Category Archives: centering prayer

Quiet in Advent

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This clever sketch with its caption, “A nativity scene without Jews, Arabs, Africans, or refugees,” has been circulating on social media.

This season I’ve been intentionally quiet, quiet mostly in the mornings but also quiet on the blog.  This Advent, I’ve tapped back into my practice of Lectio and Centering Prayer.  I’ve been reading the prophetic scriptures from Isaiah and the journey to Bethlehem in Luke as the Syrian city of Aleppo crumbles, lives are lost, and great fear reigns throughout our world.

I haven’t known how to respond to all the darkness, have you?  

I should speak out, I think, say something like Isaiah, the prophet, reminding us how to follow a God who is not of this world, a king who is not violent, but gentle and humble and an outsider.

Is silence surrender in the face of such great evil, especially in a season that proclaims resounding joy, reconciliation, and peace?

I strive to work for justice in fits and spurts, donating, signing petitions, calling my congresspeople, but in the mean time, in a faraway land from where our savior was born, I hope that my silence meets God’s faithfulness.  You see, what I have always found so powerful about centering prayer is that I’m not doing anything–and that’s the point.  Because if prayer is just one more thing that we do, let alone one more thing that I presume to muster of my own wisdom and accord, then it is anything but a holy offering or a right relationship to God.

And so as we wonder how to respond, I wonder, whether as always, if it isn’t less about us and more about God–God’s saving action in the world?  I am patient in this season to listen but not to listen without responsibility.  I listen and trust and charge God with all God is always doing to offering healing, respite, and reprieve.  And I wait for God to give me the words, the actions, and the steps to be an instrument of peace this Advent season.

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My little setup at the new home.  My photo.

If you’re interested, there are over 30 posts in the category “Centering Prayer” on the blog.

Here are also a few posts from past Advent reflections and practices:

This Advent, Share Joy.

Advent and Breaking In

Advent: Reorienting Expectations

Thinking on Advent

Mary’s Song: Advent Expectations

God can take it

God, making weakness holy for over 2014 years

Finally, I’d be interested in hearing from any of you who are struggling in waiting this season.  It strikes me that waiting and silence feel particularly cheap in a season where this so much violence and need.  What is God teaching you?  Where is God leading you?

 

Learning to hope again

“For in hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what is seen?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”  –Romans 8:24-25

A few months ago I began prepping a sermon on Romans 8, focusing on the two verses that come after these ones.  In fact, the part that comes next, about how “when we do not know how to pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26), is one of my favorite passages in the Bible.  I love silent prayer and contemplation, and so I began scribbling down all sorts of ideas as I was brainstorming to preach.  I don’t even remember what I wrote down at the time, but one of the ideas was something like, “God dares us to hope again after loss, pain, and fear.”

I put my notebook away, and I went onto write the sermon a day or so later, preach it, and presumably move on.

But still, that message about hope was calling me.  

In fact, months later, I’m still thinking about it.  What that passage and my reflections on hope began to reveal to me is that faithfulness in this season of life, especially with Lucia, has often involved letting go of our expectations in order to love her as she is and celebrate her life.  This has been such a good and Godly way of learning to love, and especially when we’ve often stood in the balance of not knowing when the next crisis will strike or when we may need to let go, it’s been a powerful and fruitful way to live.

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Holding Lucia on her first birthday.  Photo by Andrew Nurkin.

But I also realize now that as we’d let go of expectations and fully embraced the uncertainty of our lives together, we’d not been particularly welcome or wont to hope.

Indeed, a few months ago, another parent said something casual to me like, “I’m just so looking forward to when she can do X…”  Yet another chirped, “Don’t you just look forward to each stage?”  The statements were remarkable because I realized, not mournfully or proudly, but simply and practically, that I certainly didn’t have the same hopes for Lucia.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t have hopes.

Something has shifted over the past few months for me.  Perhaps it’s because Lucia’s joy–her smiles, her giggles, are so contagious that we can’t help but want for more.  Perhaps it is because we’ve begun to realize that there’s a certain faithfulness (where perhaps we once thought it mere naiveté or denial) to believing and looking forward and wanting more for your child even when the future (gosh, everyone’s future!) is always uncertain.  “Who hopes for what is seen?” Paul asks, and it dawns on me that all hope is outrageous and audacious and almost senseless.  It dawns on me that true hope, hope despite fear, loss, and pain, is the most outrageous of them all, but deeply, wildly, and decidedly faithful.

