Christmas Week

I haven’t written a lot about holidays here, but something about Christmas begs at least a mention! And I want to acknowledge Christian writer Richard Paul Evans (author of The Christmas Box and a great many other books) for prompting this post. In the flurry of all those pre-Christmas activities, there is always something at the back of my mind waiting for attention, and Evans helped me stop to take a closer look at it.

In Evans’s Christmas message, he of course told a story, but he also made this point: “I came to the realization that it is, perhaps, not as much a question of what Christmas is about as it is what we are about. That is, while we are attempting to define the season, the season, in fact, is far more adept at defining us – questioning our hearts whether or not we will hear its call of love and joy and peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

“Questioning our hearts” nails it for me. How critical it is not to just float along, detached from awareness of who I am and how I really think, letting my truest self be buried under the onslaught of social media — but rather to insist on taking the time and focus to ask myself where I am on my personal peace walk, on my love walk, on how I look at other people especially in times of inflammatory public rhetoric. No matter what the inputs are, it is my responsibility how I translate it into attitudes and actions.

So Christmas is, at its most basic level, about the birth of a child. But it’s also about the birth of humankind’s means of salvation, and how important it is to be reminded of that at least annually, preferably a lot more frequently.

This Christmas Week, I want to be mindful to see the Christ child birthing in every person I encounter.

           

Beauty and Responsibilities

Mary Oliver (one of my favorite poets, along with Hafiz) wrote this thought in her poem “Flare,” part 12:

A lifetime isn’t long enough for the beauty of this world and the responsibilities of your life.

I think I shall be living in this line all day, and because of introversion, all my lovely thoughts about it will likely remain inside my head. But here’s one, before the introversion takes over.

This single line of poetry may be the best remedy for my sorrow at the loss of a 97-year-old gentleman who was my longtime client and came to feel more like a friend, despite his wealth, status, and accomplishment that were far above my own. In the writing he and I did together, my role was mostly to bring out the best in him. We continued to work together productively until a few weeks before his passing.

He embraced responsibilities his entire life, always seeking more and never feeling overwhelmed by any that came his way. And he eagerly took in the beauty of the world, visiting more parts of it than any other person I’ve ever known. On rare occasions I thought of him as a hedonist, but now I think that he simply lived mindfully.

But the reason this line of poetry will remain in my head all day is the reminder to me that my lifetime, too, will not be long enough for the beauty of the world and the responsibilities that are mine to fulfill. The way the Roman poet Horace put it was: “Carpe diem!” I like better Mary Oliver’s way of saying the same thing.

           

How to Welcome Change

I guess it wouldn’t be Life if we did not always see change. In fact, change is so unavoidable that it makes me wonder why we always dread change. It makes more sense to dread the opposite of change, which is surely death. From that perspective, perhaps we should spread our arms and welcome all the change we can find.

Several changes stand before me, on the verge of unfolding. These range from the totally mundane to the exceptional. On the mundane side, I find I will have to do the research this year to find a new health care plan because providers I use will be dropped from my coverage in 2016. Aaaargh! No one consulted me about this change. In that way, it is typical of most change that comes my way.

On the exceptional side, I am in a weekly walk with a favorite gentleman who appears to be nearing the end of his life. He has reached the stage when he experiences spikes of good days and drops to bad days, but succeeding spikes don’t ascend as high, and the descents to bad days reach greater and greater depth. What’s painful is that everyone involved, most assuredly the gentleman himself, must learn how to do this as we go.

Nathaniel Branden wrote: “The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.” I am fully located on the second step with my mundane issue, but somewhere in the middle of the staircase with the serious change, which will bring impact to many people, not just me, in many ways.

My greatest gratitude is that I don’t face any changes, not even the small ones and certainly not the large ones, alone. God has promised to walk with us, never to leave us, and His strength and guidance are available to us at every step, as close to us as our very breath.

           

Learnings from a Broken Foot

I made reference to my broken metatarsal in my last post and even put in a photograph of the walking boot. Since then I have adjusted (pretty much) to using a crutch and to going very, very slow. If I don’t go slow, I risk accidentally coming down hard on the foot that is healing, and that is never good.

Back in August when I saw the X-ray of the broken bone, I put my trust in God to bring something good out of this situation. Now, two and a half weeks after acknowledging the break and putting on the walking boot, here are a couple of learnings gained from this experience:

1. Using a crutch always slows you down. Right now my crutch is a metal apparatus that reaches from my armpit to the floor, but I’ve had lots of crutches in my life: regret, guilt, feeling inadequate, the paralysis of inaction, etc., etc. Every single one of these crutches has slowed me down.

2. God can bring healing to any bad break in my life — certainly the physical break of a bone, but just as certainly the bad breaks of difficult relationships, poor decisions, unexpected storms, traffic delays, or illness. My job is to hold on to the faith that God, as promised, will be with me wherever I go and whatever I encounter.

           

Developing Perseverance

“Consider it pure joy,” says the book of James, “whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

Notice that James (this is in James 1:2) doesn’t say “trials of any kind,” but rather “trials of many kinds.”

So I am practicing considering it pure joy that a broken metatarsal has me in a walking boot and forced the cancellation of a long-planned trip to see family and friends—some of whom I have not seen in decades. Everything had been lined up so painstakingly, I am doubtful that I could work all that out again.

However, though disappointed at the unraveling of those plans, I am also just as willing to see the dissolution as ultimately working out for the best. If I take the oft-quoted perspective that everything happens for a reason, then I must be willing to have faith that there is a good reason even when I can’t see one. And really, that could be a corollary to the definition of perseverance (steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success).

So I am patiently sitting here with my foot mending in a walking boot, trusting that what I am really doing is developing perseverance, in order to be “mature and complete.”

           

Peace Defined

I never particularly thought I needed a definition of peace. The word has always seemed to signify a self-explanatory end point—a goal to which much of my life has been aimed.

So I was surprised a few days ago to find in Jeremiah, in the Amplified Bible, a verse (33:6) in which there appears to be a definition of peace.

In this verse, Jeremiah is prophesying the future in a restored Jerusalem: “I will lay upon it health and healing, and I will cure them and will reveal to them the abundance of peace (prosperity, security, stability) and truth.”

Since I came across this verse, this definition has been running around the back of my mind. I have been trying it on for size. Had you asked me last week what my definition for peace is, I’m sure I would have come up with something other than “prosperity, security, stability.” Yet, if I have all of those elements squared away, how could I not be in peace?

Once again, the Amplified has shown the way!

           

First Things First

One of the best things you can do to keep your life on an even keel is to keep first things first. Of course, we learn this (again) every time we take a webinar or read a book related to effective living. But there is no substitute for actually putting the concept into practice.

You might think there can be only one “first thing” in a day, but I have three. If you think about it, you may find that you have more than one also.

The initial “first” is the first thing in my head when I wake up. Over many years of spiritual practice, my mind has been trained to start the day with a thanksgiving prayer. This particular “first thing” sets the tone for the day, and I am grateful to start each day with this attitude.

The second “first thing” occurs when I sit down at my desk to work. My spiritual practice is to open the workday with a short devotional time. Sometimes it is a few Bible verses; sometimes the workday begins with the day’s reading from Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence. This is a resource I highly recommend.

The third “first thing” is the first work task for the day. Like everyone else, my work tasks might number anywhere from five to ten in a day, but there is always one that is the most important to my long-range future. That is the one I start with, even when others on the list appear more urgent. And I never put email or Facebook ahead of that one most important task. An excellent book that can help anyone stay focused on this approach to work is Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog! The book is structured into 21 chapters on how to stay focused on completing important projects and get more done in less time.

Everyday Spirituality means living close to God every day, living close to whatever you most value, and putting first things first.

 

           

God Speaks to Each of Us

“God Speaks to Each of Us” is a poem by the European mystical poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke.

Though the entire poem is worthy of time spent with it, there are two lines I dwell upon most.

The first is: “Don’t let yourself lose me.” Remember that these are meant to be God’s words spoken to each newly made person. It is the responsibility of each of us to see that we don’t lose God, that we don’t lose sight of Him or turn away from Him, no matter what comes to us in life. This is the principal reason for pursuing spiritual practices as an everyday matter. We all need to be reminded daily, even hourly, of Whose we are and why we are here.

The second line that especially draws me is the final one: “Give me your hand.” Yes, it is our own responsibility to keep God centermost in our lives, but we don’t have to work at that without God’s help. The guidance of God is always available to us. But it is our choice whether or not to reach out for it.

           

For the “Down” Day

It’s very hard to avoid them completely. Sooner or later, it seems that we will all have days when our spirits are troubled by doubt or loss or confusion or a frightening suspicion that we might have been abandoned by the Spirit we must have to sustain us.

Christian Century (April 29, 2015, issue) published an article entitled, “Books for the Dark Night.” Eight persons who are active in the Christian community in one way or another were asked to identify and reflect on a book that helped them at a low point in their faith journey.

Several of these books are worth taking a look at. These are titles that would be useful to have available in any case, but especially for those times when you need a place to turn. Here are the books mentioned and briefly discussed:

The Sacrament of the Present Moment, in a translation by Kitty Muggeridge

Don Quixote, in a translation by Walter Starkie (This one surprised me!)

The Soul’s Sincere Desire, by Glenn Clark

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson

God Is More Present Than You Think, by Robert Ochs, SJ

Morality: Memory and Desire, by Luigi Giussani

Companions on the Inner Way, by Morton Kelsey

Traveling Mercies, by Anne Lamott

I will be reading a few of these and will likely report on them here in future posts.

           

Getting Pushed Around by Your Thoughts?

In his 2003 book Stillness Speaks, Eckhart Tolle offers the startling advice: “Here is a new spiritual practice for you: don’t take your thoughts too seriously.”

His point is that we get trapped in our concepts of what is going on, when really those concepts form only one of many perspectives of reality. Further, your thinking constitutes only a small portion of your overall consciousness, so it’s best not to assign too much weight to your thoughts.

Other authors too numerous to list urge us to take control of our thoughts because “we are what we think about.” This theme suggests that we must take our thoughts very seriously because they determine who we will be.

These are really not two diametrically opposed positions, though at first they appear to be. Instead, they work together quite well if we can approach them deliberately.

The first step is to compose in your thoughts the kind of person you want to be, then use your thoughts to intentionally cement that persona into your subconscious. Thoughts can also be used successfully to sort out decisions and plan actions. But left to itself, when those thinking activities are completed, the mind goes off in all sorts of tangents, forming judgments, criticizing what we ourselves or other people are doing, remembering and reliving nasty experiences best forgotten, etc. Clearly, these “left-to-itself” thoughts of the mind are the ones we must not take seriously, but, in fact, should replace as quickly as possible with the deliberate thoughts composing the persons we want to become.