Beside Still Waters

 

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Still waters near Pulaski County, Arkansas. Photo by Steve Nawojczyk.

I long each day to live beside still waters, to dwell in serenity, to find peace in the depths of my soul. Not such a simple task, that. 

The problem is that life is not that much about still waters. It’s more often about churning waters and swelling currents. Don’t get me wrong, I love the sound of waves crashing in the ocean and then coming to the shoreline with a special kind of energy. I love the rolling of a mighty river, the trickling sounds of creeks, and the splashing sounds that streams make as  they ripple over stones.

But the sheer silence of still waters . . . That’s when you can skip a rock across the top of the water and watch its antics. In still waters, you can hear the sounds of fish flying up to the surface and turtles paddling almost silently acreoss the waters with only their heads visible in search for a morsel of food. In still waters, a family of ducklings can move through the waters with just a hint of a sound and the graceful swan can glide by with hardly any sound at all while its webbed feet move swiftly to push the waters aside.

Those still waters! Their silence and their calm show us how to be.

The truth is that rushing waters do describe our lives at times. That is our reality. Life brings what feels like raging storms. Life assails us with a power that reminds us of the breaking waves of the ocean. In this life, we come upon rivers too deep and too wide and too turbulent to cross. We will feel a force against us that may come because of serious illness or the loss of a loved one. It may come with the pain of broken relationships or with devastating financial hardship.

Life brings brokenheartedness, but it brings brokenheartedness in the midst of grace. For on this journey we call life, we travel with a divine guide, One who does lead us beside still waters. And it is there that our soul is restored and comforted in the midst of green pastures of sacred serenity and holy calm.

I am thinking, of course, of the words of the Psalmist.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;

       he restores my soul.

He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me;

        your rod and your staff — they comfort me.

— Psalm 23:1-4 (New Revised Standard Version)

I also think of my friend, Steven Nawojczyk, who is finding his much-needed peace in the forests, mountains and valleys of Arkansas. His stunning photograph illustrates today’s blog post. With his beautiful dog and companion, Feebi, he follows a path of serenity and healing, hiking through nature’s beauty most every day.

His life has not been an easy one. As a public servant — many years as Pulaski County Coroner — he has seen far too much anguish for one person. He was integrally involved, literally in the trenches, with ending and preventing Little Rock gang violence, and has been a staunch champion for young people.

He faces serious illness and harsh treatment in his retirement. but he knows that life really does have a pathway that goes around the dangers, toils and snares. He knows that he and Feebi will find lightheartedness in exploring a forest or watching a flowing stream. He knows that the simple joy of a mountain view can bring transformation. He knows about peace, and he has chosen to follow the life path that passes beside still waters. I admire him. I have always admired him, but even more so now as I witness his unwavering commitment to serenity.

That’s what it’s all about in the end — a commitment to serenity, a firm resolve to walk beside the still waters of life, and in that intentional journey, to find our souls.

May the grace and peace of God fill your soul, and may your journey, wherever it leads, bring you serenity.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

Deep Peace

F1E55829-D720-4AA8-95D8-4777BD7A8562Two of my dear family members are carrying a heavy weight in their workplace. I watch them struggle week after week, carrying oppressive burdens. Both love their work and are dedicated to it. Both speak well of their co-workers. Both take on more responsibility than they should. Neither of them see an end to the high level of work they must accomplish. I can sense their need for comfort and healing, for rest and peace.

I have wondered what the solution might be. What is it that could make their existence more tolerable? What is it that could mitigate their stress and ease their chaotic spirits?

I believe that their need is for peace. Not just run-of-mill, ordinary peace. But deep peace that goes down into the very depths of the tumultuous spirit. They need deep peace, even while trapped in the midst of chaos, even when the tasks before them are overwhelming.

Deep peace is what makes life tolerable, even if we find ourselves in the center of chaos. To be sure, in this life, in these days, we will know chaos. Chaos can come with work stress and overachieving. Chaos can come with hurtful relationships, with financial stress, with aging, with illness, with divorce, with abuse, addiction, violence in the home. Chaos is very painfully real. It engulfs us when we experience life trauma of any kind.

We need deep peace.