What’s striking to me in this season is that even as Lucia’s daily health challenges continue, I think God is inviting us to dream a bit, to hope a lot, to envision a great and glorious and good life, even if it’s completely uncertain, for our daughter with special needs.

This is a huge shift for me…and it’s a little scary.  

And it’s not the sermon I preached that Sunday.  In fact, to this day, I don’t know how God did that–helped me write a sermon for others even as God prepared a sermon just for me.  And I am wary, as I always am, too pensive and critical, because hope for many often takes the shape of bi-ped hubris, therapeutic progress, or medical cures for Lucia, and I feel distinctly called to inhabit this tension of living and loving her now, and yet loving and hoping for her tomorrow, too.

So I find hope in the home we are making for Lucia, in the thought of her making friends at school someday, touching so many lives as she does ours everyday, teaching others, reaching out for babies and friends and strangers, and having many more swims and smiles and heroic turns of her head toward the things and the people that she wants and cares for!  These are my small, perhaps tentative, but genuine, prayerful, and faithful hopes for my daughter.

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Our little light looking for the light on a recent walk around the neighborhood.  My photo.

We will always savor the present, but we find new hope in the future with God’s help.

 

 

An invitation to listen

As many of you who have been reading my blog during Lent have apprehended, I’ve been pretty transfixed by the simple instructions on spirituality in Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.  But the other day as I read through the final chapters of the book as I nursed my baby before sunrise, I realized that in the busy-ness of my mind and the eagerness of my heart, and despite the silence, I’d forgotten about listening.

I’d forgotten that what sent me on this deep spiritual quest during Lent was the increase in silence in my life since the birth of this baby, and the subsequent invitation to let God fill those silences.  Since that realization, I’d picked up Foster’s book in an effort to be more intentional about my spirituality, and therefore, I’d been the one filling the silence with all sorts of things, from counting precious hours of sleep to pondering the tasks for the day ahead, and even my devotional study.

This is not another mommy guilt blog about how I should have been treasuring the moments with my infant suckling at my breast, but rather a mere realization that I hadn’t been faithful enough in those moments to allow God’s voice to be louder than my own.  In a previous post, I shared Foster’s words about how our fears about entering into the silence often reflect a distrust of God, and for me it’s no different.  I recently read this post from the author of the blog, Becoming Minimalist, in which he ponders our collective societal aversion to silence.  Joshua Becker writes, “While anyone can experience silence at any time by finding a quiet place to sit for an extended period of time, I have found solitude does not occur naturally in our noise-centered world. It must be intentionally pursued by each of us.”

In my own post on “The God of Silence,” I talk about the value for me in practicing centering prayer and reframing the experience of silence not as one of absence but of presence.

But I still struggle.

I still doubt over and over whether God will truly meet me in the silence.  

But what if God was already there?  What if the essence of God was that God goes before us, is ever-present, always waiting on us when we call?

My sister's photo of the first flower of 2014 in her neck of the woods.
My sister’s photo of the first flower of 2014 in her neck of the woods.

Perhaps that was why some of the words from the liturgy this weekend at church seemed to jump off the page.  We prayed together, confessing, “Fear and worry hold us back.  We confess that we try our very best, carrying the weight ourselves.  We gladly hand some of our worry and fear to you today.”

What a simple action, I thought, handing our worry and fear over to God, and yet we cling to these things as if we love them more than peace, hope, and love.

And as we took communion, we spoke, “When we come to this table together, we trust God will satisfy our hunger and our thirst.  Jesus shared this meal with a hungry crowd long ago and he shares it with us today.  Let us bring our hunger and our thirst to the table of the one who called himself the Living Bread.”

Fear and worry, hunger and thirst, these are the little that Jesus asks of us, and yet we cling to our noisy lives with such cowardice.  I don’t know about you, but the thought that our mighty God wants our heartache, and that God is so pure and humble and innocent and present, moves me.  The least I could do is listen, right?

And so I’m returning to that simple message on this foggy Tuesday morning.  I’m returning to the silence with my ears attuned to the presence of God.  I’m bringing my fear and my worry, my hunger and my thirst, and I’m trusting that God is already there, listening, as I listen for him.

 

The God of silence

“One reason we can hardly bear to remain silent is that it makes us feel so helpless.  We are so accustomed to relying on words to manage and control others.  If we are silent, who will take control?  God will take control, but we will never let him take control unless we trust him.  Silence is intimately related to trust.”

—Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline, p. 100-101

Have you ever doubted whether God was really there because God’s silence seemed to indicate otherwise?  Have you ever cried out to God, wondering how God could remain silent in the face of hardship, pain, or injustice?

