Welcome to “All Shall Be Well,” where we will explore together our spiritual center, create a moment of sacred pause and join together in contemplation and silence. In this episode, I want to focus our thoughts on the spirituality of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. God speaks to us through the Prophet Joel in chapter 2, saying,
“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
“Rend your heart and not your garments.”
We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday, the day that we receive a cross on our foreheads — a cross of ashes blended with just a drop of sanctified oil. I do not wipe off the cross, but let it remain for the entire day.
In a way, it’s comforting to know that something holy and tangible interrupted my ordinary day, a cross of ashes to remind me of sacred things I already know — that Lent is a time of reflection, penitence, repentance, prayer, fasting, giving up things, returning to God. And on top of all of those things I must ponder for forty days, things that weigh heavily on my heart, a minister says this to me as she (he) forms the ashen cross on my forehead:
Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return.
God’s words to Adam in Genesis 3:19
There are so many life events to remind us that we are but dust. But is that really what a Lenten journey is about? Is it really meant to hold our sins over us and urge us to do penance? Is Lent just a time of repentance, remembering our sin and our frailty?
Maybe Lent is also about God’s extravagant mercy, God’s grace that is greater than all our sins, and the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus that made us all beloved children of God.
Imagine for a moment that our cross of ashes is really not really made of ashes at all. If you look at it closely — as you imagine God’s lavish grace — you might not see ashes, but instead, stardust!
Please join me via video for a few moments of Lenten reflection . . .
Ever wonder what’s real and what’s not-so-real? Once in a while, I do look at what’s going on around me and ask myself how real it is. This friendship — is it real? This situation I’m dealing with — is it real? This life I’m living — how real is it, really? Such questions are problematic for one major reason — that we take things so much for granted that we cannot gauge their real value. Friendships just are; situations just happen; life is pretty much a destined routine.
That is, until betrayal breaks friendships, crisis suddenly creates a situation that cannot be ignored and an unplanned event brings total upheaval to our lives. These are the times when we ponder what is real and what is not. These are the times when all things in us and around us are downright messy. These are flash points in life that force us to examine what we believe is real. Maybe these flash point times take us inward to the private space in us, and in that space, we examine and evaluate what is truly real. Problem is that sometimes our examining leads us into mulling over things that are a mess, and looking at our “real” feels like brooding.
Such downcast and disconsolate moments are not the best times for any of us to ponder what we believe to be real. Could we not open our eyes to what is real all the time? Like when we are overcome with nature’s beauty or the sweet melodies of birdsong. Like when our souls are touched by moments of worship or the mesmerizing sounds of a symphony orchestra.
It seems important to face life with listening ears and open eyes ready to embrace “the real!” It seems important to do so in sunshine and in shadow, when our souls are burdened and when our souls are stirred to sing songs of joy. It seems important to look at what’s real even when we have to do so while feeling a deep down melancholy.
Still, I invite you to choose to “see,” the real that surrounds you — the real that is inside you, above you, below you and beside you. As Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt summons us, “take a long, loving look at the real.” That’s how Burghardt characterized contemplation, describing it as a sustained gaze, never merely a glance.
“Flash point times take us inward to the private space in us, and in that space, we examine what is truly real.”
So value “your real.” Do it as you go and as your journey moves forward on varied paths. Look at all that is “your real” — the commotion in your soul, the catastrophes of your relationships, the messes in your life. Take a sustained, contemplative look. Look bravely snd without fear, because whoever or whatever God is for you is waiting to meet you at the crossroads of what is real and what is not real.
More than you think, your soul needs you to open your eyes and “take a long, loving look at the real.” No matter how messy it is!
Welcome to “All Shall Be Well,” where we will explore together our spiritual center, create a moment of sacred pause and join together in contemplation and silence. In this episode, I want to focus our thoughts on spirituality and Lent. Today, Ash Wednesday, is the first day of Lent. God speaks to us through the Prophet Joel in chapter 2, saying,
Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
Welcome to “All Shall Be Well,” where we will together explore our spiritual center, create a moment of sacred pause and join together in contemplation and silence. Tonight my thoughts will focus on the dark times of our lives, the spiritual and emotional darkness that sometimes engulfs us and the ways we can dwell in our darkness to learn the secrets the darkness teaches us. We will listen in sacred space to hear the sigh of our souls.
Are we brave enough to imagine beyond the boundaries of “the real” and then do the hard work of sculpting reality from our dreams?