But acknowledging the need for peace is definitely not the same as being filled with it. How in the world does one find peace when all around things are falling apart? It’s a fair question. It’s a question many of us have asked when yearning for even a brief moment of peace.

So it’s worth asking yourself the question: what is it that swirls around my life and robs my peace? What chaotic frenzy am I facing every day? What turmoil assails my life and wounds my spirit?

I wish I could say that I have a no-fail solution. I wish that I could declare for you the end of turmoil and the advent of deep peace. I wish I could proclaim the definitive answer for you, and for myself. But I cannot. I can say what I always say, knowing that people who desperately need peace might hear just empty words. Still, this is all I have: the promise of Scripture and a heartfelt blessing.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition . . . present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

— Philippians 4:6-7 (New International Version)

Finding your own path to deep peace may be a challenging path, a journey of winding and confusing roads. But it is a journey out of turmoil, and it is a journey worth taking. It is a journey that leads to serenity and peace. And when you have found deep peace dwelling within your spirit, your soul will rejoice and finally find its rest. With deep peace, you will experience fresh signs of hope, a faith reborn and renewed, and a refreshing shower of grace, grace for the present moment and for the days to come.

With my hope and prayer that you will find deep peace, please accept the words of this Gaelic Blessing, a benediction of peace:

Deep peace of the running wave to you,
Deep peace of the flowing air to you,
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you,
Deep peace of the shining stars to you,
Deep peace of the gentle night to you,
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you,
Deep peace of Christ, of Christ,
Of Christ the light of the world to you,

Deep peace of Christ to you.

— A Gaelic blessing

I invite you to listen to this video* of a choral performance of John Rutter’s beautiful music set to the adapted text of this ancient Gaelic Blessing. It is performed by the Cambridge Singers and the City of London Sinfonia. Conducted by John Rutter.

* This video features stunning photography as well as two painted versions of “The Light of the World” by artist William Holman Hunt. 

 

 

 

Transformation, Pursuits and Productions

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A Recolor page that brought me fond memories of my beloved Uganda

My mind needs rest and renewal. My soul needs trasformation. My heart needs peace and serenity.

The problem is that not many activities relax me. Being the wretched Type A personality that I am, I turn every pursuit into a production. A dear friend has a saying that she uses when a task morphs into more than it should have been. “That was a production!” she would say, and we all knew what she meant — a project got way out of hand!

Such is my life. Compulsive. Driven. Perfectionist. All words that have often been used to describe me. I have to work on it diligently, this need for serenity and the renewal of my mind. Reading Scripture leads to writing a sermon, an opinion piece, or a blog post. Praying leads to a plethora of things I feel I must do. Swinging in the sunshine leads to working in flower beds that need tending.

My first waking thought is always about what project I will do or what meal I will cook. That decision influences my day. When I have decided what I will do, I’m off. I’m all in to get it done.

My greatest need is to find my way to peacefulness and serenity, to experience a renewal of my mind, to learn to be quiet and still so that in the stillness, I might find God in new ways. And I might even find myself in new ways and learn some things about the depth of my “self” snd the longings of my soul.

It is my soul, of course, that craves the serenity. I work on it often — deep breathing, brief praying at many times during the day, singing hymns (to myself) as I fall asleep at night. All of it helps. None of it makes a permanent difference.

Interestingly, I have found a pursuit that does not lead to a production. It is a computer app called Recolor, which is simply for coloring on devices like the IPad. Each day, Recolor adds two or more pages for coloring with your finger or a stylus. I have found nothing that relaxes me more than getting lost on a coloring page. As of today, I have colored 1,062 pages and have received 66 thousand “likes.”

One might observe that this pursuit is not at all a spiritual practice, not a contemplative activity, and is pretty much a waste of time. The thing is, it really is a spiritual practice for me because I am learning how to waste time. I needed to find a way to immerse myself into a creative activity that did not consume me. I needed an activity that would clear and renew my mind. As the Scripture urges, I need to be transformed by the renewal of my mind.

Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

— Romans 12:2 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

So I will continue coloring to clear my mind and slow me down. And I will keep working on the renewal of my very busy mind. Who knows? Someday I might find myself transformed.