Conversely, have you ever sat in a car or beside a friend or a family member in complete silence and felt deep companionship and comfort, but hardly any need to speak?  Why is it that we can trust others with such deep, holy silences, and yet when we encounter silence in our spiritual lives, we assume that God is woefully absent?

Merrill Creek Reservoir.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Merrill Creek Reservoir. Photo by Evan Schneider.

One compelling aspect for me of adopting the discipline of centering prayer has been this reframing of the concept and experience of silence as the presence, rather than the absence of God in our lives.  As Foster writes above, in the silence, God takes control from our greedy grasp, but God cannot do so if we refuse to trust God.

During this time of Lent, I invite you to reflect on where God has been silent in your life, and how you might cede some control and trust to God in those areas.  As you do so, imagine God’s hands, busily, yet quietly working.  Believe that silence does not indicate God’s absence, but rather God’s presence, God’s faithful accompaniment to you, in deep, holy, silent communion.  Trust that after those dark nights of the soul, the sun will rise on another, better morning.  And find it in your heart to let go and trust God with all of your life.  Even and perhaps, especially when you feel weak and utterly helpless, our God may be silent, but God is there.

Amen.

Lent in the everyday

In a cemetery in Paris, France.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
In a cemetery in Paris, France. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Our pastor’s message at the contemplative Ash Wednesday service last night was simple, yet profound: what might we do during this season of Lent to follow God wholeheartedly in the everyday of our life?  Instead of giving up one sinful practice, one favorite food, or even adding one daily activity, she challenged us to let Jesus dwell in our every step, our every breath, our every word.

In Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, he describes meditation much the same way.  Meditation is not a specific time set apart from our daily lives, but a way of life, a way of praying without ceasing, a way of bringing the spiritual into communion with the profane, so that the two intermix powerfully and prayerfully.  Additionally, Foster points out that the difference between Eastern and Western meditation is that while Eastern meditation seeks removal from the world and emptiness, Western meditation seeks communion with God that ultimately leads into service to others (this is not to say, of course, that Eastern meditation can’t lead to service as well!).

I’ve talked incessantly on this blog about my love affair with centering prayer, but these are the tenants that so challenge and convict me about the practice.  We may just be beginning this journey of Lent, but I am reminded this morning that we are headed not to a holy place but to a holy transformation.  We are becoming Easter people, through this process of reflection and action, and while God effects those changes in our lives and our hearts, we do the walking.  

We put one foot in front of another.  We follow.  We accept our sins and repent.  We resolve to let God into the everyday, and it is in the everyday that we truly encounter our deep depravity and God’s transformative love for us.

May we seek God everyday in this journey of Lent, leaning on one another for encouragement, and trusting God’s transformative love.  Amen.

Lent: An invitation to righteousness

Those of you who read my blog regularly know that I have a restless streak in me.  And despite being overjoyed at the birth of our daughter and blessed to have the time to take off to get to know her, I’ve discovered that it’s still there.

When I find myself feeling restless, I’m reminded of the perpetual invitation to rest in God, but that often sends me off chastising myself for forgetting such wisdom and promise in the first place.

And I don’t think that’s where God is truly leading.

As I’ve discovered over and over on this blog, finding rest from restlessness for me consists of embracing who I am, and then tapping into what’s truly restful and restorative for me.  It’s an awesome thing that God has given me this spirit of curiosity, and to glorify God, I’ve got to use it, not suppress it.

As I started reading Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline the other day, I started to be inspired by reframing this time of maternity leave and rest with my husband and my daughter as invitation to go deeper and connect with God.  I began to become enthusiastic about the invitation to breathe deeply in prayer while I’m nursing my baby, to turn the pages of the Bible rather than jump on facebook in the wee hours of the morning, and seek rest, comfort, and epiphany in God and not this world.

As Foster begins his treatise, “Superficiality is the curse of our age.  The doctrine of instant gratification is a primary spiritual problem.  The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people” (A Celebration of Discipline 1).  I desire to be one of those deep people, who studies and explores the spiritual life “with as much rigor and determination we would give to any field of research” (3).

Finally, as I kept reading I was struck by Foster’s use of the word “righteousness.”  I may have mentioned before that my church hands out epiphany stars with words on them to each congregant at the beginning of the calendar year and challenges us to reflect on how God might be using the word to teach us throughout the year.  When I looked at my star this year and saw “righteousness” scrawled upon it, I practically rolled my eyes.  There’s a word that I fear Christians have become problematically known for, and I wondered what good could come of it.

