ate at a local restaurant and two Jewish women came up to our table out of the blue to offer encouragement to me. Why? I have no idea. Curious. I joked with Russ that they could sense I had been praying the Shema!
Afterwards I went home, read a message from a friend who had asked me to recommend a Frederick Beuchner book. After recommending a few, I walked upstairs to my bookcase and spotted the first Beuchner book I had ever read, A Room Called Remember. The last time I read it had been well over a decade. Randomly I opened it up and what did I see? Staring back at me was Deuteronomy 6:4-7...the Shema! Under the Scripture, Buechner writes,
"'Hear, O Israel!' says the great text in Deuteronomy where Moses calls out to his people in the wilderness. Hear, O Israel! Hear! Listen! And not just O Israel, hear, but O World, O Everybody, O Thou, O every last man and woman of us because we are all of us called to become Israel by hearing..."
As I mentioned last week, synchronicity beckons us to pay attention! The word "Shema" means "Hear!" and this isn't just the gathering of sounds which can go in one ear and out the other. Watch the short animation below for a fantastic word study on "Shema" by The Bible Project. Given the meaning of the word and how it keeps coming up, clearly I'm to hear something! Perhaps there's something here for you, too.
You may have read Adonai translated as LORD, but it can also be translated as The NAME, or Ineffable. Why? Watch the second short animation for a great explanation of the word's background. In addition, not only was the Divine Name so sacred that it was not to be pronounced, but some Jewish scholars taught that YHWH was ineffable because it was not a pronounceable word at all...it was the sound of breathing! This would go along with the name's etymology, God's Name does not indicate a being but Being itself. And this is beyond words! You might muse over God's Name, breathing and existence for a little while...
Now for the breath prayer. If you've never heard the words of the Shema spoken in Hebrew, you can listen to them being read and sung here. Practice silently saying the words with a slow, relaxed inhale and exhale.
In breath- Shema (pronounced Sheh-MA)
Out breath- Yisrael (Yis-rah-EL)
In breath- Adonai (Ah-do-NAI)
Out breath- Eloheinu (Eh-lo-HEY-noo)
In breath- Adonai
Out breath- Echad (Eh-KHAD)
As we regularly breathe the prayer, the hope as Rabbi Rami points out is to help one's consciousness to shift so one sees God in, with, and as all reality and one's interactions with others are marked with compassion. May it be so.
Can you recall a moment of synchronicity?
"Meaningful coincidences" or moments connected by meaning and means not of your own making? When it happens (or at least when I notice), I cannot help but sense that Something is seeing me and something is being communicated. A word, image, or subject matter is repeatedly offered in a variety of ways (unexpected conversations, dreams, nature, ordinary events, extraordinary events, etc.). When synchronicity occurs, I take it as an invitation from God to pay attention. In my own life, it's often a call to grow (consciously) or a signal that growth is occurring (unconsciously).
I had a moment of synchronicity last week.
On Tuesday, I mentioned Fowler's Stages of Faith Development in relation to listening to the Holy Spirit, so it was fresh on my mind a day later when I headed to Congregation Ohabai Sholom with a friend for a 4-week class on The Heart of Jewish Meditation & Spirituality taught by Rabbi Rami Shapiro. Although we had missed the first week, unbeknownst to me, the discussion for the second week was mystical Judaism's 5 Levels of Consciousness! These levels are based on the words of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and walk one through the deepening levels of relationship with/to God...the exact subject material of my latest blog!
Clearly I was to step further into the stages of spiritual growth! So I'm paying attention, perhaps you're beckoned to pay attention, too.
Just as I briefly shared about Fowler's stages, I'll briefly go over the Levels of Consciousness as I understood them in class.
The 5 (Ascending) Levels of Consciousness:
5. Yechida (Spirit) Singularity, pure Soul/God, no barriers between "I-Thou"
4. Chayah (Soul) "Spacious mind," connected to everyone/everything in the Universe, Truth is beyond ideology, more justice & humility expecting nothing in return, no self-seeking, Higher Self, non-dualism, "I and Thou"
3. Neshamah (Mind) "Narrow mind," ego, survival, intellectual comprehension, identity, spirituality reflects back ego/tribalism, "What's in it for me or my group?", dualism, "I-it"
2. Ruach (Heart) Emotions and "spirit" of person, personality
1. Nefesh (Body) Animal existence- breathing, eating, sleeping, walking around
Just as each of Fowler's stages of faith development are necessary, so too, are the 5 levels of consciousness. While the level of Nefesh or body-consciousness is the lowest level, that does not mean it is to be denigrated. After all, we need a body! Rabbi Rami asks us to consider, "Which [level] is calling right now?" If it's the body level, please tend to the body!
The point of the levels is to remind us that we're beckoned to grow beyond simple existence and emotions. At some point in time, we're also beckoned to grow beyond our own ego and tribe. In fact, authentic spiritual practice will always seek to move us from Neshamah to Chayah or from "narrow mind" to "spacious mind." Rabbi Rami describes narrow mind as "seeing the self as separate from and often in conflict with the world and God." And spacious mind he describes as "seeing the self and other as part of a greater wholeness we call God."
In my Christian experience, a lot of Christian reading, teaching and preaching tends to keep people in the Neshamah level or the realm of ego and tribal identity. This can be seen in viewing Christianity as the one right religion (or even narrower, one denomination as the truest or most orthodox) and celebrating being on the "winning side." It's the belief that Christian music is the only music a Christian should listen to. It can also be seen in people's image of God, often a masculine Being resembling the Greek god, Zeus. Remember, such concrete, dualistic thinking whether described by Neshamah or Fowler's "Mythic-Literal or "Conventional-Synthetic," is a necessary stage or level, but it's not the ending point.
Confused? Wondering what spiritual practices can help you shift from Neshamah to Chayah (or move from narrow mind to spacious mind)? Well, they will not look the same for everyone! This is why a spiritual director can be such a helpful companion on your journey. Plus our ego-minds are masters at using religious language to trap us in Neshamah when it's time for us to grow (we are not apt to see it on our own). This is why I have my own spiritual director!
By the way, Rabbi Rami says there are no ways or practices to move from Chayah to Yechida, it is simply pure grace. I'm not surprised, Chayah gets us out of our own way, preparing the way for Yechida, the highest level of consciousness characterized by non-dualism and Union with the Divine. This should resonate with those who practice Centering Prayer, the silent prayer of consent which prepares one for the gift of contemplative prayer or resting in God. If/when one ever gets to taste Yechida, can you guess what the earmark is? Pure Love. Of God and neighbor. Sound familiar?
Next week: More Synchronicity to Share & The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) as a Breath Prayer
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.