 

Guard Your Heart

FF412EF2-E311-4F00-9859-65D0582E5935A heart can break so easily. Life is filled with heartbreaking things, and no person is immune to heartbreak. Hurt from one’s children, the loss of a loved one, a marriage rife with anger, abuse by a trusted person, betrayal by a lifelong friend — all of these can leave a heart crushed.

How important it is, though, to find healing for our hearts, to find the healing balm that will ease the pain. We recall the comfort of Scripture that says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” We lean on the everlasting arms that always hold us, we rest on the promise that “God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds,” (Psalm 147:3) and we hear again the tender words of the Psalmist.

The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.

— Psalm 34:18

So we take these promises into our souls, and we give ourselves the time we need to heal our broken hearts. To be sure, the healing depends upon letting enough time pass for restoration to happen. Never do we heal on a swift timetable. The clock must move and the days must pass on our heartbreak. The weeks may well turn into months, even years. Yet we move ahead with confidence in our resiliency and faith in the Great Healer who abides with us for as long as it takes.

The final message is this: Be patient, but persevering, for the healing of your heart must be a life priority. Always guard your heart. Believe in the healing that will surely come. Know that your broken heart will mend as it rests in the hands of the One who heals every broken heart, every time, always.

Why is healing so important? It’s all about “the springs of life.”

Above all else, guard your heart,
For from it flow the springs of life.

— Proverbs 4:23

On Loneliness

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Photo of an Arkansas dawn by Steven Nawojczyk

I have always hated feeling lonely. Being alone meant sorrow for me, and in my younger years, I did everything I could to avoid spending time alone, trying to keep loneliness at bay. The more people I could have around me, the more alive I felt.

And then I began to experience the deep loneliness one can experience even when surrounded with people. That is to me the most painful loneliness of all — being lonely in a crowd, suddenly coming face to face with my emptiness, discovering that no one is ever truly present with me.

Growing older has taught me that being alone is actually life-giving. Sometimes being alone brings the kind of silence we need to draw closer to God, hearing the sacred whispers that reach the depths of the soul. Silence can bring a more intense awareness of the bursting life all around us, the rise and fall of the cicada’s song in the summer, the sweet music of birdsong, the delightful sound of fluttering hummingbird wings, the silence of the night broken only by the sounds of katydids and crickets.

I recently read these words from the children’s fantasy novel, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

Have you ever heard the wonderful silence just before the dawn? Or the quiet and calm just as a storm ends? Or perhaps you know the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked, or the hush of a country road at night, or the expectant pause of a room full of people when someone is just about to speak, or, most beautiful of all, the moment after the door closes and you’re alone in the whole house? Each one is different, you know, and all very beautiful if you listen carefully.

― Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth

It truly is beautiful . . . being alone with silence complete enough to listen and to truly hear. It is one thing to be alone, but quite another to be alone with God. Being alone with God is being in the silent, sacred place where the soul meets its creator. It is finding the quiet, holy place of falling into the arms of a God who abides and protects. It is coming near to the “mercy seat” where disconsolate seekers bring their wounded hearts. It is sitting in the place where we learn that “earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.” *

I have learned, even in my loneliest times, that there is abiding truth in the words of philosopher and theologian, Paul Tillich.

Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone; solitude expresses the glory of being alone.

Being alone taught me that, even when not one human soul is around me, I am never truly alone. And I rest my hope in these words, “In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God.”

Amen and amen.

 

“Come, Ye Disconsolate,” Lyrics: Thomas Moore (1779-1852); Altered by Thomas Hastings (1784-1872); Music: Samuel Webbe (1740-1816)

Please enjoy this beautiful hymn presented by the Baylor University Men’s A Cappella Choir at this link: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=mNqzhfB4y1I

Struggle and Wonder

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Aging, they say, is not for sissies. The person who coined that statement must have known about the many ways getting older would take its toll. Physically, emotionally, spiritually, our lives change,

We have at least two ways to live through these days that bring aging’s challenges. We can languish under the weight of life, fighting through every day to maintain our elusive youth. Or we can live deeply, embracing the sweetness and the sorrow, and savoring the memories that have brought us to this time in our lives. We can hold on tightly to the “small bagful of stars” that make our every moment a wonder.

Bishop Steven Charleston speaks great wisdom, describing a “place of struggle and wonder.”