Yet, Foster’s use of this word was revelatory to me.  He points out that our method to confronting sin through our own use of willpower leads to a false sense of righteousness, let alone the perpetuation of that sin.  Instead, if we practice the spiritual disciplines, prayer, fasting, fellowship, etc., we might open up ourselves and our lives to receive the gift of righteousness.  Finally, I love the fact that he counts himself a beginner in this process, just as Thomas Merton once pronounced us all beginners for life.  None of us is too great or too mature to enter into these disciplines anew and receive righteousness afresh.

As you enter this holy season of lent, I encourage you to honor who you are, encounter God in the discipline of spirituality, and receive the gift of righteousness, humble, holy, and free.

 And I’d love to hear: what are your lenten disciplines, and how do you honor God by embracing who you are?

An invitation to breathe deeper

Apparently Huffington Post has dubbed 2014 the “year of mindful living,” and TIME magazine alleges there’s a “mindful revolution” in the wings.**

There’s been all sorts of talk about the value of the creative pause, the importance of sacred space (I swear I’ve linked to this article before, but it’s still great), and the benefits of meditation.  

And, predictably, especially given the title of this blog and its content, I couldn’t agree more! 

The snowy Princeton campus.  Photo by Serena Stein.
The snowy Princeton campus. Photo by Serena Stein.

But I have to admit that I don’t always practice what I preach.  

While I’ve been wildly productive when it comes to the dissertation and ticking things off the baby-prep list, I’ve been flittering away downtime with a host of media distractions.

This isn’t the end of the world, of course.  Social media can be wonderfully connective, and much-needed breaks from the rigor of our working lives with tv, youtube, etc. are understandable.  But when I think about what I really want to get out of life, I realize how much I don’t want to distract myself from what God’s doing.  Rather than check out, I want to check in.  And rather than emptying my mind, I want to be filled with the mind of God.

Through the distractions, I hear God’s invitation to breathe a little deeper.  And this morning as my dear friend and I sat basking in the word of God, simply breathing together, we felt anew how good it is to simply be in the presence of God.  I don’t love the phrase, “carving out space for God,” because I think it’s misleading to suggest that we’re the ones who should be doing the carving.

And yet, I think there’s something to be said for embracing the silence that God grants.  There’s something to be said for choosing not to be distracted.  And there’s certainly something truthful about remembering that the invitation to the spiritual life is just that, an invitation, which we can either accept, despite all its inconveniences, challenges, and grace, or decline for the meagerness of our own devices.

Pretty Princeton in the glow of snow.  Photo by Serena Stein.
Pretty Princeton in the glow of snow. Photo by Serena Stein.

How can you embrace the silence, the invitation from God in your life to breathe a little deeper today, tomorrow, and this year?

**Check out The Huffington Post’s critique of the TIME article here.

Sighs too deep for words

Saint Sulpice Cathedral.  Paris, France. Photo by Evan Schneider.
Saint Sulpice Cathedral. Paris, France. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Sometimes I think when you get a seminary education, you become a really big jerk when it comes to church-going.

You sit in the pews, and you have a really hard time not scrutinizing every word of the prayers, the hymns, and the sermon for theological integrity.  You tend to use your education, if only in your mind, in a way God couldn’t have possibly intended–your inner jackal voice (that’s what we called it in a nonviolent communication class I took) judges the church swiftly and bluntly for its imperfections and inconsistencies, finding it and its people wholly unworthy.  You start using theology to judge the world and its people rather than grace and love.

Are seminarians the only ones who do this?  

I’m thinking we’ve all probably done it–treated church like a country club, getting out our yardsticks to measure the benefits, the clientele, the grounds by big worldly standards and finding them sorely lacking.  At times we’ve probably had good reasons to reject a church or two, but do we do so with righteous indignation, self-assured conviction, or do we do it with humble grace, knowing that if God pulled out a yardstick, we’d all fall on the short side?

Prayer candles in a cathedral.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Prayer candles in a cathedral. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I’m not always the most grace-filled person.  

On the Myers-Briggs scale, I’m an ENTJ, and that J for judging is pretty strong, but being at church, surrounded by not just people, but people God loves and who love one another forces me to reflect on my own need for grace.

Right now, my husband and I are blessed to attend such a church–a church that’s far from perfect, but somehow I hardly notice the imperfections, because people are so busy loving me and one another that I forget to look for them.  Sure, it helps that the worship is creative, and the sermons are thought-provoking, but that’s not really the essence of being church.