I read a wonderful article this morning written by Madisyn Taylor, who wrote about being in a fog. I related immediately, having just taken my immunosuppressant medications that create all manner of “foggy-ness” for me. Tayler defined it as a feeling of being “muddled and unfocused, unsure of which way to turn.” I resonate with that definition, but beyond the physical fogginess of my mind, I experience an occasional fogginess of spirit. Know what I’m talking about? I would guess you do, since all of us fall into a spirit-fog once in a while.
A fog can feel downright eerie. It isn’t straightforward like darkness, yet we may feel like we can’t see where we’re going or where we’ve come from. We feel fear, as real as our fear of the darkness, afraid that if we move, we might run into something hidden in the mists that surround us. If we’re brave enough to move at all, we move slowly, feeling our way and keeping our eyes open for shapes emerging from the eerie haze.
Maybe being brave is what spirit fogginess is about. Spirit-fog is, of course, is a season of involuntary inactivity (perhaps even precipitated by coronavirus isolation). Although you and I much prefer to be able to see where we are going and move unwaveringly in that direction, maybe we can encourage our spirits to see that being in a fog often brings gifts to us — gifts of stillness, of doing absolutely nothing, a respite from forward inertia, a time to gather up our “brave” to move with forward inertia, even moments of finding for our spirits the Spirit of Comfort and Peace. We might find in the mists of fog the sacred pause that our spirit needs — the kind of sacred pause that creates resilience in us, and perseverance, and whatever we need to be brave.
In the fog, we really do need to be brave. When we are hidden in the mist, we may look within and find that the source of our fogginess is inside us — perhaps an emotional issue that needs tending before we can safely move ahead with steady resolve. The fog that engulfs us may simply be teaching us important lessons about how to continue moving forward even if we have been brought to a standstill by circumstances of life.
If we’re brave, we do not have to wait for the fog to lift. If we’re brave enough, we can center ourselves in the haze, wait for guidance and then move — move on into the unknown places on the journey. I have been a long-time fan of the song “Brave” sung by Sara Bareilles, written by Sara Bareilles and Jack Antonoff. “Brave” is on her 2013 album, “The Blessed Unrest.” The song hits me hard with these words, “sometimes the shadow wins.” I know that to be the hard truth, but I also latch onto the rest of this song’s message: I can be brave! I often think that this section of the lyrics calls out directly to me — calling me, urging me on, encouraging me to “show everyone how big my brave is.”
I wanna see you be brave
Everybody’s been there, everybody’s been stared down By the enemy Fallen for the fear and done some disappearing
Bow down to the mighty Don’t run, stop holding your tongue
Maybe there’s a way out of the cage where you live Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
Show me how big your brave is
Say what you wanna say And let the words fall out Honestly
I wanna see you be brave
Spend a few minutes enjoying this Sara Bereilles song and immerse yourself in the thought of how amazingly brave you are.
“Fine” is almost always the answer because usually the one who asked the question doesn’t really want to know all about how we feel. Not really. So we answer with a word — “fine.” Just “fine.” After all, we don’t often want to reveal our true feelings to anyone, and on top of that, telling them how we really feel would take more time than either of us want to spend on the conversation.
There may also be another reason for responding with just the word “fine.” Sometimes we don’t know how we’re really feeling. Some people are too busy with life responsibilities to consider how they feel. Others know there are deep feelings inside themselves, but they too are too busy to feel them. Still others sense dark, foreboding feelings in their deepest place, and they will not risk the emotional repercussions they might face by lettings their feelings rise into their consciousness. In Leo Tolstoy’s book, Anna Karenina, the dialogue asks, “Is it really possible to tell someone else what one feels?” Perhaps at that point — the seeming impossibility of telling another person how we feel — is where you and I find ourselves.
The question on the left is a very good question, even a crucial question. What does happen in us when we simply refuse to allow our feelings to come to the light os acknowledgment. The answer is at the very center of our quest for emotional wellness. We start, as the image above instructs, at owning our deepest feelings. Owning means to look at our feelings honestly and without fear. Owning means making no excuses for feelings. Owning means not blaming our feelings on others. Owning means holding our feelings in high esteem and acknowledging how they came to be. Owning means accepting our feelings, embracing then and honoring them
I was so deeply hurt that I just hold it inside until it becomes so unbearable I think I will snap.
He made me feel invisible and I just can’t let go of that feeling. I still feel invisible after all these years.
She made me so angry and I am letting that anger rage inside me and it will not go away. I don’t dare express it or let it surface.
Owning our feelings means being willing to truly “see” them, even when seeing them frightens us or creates in us a sense of dread. We sense we may experience a season of dread that the feelings will hurt us, again and for a long time. We fear what we will see. There is some truth in the fact that we tend to live into our “false self,” the self that is external and often shows little resemblance to our internal self. Contemplation is internal work. For those of us who believe in God, something divine happens when we are immersed in contemplating our hidden feelings — this thing that happens is that God meets us there, at the very moment when a buried feeling begins that awful hurting. I think of the words of promise in Holy Scripture, Jeremiah 29:11.