We do not have long to linger in this place of struggle and wonder, surrounded by the clamoring throng, or sitting silently beneath the moon. We have only a measure of moments, a small bagful of stars, to spend here among the laughter and sighs, before the days of our counting are complete. Let each one, each day, each moment be lived then, as if it was the only hour creation will ever know, lived in as deeply as love will allow, lived in for all of its sweetness and sorrow. We do not have long to linger, but we have forever to remember.

Struggle and wonder, sweetness and sorrow . . . inextricably joined, woven together to create the tapestry of our lives. And so we grasp the struggle and cling tightly to the wonder. We welcome the sweetness, knowing full well that the sorrow is a necessary emotion of a life well lived.

We have forever to remember the struggle and wonder that swaddled us, abided with us, made its home within us, and fashioned our wondrous lives.

And this is God’s good news for us.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face struggles of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2-4

A Syllable of God

 

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I long for a space of deep listening, but in my humanity, I can’t get there. My mind is too busy with mundane things. I can’t seem to still my soul enough to truly hear God speaking to me. I could surmise that the reason I do not hear is because God is not speaking. I could settle for a silent God that is simply not communicating with me.

But my faith knows better than that. The years of my journey of faith have taught me that God is speaking far more than I am listening. It is my task to find a space of stillness, to put my heart into that good place of solitude and peace. It is my task to get to that place that allows me to hear God’s promptings.

Author and contemplative Macrina Wiederkehr describes this for me.

And don’t we all, with fierce hunger,
crave a cave of solitude,
a space of deep listening –
full of quiet darkness and stars,
until finally we hear a syllable of God
echoing in our hearts?

And so I continue, searching for that “space of deep listening full of quiet darkness and stars,” listening for that syllable of God.

My New Normal

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Do you ever wear an “I feel good” mask? I certainly do, trying to convince everyone that I feel,physically strong. Keeping up that image can be exhausting.

Maybe it’s time to admit that trying to appear to feel good all the time is a burden. It’s even a burden to pretend I feel good. The reality is that I have end stage kidney disease and, because of that, I push and push to feel normal again, to have the energy I used to have. I seldom admit the feelings of deep-down fatigue I experience. I struggle to keep a pace that makes me feel as strong as I used to be. I simply have not embraced or admitted my “new normal.”

Even with my family, I often try to present a good front. And sometimes, I just long to be honest about how I feel with them, and with myself. The truth is that I’m afraid if I give in to my real feelings, my strength will go down even further. So I am compelled to push myself, sometimes at my own peril. I think my husband, in fact, is the only one who knows how weak I really feel.

Still, I rest in my faith in God, who knows me better than I know myself, and who gives me strength when I am weary. One of my favorite Scripture passages never fails to bring me hope.

He gives strength to the weary,
And to them who lack might He increases strength.
Though youths grow weary and tired,
And vigorous young men stumble and fall:
Yet those who wait for the Lord
Shall renew their strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not become weary,
They will walk and not faint.

– Isaiah 40:29-31

On my harder days, I will lean on the promise of that Scripture. But I also want to make peace with my “new normal” and be honest enough with myself to determine what it really feels like. My life is far from over, but it is different, and I need to embrace that.

Sitting in My Own Silence

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It’s a day with no words. I have contemplated hope, grace, kindness, worry, faith. And yet I have nothing to say. Perhaps my lesson is to listen, to sit in the middle of my own silence, to wait on words from God. And so today, I recommend to you a time of quiet meditation sitting in your own silence.

I think our deepest love finds its voice when we have run out of words to express it. There is no language that can capture what a lifetime has brought to be, the private journey of a single soul through the twists and turns of time. We are the sum of what we feel when feeling defies reason and runs to places no logic has ever seen. As careful as we are to wear our masks among the crowd, alone we know the untamed extravagance of a spirit that wants to care more than to control. So let us, each one, in silence share our truth, seeing in one another’s eyes the mirror of our own silent story.   – Steven Charleston

Words are not always needed. Apparently I need to rest in this present reality. Perhaps I need to refresh and refuel and allow something fresh and new to rise up in me. Until then I have no riveting subject to write about, no words to share. And that’s okay.

“In Silence there is eloquence. Stop weaving and see how the pattern improves.”

― Rumi