A few weeks ago I preached a sermon at another church on one of my favorite topics, centering or silent prayer, and the sermon, based on Romans 8, was entitled “Sighs too Deep for Words.”  And this week an unthinkable tragedy that took one of our church members from us, there were no words.  On Tuesday night, we gathered in the sanctuary to be together in our grief.

There were no sermons, no special music, and brokenness was everywhere.  And that’s where I felt God’s presence, in the tears, the sorrow, and the shared pain of a community–in a church that knew no better than to love one another and to seek God together in their grief, their sighs, and their laments.

Sacre Coeur at night.  Paris, France.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Sacre Coeur at night. Paris, France. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I ask for your prayers this morning as you read about our church community that is grieving this loss.  But more than that, I hope and I pray that we all stop worrying so much about the right words, the appropriate hymns, or a perfect theology, and let God be God, especially at church.  And I pray that we let love be our response, to theology, whether bad or good, grace our response to brokenness, and silence, our faithful prayer when the words simply won’t come.  May the God of grace guide you this day and tomorrow and the next.

Amen.

Praise.

It’s just one of those weeks where despite the busy-ness, and the ups and downs, I’ve felt God’s presence so palpably, and I’m giving God praise.

On Plymouth Harbor.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
On Plymouth Harbor. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I give God praise for speaking into the silence, for meeting us simply and whole-heartedly.

I give God praise for listening ears and spiritual guidance on the journey.

And I give God praise for fellowship.  

Last night I had a phone call with a few girlfriends from seminary in which we got to affirm one another’s call, talk through challenges, and pray together.  It reminds me how much we were meant as human beings to rejoice together–in community.  And it made me realize all over again how powerful experiencing grace is, and how deserving of praise our God is for granting us grace.

When we look around and can see God’s hand in our lives, let us not take that for granted–let us praise God.

Amen.

Virtual Coffee Date

If we were having coffee this morning I would tell you that I love this time of year, because the year, stretched out before us, firmly in the future, is full of possibilities.

Perhaps you would remember that I love to set goals, but this year as I prayerfully considered what God was calling me to, I found myself penning more general statements about how I want to live my life, Pray Audaciously.  Be Gracious of Heart.  Approach teaching as service and writing and learning as discipline.

A few nights ago I sat in silence, and I felt my heart racing.  I felt insecure.  I’m insecure, because teaching is a new experience for me this semester, and when I think about needing to prove myself, I’m crestfallen.  In my heart, I’m still yearning for China, and when I think of learning and serving, I often picture being hungry and cold with people somewhere else in the world, or preaching from a pulpit in a congregation.  But I sat there and I waited for a word from God, and I heard that what God’s calling me to is, “sitting at your feet, childlike, attentive, waiting.  It’s being a servant,” and my heart leapt as I thought, “and even I can do that.”

Approaching teaching as service reminds me that Jesus’ teaching was never about proving himself, or even about being right, but it was wholly relational, progressive, and above the fray.  And because Jesus relied on God for the balance between these qualities in teaching, his teaching was life-changing.

Yesterday as I talked through some of these fears and excitements with my spiritual director, I realized that if I could just listen to my students with love and attentiveness, if I could just learn with them, I think I’d be doing enough and serving well.  In the language of servanthood, teaching becomes less about doing things right or perfectly or best, and more about regarding the people in front of me with respect, reverence, and a gracious heart, and again, I think “even I can do that.”

I would go on to tell you that I intend to sit in silence this year to listen to God more often.  I would tell you that I plan to say audacious prayers for China.  Somewhere along the way, I think my heart became so troubled by not being there and not being able to “do” anything, and I think deep inside me, a little part of my faith died, when it comes to the people I love there who I feel are very confined by their circumstances.  But lately I’ve been remembering that God changes hearts and lives, which is pretty much the greatest path, perhaps the only, toward changing circumstances, and I’ve resolved to pray boldly for China and its people.

And finally, I would tell you that yesterday I had a meeting with a professor who somehow saw through all my meandering writings of late, that my heart lies with foster moms and disabled children, and he encouraged me not to look for ways to make my dissertation topic bigger or more important, but to trust that this small topic can become bigger and greater and more compelling than I ever imagined.  It was both overwhelming and heartening to hear such critique and advice–heartening because these are the stories I collected and want to tell, and overwhelming because I need to start a bit fresh with some applications and outlines and etchings.

But it’s a new year, and what better time to start fresh, right?

What’s on your mind in 2013?

Small World

–Erin