For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.
I cannot help but find comfort in the presence of God in my life’s most painful times, and honestly, I have to say that some of those painful times were a part of contemplation and, through contemplation, beginning to own my down-deep feelings. The wise words of Thomas Merton are both instructive and provocative.
Everyone of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self . . . We are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves. Contemplation is not and cannot be a function of this external self. There is an irreducible opposition between the deep transcendent self that awakens only in contemplation, and the superficial, external self which we commonly identify with the first person singular. Our reality, our true self, is hidden . . . We can rise above this unreality and recover our hidden reality . . . God begins to live in me not only as my Creator but as my other and true self. ― Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
In finding pieces of my hidden, true self, I also found release from harmful feelings, hurtful memories and oppressive people I held on to. Finally, after contemplation, we find the ability to share our feelings — the real ones — with the people we trust to hold them sacred and to help us better understand them. At the moment when I understood my feelings — where they came from; why I was holding on to them; who caused them; what would happen if I let my feelings rise from my depths to the light of day — that was the moment I felt free. I could live again as my best self. I could love myself, my real self. And I could be my best self. Not a small thing! A turning point in my life!
I hope you will spend some time studyIng the Feelings image above. I invite you to look at the seven feelings in the center and to then move to the outer circles. If I feel sad, for instance, the next expansion of the circle further clarifies what “sad” means for me, i.e. lonely, vulnerable or depressed. The outer section may reveal to me that I was victimized or abandoned, grieving or isolated.
Continue to contemplate your hidden, unspoken feelings. Learn to look at them and “own” them without fear, and know that God will meet you at the point of your deepest pain and that you are God’s own creation — cherished, loved, comforted and protected by a God who will never let you go.
As a part of your contemplative moments, I hope you are strengthened by this arrangement of the hymn, “O Love that Will Not Let Me Go.” Play it before you begin your meditation time and let its message clear your mind and comfort your soul.
My dear, long-time friend, former Little Rock Mayor Jim Daily, sent me this photo this afternoon. Mayor Jim is a hiker, a camper, a photographer and a naturalist. He loves the outdoors. He is a person of profound thought, and he spends a good amount of his time in thoughtful contemplation — on a lake or an Arkansas River, in a verdant valley or on a mountaintop. He frequently blogs on what he calls his “adventures,” and his blog is filled with thoughts about wherever he is and whatever beauty he has found. For Jim, every day is a new adventure, and his adventures hold sway over him. They change him in so many ways
One more thing — As a tribute to my friend, Mayor Jim, I want to introduce you to his Blog, which you may enjoy viewing at this link: Last Pair of Boots
His Blog, called “Last Pair of Boots,” tells a poignant story — of nature’s beauty, of God’s presence in it, of friendships, of Arkansas’ and America’s holy places, of worship and contemplation and prayer. Here’s what Jim says about naming his blog:
The name “Last Pair of Boots” came to me when my ten year old boots broke down and it occurred to me that at my age the new pair of boots might be my last pair. Metaphorically my boots represent the trails and travels of life.
This is such a thought-provoking description that fits Jim’s love of nature’s splendor. He also hints at endings, not in a melancholy way, but in words the reveal his life of contemplation and curiosity. Jim’s outings are hiking and wilderness camping, skiing, fishing, exploring, visiting every Arkansas State Park through his job as Arkansas Tourism Director, finding friendships in every small Arkansas hamlet, searching for Arkansas treasures,
finding God in all the places and faces.
I imagine he will hold all of these adventures in his heart now that he has finished his work as Arkansas Tourism Director this past December.
Congratulations, Jim, for your many years of service to the citizens of Little Rock and of Arkansas. Your wisdom, your love of nature, your unquenchable thirst for adventure and your unfailing commitment will remain as one of our enduring Arkansas’ treasures.
As I mused about Jim’s outings tonight, I asked myself about the places and times that created my contemplative times. They are few, too few.
For whatever lame reason, I do not take the contemplative times I need. I think that my kidney transplant on November 12th pushed me into a soul-need that beckons me to solitude, silence, contemplation, adventure — new things to examine in the stunning beauty of nature. It calls me out of the house and into the sunlight or under the stars of the night. It calls me to breathe in the fresh air of God’s creation and, with that breath, to take in the miracle of God’s presence.
