Advent’s Invitation

ABA52B53-DF36-418D-BD71-FE6891967598What is Advent’s invitation to me? What does this season want to  teach me? What will I see in a new way as a result of Advent’s opportunities for reflection? So many questions!

“Wait,” the wiser ones tell me. “Wait for it.“

“This is the message of Advent — endure the dark places of this season knowing that the Messiah is coming again to bring light to your world and to your heart. Just wait.”

So it seems that Advent is not for impatient folk, the ones who want to get on with it, to get on to the lighthearted joys of Christmas. Advent’s call to ponder, to be mindful of the moment, and to wait catches the busy ones off guard. Our souls sing the adagio strains of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and the mellow hopefulness of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus,” while feeling in our waiting hearts the great need to belt out “Joy to the World.”

What exactly is Advent’s invitation to me? What is it that Advent promises that makes waiting worthwhile? What is it that this season has for me to learn?

These are questions I cannot answer, at least I cannot answer them at this moment. My hope is that if I am faithful in the waiting and the pondering, the answers of Advent will become clear to me. Until then, it is just one of those life mysteries that eludes me. 

In the meantime, Barbara Brown Taylor offers a wise word about it all

Advent invites us to awaken from our numbed endurance and our domesticated expectations to consider our life afresh in light of new gifts that God is about to give.

— Barbara Brown Taylor

Wait for it!

Pondering through Advent

23DCD324-DEFB-436C-8942-C4ADA60DA52AYesterday, I mused on the tenderness of this season of Advent. The waiting. The darkness. The need to linger in the season with a sense of mindfulness.

To be honest, I want to shop with reckless abandon and find fun toys for my grandchildren. I want to bake all manner of Christmas cookie. I want to decorate every corner of my house, and if I had my way, ours would be one of those houses that people drive by at night to see all the twinkling lights.

But on that outdoor winter wonderland, I definitely do not have my way. My husband’s days of hanging lights on the gutters, placing a Santa on the roof, and wrapping the trees in tiny, twinkling lights are over. He has happily passed out of that season of his life.

For me, yesterday was baking day, and I made a new discovery about mindfulness and cookie baking. The two activities pair well. Dropping cookie dough by the spoonful onto a baking sheet is slow work. It gives one time to ponder. And pondering a is a good thing to do in Advent days. Good lesson learned, with the added bonus of having 200 cookies in the house!

While dropping cookies, one by one onto an old, scratched up baking pan, I pondered. Some thoughts hinted at my inner sadness. Other thoughts were of friends who are very ill and are walking this Advent journey in darkness. Other friends have lost people in their lives, and on this day, they find themselves in mourning.

As I do in most Decembers, I find myself, along with others in my family, feeling the sadness of having lost my youngest brother, Pete, to cancer. It happened many years ago, yet the hurt remains.

No doubt, this Advent journey can be a tender time. Yet we journey into the days ahead, not with a spirit of despair, but with a glimmer of hope. Even in the darkness, we begin to awaken, knowing that something new will be born in us just as it has every Advent. This is the season when we wash our faces and rub our sleepy eyes until we wake up, eyes wide open to the Light that sleeps in a manger.

Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

— Luke 2:19 New International Version (NIV)

Like her, I am spending my Advent days pondering — moving in mindfulness while holding tender feelings, heart longings, mourning in the soul.

And, of course, I’m waiting in the darkness. But I know, without a doubt, that light will shine. It always does.

 

Today I Believe

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This season is a tender time. And oh, this darkness of mine. December brings it every year — that feeling of tenderness, of darkness. That is, if I stop to notice. Stop decorating the house. Stop shopping. Stop planning a lavish Christmas dinner. Stop baking dozens of cookies. Stop going to Christmas events — parties, pageants, gatherings, light displays . . . Just stop!

If we do stop in these advent days, we might just feel this tender time. It’s not Christmas yet, you know. It’s Advent, a time of waiting, hoping, believing. If ever there was a time to practice mindfulness, this is the season. As I move through Advent’s days, I want to move slowly and with the awareness of the tiny miracles all around me.

I want to remember past years and people I have loved. I want to linger beside the Chrismon tree that holds decades of white and gold ornaments and decades of memories. I want to be mindful of my own darkness and the tenderness that is nested in my heart.

Advent is most surely a tender time, and a time of darkness, a time when people of faith wait for the light to come to earth again. Advent causes me to wait for the light that always comes to come into my heart again. Until the light shines, though, through a little baby born in Bethlehem, days will be dark and tender.

I am remembering my youngest brother who would have had a birthday this month. The loss of him far too soon will always leave a lump in my throat. December, his birth month, is a tender time.

In these days, I miss the joy and laughter of my grandchildren. For them Christmas is all joy.  They are such a gift to me, and being separated from them by so many miles makes this a tender time.

My friend’s fourteen-year-old grandson lost his battle with cancer this week, and I cannot help thinking about what a dark and tender time this family is feeling because of this deep loss.

So many losses surround us. So much grieving. So much darkness waiting for the light of Bethlehem’s star and the infant that comes to bring light to our hearts.

I love this tiny prayer:

Lord, you have always lightened this darkness of mine; 
and though night is here, today I believe.

— Evening Office by Northumbria Community

 

 

 

 

I used to be . . .

734D4A65-1E4E-4705-A356-D13DF9C7F9B4I used to be . . . 

It’s a phrase I use a lot these days as I fight off the feeling that in retirement, I am useless. It’s not true, of course, that I am useless. But to be honest, I do feel just a little useless these days, at least some of the time. The reason? I used to be a bona fide workaholic. I used to feel important and productive. I used to be busy all the time, night and day. I used to be a perfectionist. I used to have just a bit of obsessive compulsive disorder, and all,of that drove me to a dangerous place.

The problem is that when you love and believe in your work so much, your work can become your whole life. Then things can get unbearable. So I admit that I am a recovering workaholic. I was the person that put in far more than 40 hours a week and never took a day off. But the critical question I had to answer was this: Is my ego at the root of my workaholism?

What was the job that was important enough to push me to work so hard?

I was a minister and a trauma counselor, and I was executive director of Safe Places, a nonprofit organization that served victims of violence. There was always someone in trouble, someone who had been battered by a spouse, someone trying to escape trafficking, a teen that was recovering from rape, a child that had been abused. So the work was never done.

I loved my work. I believed in it with all my heart. But I could not see what others saw. I could not believe the truth spoken by friends and colleagues, that I needed rest, that my work was hurting me. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I was working myself sick. Circumstances, and maybe the alignment of the stars, brought me to a “come to Jesus” moment that forced me to take stock of my life. I realized I couldn’t do it all. So I took a very slight respite and pulled back from the constant work. In the meantime, as the stars would have it, we lost our federal funding, and suddenly Safe Places was gone. It was over. 

The stress did not end, though, because those that needed help kept calling . . . my phone. I had no staff left and, though I tried, I simply could not continue helping all these hurting people by myself. So I was forced into an unwanted and unplanned rest. 

During this “rest” time, grief and loss took over my psyche. But miraculously, my body began to rest. My pace slowed down. I was becoming mindful of every moment and what was going on in every moment. And in spite of the grief and sadness, my mind and spirit began to heal. What happened next was the shock of a lifetime. As my mind and spirit began to heal, I finally allowed my body to tell me what was going on. My doctors got to the bottom of it and diagnosed me with end stage kidney disease. Before I could even begin to take it all in, I was hospitalized and on dialysis.

I honestly believe I had worked myself to death, or at least nearer to death than I wanted to be. I spent a great deal of 2014 in the hospital trying to stabilize and then working to take my life back. It was hard work learning to write again, to think again, to walk again. But I made it through to a “new normal” that meant for me at least 7 1/2 hours of dialysis every day for the rest of my life, unless, of course, I am able to get a kidney transplant.

The experience of serious illness changed me. After I began to recover, people told me that I was unusually quiet. I didn’t speak much even when others around me were engaged in meaningful conversations. I knew that I was being quiet, quite unlike my normal personality. I was often silent when normally I would have had a great deal to say. I was different, to be sure, but inside myself I was okay. If I had to describe myself I would say that I was soft, broken open and free. And I was content in that place, although my family was concerned about me. I had traveled to a new place in my life, and it was a good place to be.

So here I sit in my “new normal,” tending plants, painting, cooking, writing, reading, and doing all things for pleasure. Most often I am still tempted to dive in and work on something until I am exhausted. But when the tiredness begins to creep up, something in my body remembers. Remembers I need to rest, to embrace stillness, to just “be.”

Still, I fight my old workaholic ways. Sometimes they push me to do things faster and better and longer. Sometimes my old workaholic ways push my button, the button that accuses me of uselessness, as in, “You are not worth much anymore! What are you going to do to change the world?”

Good news! I have finally given myself permission to not change the world. It has been a major shift for me, but I am seeing the truth more clearly, that I never could have changed the world anyway! So most of the time, when I feel myself pushing past my edge, I walk away. I write a blog post or fiddle with my flowers. I cook something fabulous or watch a little Netflix. So what will I do to live happily in these retirement days? I hope that I will keep studying the secret art of rest. I hope that I will continue to learn the grace of mindfulness, just cherishing the moment, every moment.

I used to be a workaholic. Not anymore.

Oh, and one more thing . . . a prayer. Though my faith tradition has always eschewed prayers to Mary, mother of Jesus, many very beautiful and meaningful prayers are prayed to her. I leave you with this one written by Mirabai Starr.

Mother of Consolation, help me to let myself be consoled. 

I hold it all together, Blessed One. 

I have convinced myself that it is up to me to keep the airplane aloft with my own breath, that I am the only one capable of baking bread and scrubbing floors, that it is my responsibility alone to alleviate the sorrow in the heart of every single person I know. 

But I have forgotten how to weep, Tender One. 

Teach me to reach out to the ones I comfort and ask for their comfort. 

Let me feel the tender touch of the Holy One on my cheek when I wake in the night, weary and frightened. 

Help me to be vulnerable and soft now, broken open and free.

— Mirabai Starr

 

 

Mindfulness

9B848BD6-A066-4F2C-ADFC-E8EA7D4C99D6mind·ful·ness
ˈmīn(d)f(ə)lnəs/
noun

  1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.”their mindfulness of the wider cinematic tradition”

  2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.

Now that we have an official definition of mindfulness out of the way, we can explore what mindfulness might mean in our lives. Mindfulness prompts us to maintain a moment by moment awareness of our thoughts, emotions, body sensations, spiritual longings and surrounding environment. Mindfulness asks us to pay close attention to our thoughts and feelings without self judgment, to fully accept the spiritual, physical and emotional space we are in, and to let go of any thought that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to feel. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.

Try this breathing meditation. It will take just three minutes out of your day.

Three-Minute Breathing Space Practice

  1. You are invited to attend to what is. The first step invites attending broadly to one’s experience, noting it, but without the need to change it. Experience your self in a wider and more open manner that is not selecting or choosing or evaluating, but simply holding—becoming a container for thoughts feelings or sensations present in the body and spirit. Linger here for about one minute.
  2. Now focus on your breathing. Let go of the wider view of step one and bring a focus that’s much more concentrated and centered on breathing in one region of your body —the breath of the abdomen, or the chest, or the nostrils, or anywhere that your breath makes itself known. The attention here is narrow, while in the first step it’s wide. Breath deeply and slowly for one minute.
  3. Now widen your attention again to include your body as a whole. Become aware of sensations in your body. Sit with your whole body, your whole breath. Spend this last minute moving back to being mindful of yourself, of who you are in te present moment, your whole being — physical, emotional and spiritual.*

Mindfulness will not allow you to miss the vibrant color of a daylily or the sweet scent of jasmine. Mindfulness will move you to notice the graceful flight of a butterfly and to really hear the delightful strains of birdsong. Mindfulness also leads you to be fully in touch with the depths of your spirit. Mindfulness creates a kind of choreography of awareness. Though it has its roots in Buddhist meditation, we find so many references to meditation in the Psalms.

Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still. (Psalm 4:4)

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart Be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my strength and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

When I remember You on my bed, I meditate on You in the night watches. (Psalm 63:6)

On the glorious splendor of Your majesty and on Your wonderful works, I will meditate. (Psalm 145:5)

So you might be asking, “What is the point?.”

The point is that all of us tend to rush through this beautiful life and miss the real and deep beauty of it. We push our bodies to accomplish its daily tasks without cherishing the workings of the body — its breathing, its moving, tasting and seeing, hearing and enjoying the aromas that surround us. And most often, we fail to pay close attention to the longings of our souls and the promptings of our spirits — what makes us whole, what fills our hearts with joy, what moves our soul, what is God saying to us, how is God calling us to satisfy both our soul’s yearning and the world’s deepest need. We simply do not cherish it enough, all of it, this life we have been given by God’s grace. Life passes through us and around us in every passing moment, and we miss it.

And yet, a life of mindfulness can almost make magic in our lives, filling us with serenity and peacefulness, with lightheartedness and laughter, even bringing us to the honesty of our sorrows and the cleansing power of our tears.

I, for one, want to be continually mindful of my life, in my body, my mind, my world, my soul, my heart, my yearnings and my sorrows, my dreams, and the deepest desires that fill me with hope for the future.

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
— From Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day

 

 

* The Three-Minute Breathing Space Practice was developed by Zindel Segal, Distinguished Professor of Psychology in Mood Disorders at the University of Toronto Scarborough.