Now that I’m retired and have time, I tend to fill my time with all manner of preoccupation. At times, I feel busy and frazzled and don’t really know why. Why am I unable to make enough time to spend in the mesmerizing beauty of nature, keeping silence in God’s creation? Why do I not spend time beside still waters, listening to the silence of a pond? What is wrong with my soul that it is rarely drawn to God’s quiet places, and my heart that does not often seek God’s presence in silent space?
I dare not answer those questions until I am prepared to make some life changes. But what I can do is to hold near these reminders of what God desires for me until I can change my life. These reminders might even inspire me to seek change:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother. (Psalm 131:1-2)
For God alone my soul in silence waits. (Psalm 62:1)
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul. (Psalm 23:1-3)
Let him sit alone in silence, for the Lord has laid it on him. (Lamentations 3:28)
To you, O God, silence is praise. (Psalm 65:1)
It is never a bad thing to offer God the praise of silence, to invite God into my contemplation and to allow God’s presence in my moments of prayer and meditation. The truth is that God has always been present with me. But my deepest desire is that I be present with God. As the Psalmist wrote, “My soul in silence waits.”
May those words become my words . . . and yours. Amen.
Often one of the things we do as we approach a new year is to lament the old year. We take stock of our days, good and bad — and we disparage the bad far more than we celebrate the good. We spend moments of regret and self-recrimination for the things we left undone or for the things we did not do well. We spend moments blaming ourselves for things that were out of our control, and we critique our performance of those things we did control.
Perhaps we need to check ourselves if we find that we are reviewing the old year with too much reproach, regret and recrimination. It’s not a very good use of precious time. Instead, might we review the old year’s times of celebration — the days of joy, accomplishment, the days when our health was good and our hearts were strong, the days we survived calamity and dodged a few bullets.
Perhaps we should recall the times precious and poignant when our souls rejoiced in sweeter days we will remember with fondness. Perhaps we need to take stock of the ways we became stronger and found resilience in ourselves. Perhaps we need to celebrate the times we were gentle and kind, loving and compassionate. Perhaps we should count our friendships and the loving acts of those who love us.
Might we refuse to see the old year as a series of burdens and see it, instead, as a year that poured blessings on our lives. Is it possible that spending our reflections on the old year, seeing the grace it brought us, will enable us to believe in the grace that the new year will most surely bring?
It is true that this old year will end, for good or ill. Some might long to have it back, while others curse it as it leaves. This poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox that speaks of “the burden of the year” reminds us of the ways we experienced the old year with both weeping and laughing. That is life’s reality that surely promises that the new year 2020 will bring us the twofold, paradoxical gift of fear and faith, despair and hope.
Ella Wheeler Wilcox – 1850-1919
What can be said in New Year rhymes,
That’s not been said a thousand times?
The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.
We rise up laughing with the light,
We lie down weeping with the night.
We hug the world until it stings,
We curse it then and sigh for wings.
We live, we love, we woo, we wed,
We wreathe our brides, we sheet our dead.
We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,
And that’s the burden of the year.
If you will miss the year behind, celebrate what it left you. If it took and demanded your very life-breath, curse it if you need to, and then accept the ways it strengthened you. May we all spend a few moments or a few hours reviewing the year behind us, and find there laughter and weeping, hope and fear. All were meant to teach and to guide and to create strength in us.
The only people who pray well are those who keep praying!
— Richard Rohr
Sometimes you just need to get away. You need to push back from your daily grind and be in a space that gives you life-restoring energy. The place may be a mountaintop or beside a sea. The place you love might be on a sailboat watching the changing colors of the sky. The need is a time of contemplation although I admit that contemplation is easier said than done.
Richard Rohr describes contemplation using the frightening word, “dying,” something we usually do not want to consider. Still his definition is compelling.
Contemplative prayer is one way to practice imposing “silence upon our cares, our desires and our imaginings.” Contemplative practice might be five or twenty minutes of “dying,” of letting go of the small mind in order to experience the big mind, of letting go of the false self in order to experience the True Self, of letting go of the illusion of our separation from God in order to experience our inherent union.
I am intrigued by the phrases “imposing silence upon our cares!” dying” and “letting go of the illusion of our separation from God.” We readily recall words we have long known: “Be still, and know that I am God,” and we know that we can move into God’s real and palpable presence. Still moving into God’s presence and lingering there is easier said than done. We are slaves to our lives, to our every day concerns and responsibilities. And sometimes times our responsibilities — though they may be important to us — take too much from us, robbing us of our life’s spiritual depth.
Again, Richard Rohr offers deep wisdom:
Each day that dawns is a celebration of the fact that we have been invited to consider how our lives are spent; how we embrace and recoil from the . . . darkness.
So for me, I would like to watch the hued, expansive skies — the moving clouds and the sparkle of the sun. I would like to find silence in the vastness of God’s creation, in a place where my view includes the beauty of verdant green pastures, the sound of the never-ending surf, the feel of the wind in my face, the shadows cast upon a high mountain. It takes the beauty of such a place to calm my spirit and stop the whirring of my mind. In such a place, I can try to enter into the posture of prayer and contemplation.
Don’t be fooled. Contemplation is called a practice because it truly is a practice that we must try again and again. Contemplation is not easy for many of us. It can even be disconcerting because, in truth, contemplation is meeting as much reality as we can handle in its most simple and immediate form — without filters, judgments, or commentaries. Contemplation moves us to the space our soul craves, and in that place we gain a renewal of our spirit.
Anything worth doing is worth practicing for as much or as long as it takes. Yes, at times it feels like forcing ourselves to be still for an interminable length of time and to force ourselves to fully concentrate on petitioning and listening prayer. No doubt, being silent with ourselves can be frightening. “Imposing silence upon our cares” can be threatening. But in the practice of contemplation we can hear God’s whisper clearer and sense God’s presence more deeply and fully.
I wish for you the time and space you need, the time to take in the breathtaking beauty of God’s creation, the stilling of your mind and the calming of your spirit that can guide you into the presence of God.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
“Be still, and know that I am God!”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
I always write in the moment — what I’m feeling or experiencing, what fills me with joy or what brings forth tears of sadness. That’s my blog. It’s not about me really. It’s more about what exists before me, behind me, around me, within me . . . in the moment. This morning’s moment is all about sweet memories of being surprised. Completely surprised by the surprise birthday party planned and executed by my wonderful Sunday School class.
Last night was a night to remember for me. It was indeed a surprise —an unexpected, shocking, out-of-the-blue, lavish, wonderfully loving surprise. This morning I am giving thanks for the grace gift of that group of women. And I am enjoying one of the gifts they gave me — a beautiful Lectio Divina prayer bible.
I began my reading this morning at the beginning — Genesis 1: 1-19 — with the intention of reading the passage as if it were my first time. I read it using the pattern of reflective bible reading that included the following steps of Lectio Divina:
A slow, thoughtful reading of the Biblical text
Reflection on the meaning of the text
A decision on what I should do in my life as a result of my contemplative experience
In other words, how does action and contemplation meet for me in this time, in this place?
Gathering all the parts of me into a quiet place, I read the first part of the creation story. I took it in as a story fresh and new, and within seconds I was struck by these words:
When God began to create the heavens and the earth — the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters — God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared.
God’s wind swept over the waters . . . I could visualize it. I could hear its sound. I could feel the wind sweeping over me gently, but surely. It was fresh and new, as if I was reading it for the first time. Funny how sacred Scripture can do that “fresh and new” magic!
Today’s life lesson? It’s all about gracious gifts from a loving God . . . Wind and water, sea and sky, light and darkness, and friends of the heart who offer acts of love. Like a birthday party full of meaning beyond the hats and the food and the gifts and the cake.
At the back of the prayer bible, there is a collection of classic Christian prayers. This one — “A Prayer to the Holy Spirit” — is a Native American Traditional prayer that expresses wonderfully the thoughts of my life lesson for today.
O Great Spirit,
whose breath gives life to the world,
and whose voice is heard in the soft breeze:
We need your strength and wisdom.
Cause us to walk in beauty. Give us eyes
ever to behold the red and purple sunset.
Make us wise so that we may understand
what you have taught us.
Help us learn the lessons you have hidden
in every leaf and rock.
Make us always ready to come to you
with clean hands and steady eyes,
so when life fades, like the fading sunset,
our spirits may come to you without shame. Amen.
May God — the Mother of all created things, the Father of life itself — make it so.
I am deeply grateful on this day for:
Quiet moments of reflection
The story of God’s hand in all created things
The ability to pray
The will to point my life toward actions inspired by faith
The gift of friends of the heart (who throw spectacular, startling, and
completely surprising birthday parties!)
Thanks be to God.
On another note, please pray for me as I await a life-saving kidney transplant. I am grateful that you are walking with me on this journey that often feels so frightening. Your thoughts and prayers mean so much. If you would like to read the story of my illness, please visit the Georgia Transplant Foundation’s website at this link:
A “Go Fund Me” page is set up for contributions to help with the enormous costs related to the transplant, including medications, housing costs for the month we have to stay near the transplant center, and other unforeseeable costs for my care following the transplant. If you can, please be a part of my transplant journey by making a contribution at this link: