Spiritual Practice: Being Present

Reality.  It is a stinker right now.  We would rather not have to endure this overwhelming stoppage and restriction that has us anxious and impatient, irritable and sad. 

But now is all we have.  It is all we ever have, if you think about it.  Yesterday is gone.  Tomorrow exists only in our imaginations.  But “living in the now” seems like a silly statement.  Isn’t that what we are always doing?

Not if we are stuck in our memories.  Not if we stake our happiness on expectations for the future. 

There are gifts in the present moment.  I realize the present may be excruciating for you if you are dealing with loss or suffering in other ways.  Yet many who have endured suffering have been able to look back and see the gifts that were there: the love of family or a friend, the gracious help of caregivers, an unexpected moment of humor, the wisdom accrued in solitude and even austerity.

We don’t have to wait for the wisdom of hindsight to seek and find the gifts of the present moment.  Perhaps these days are a setting for you to recognize gifts you have previously overlooked: a healthy heart beating in your chest, the view out of your window, the rich taste of coffee, the pleasure of using a cherished memento.  Even a lack of beloved connections can be a gift to make you more aware of God’s presence that you didn’t take time to notice before. 

Here is a poem I wrote in one such moment.  If you would like to read a longer poem on the subject, you can check out this one about the glory of the present.  (Instructions on the spiritual practice appear at the end of this post.)

July Morning

I look out at the non-air-conditioned

unvacuumed, untidied backyard

and see life teeming

every leaf unfurled from a bud two months ago

goldfinches hatched from eggs.


My cat sleeps on his tail-cushion.

He was a kitten once

and I was an embryo before that.

The rug under my feet came from seeds

fibers woven by some hands

that once rested on mothers’ breasts.


Native life

and processed life

but all life

silently pulsing with

the casual wisdom of having been created

being here

now

for this.


So.  How to “be present?”  Here is one way.

Take a few deep, slow breaths.  Notice the abundance in your lungs filling up and the release of tension as you exhale.  Take your time.

Repeat to yourself slowly, as often as it feels right: “Now.  Here.  This.” 

If you notice something in your surroundings, give it your undivided attention for a few moments.

Let the peace of the moment settle into you as you gently move into the next part of your day.

Spiritual Practice: (Forced) Fasting

Fasting is an ancient practice that invites us to abstinence for the sake of spiritual focus.  I am no expert; you can find information and guidance in books devoted to this practice alone or to a range of spiritual disciplines.  My first experience with fasting happened in college when I decided to fast from lunches on Mondays during Lent and to give the money saved to a charity to alleviate hunger.  Occasional fasts since then have taken my mind off myself, my growling stomach reminding me of people who have too few choices about their nourishment and health. 

We usually think of fasting as abstinence from food, but abstinence can apply to anything:  social media, spending, personal vices or attitudes, and so on.  The reasons for fasting also vary.  In general, the practice shifts your focus and teaches you about your appetites and habits.  Communal fasting can help you to act and pray with intention along with others, focusing your efforts to learn together and perhaps act in harmony to achieve shared goals.  Individual fasting can deepen your prayer life, heighten your awareness, and help you live your baptism with greater intention.

Right now we are experiencing what might be called a “forced” fast.  We are abstaining from personal contact and community.  We are doing without some luxuries.  If this describes you, it may be a good time to accept the conditions and see what you can learn about yourself.  If you stop resisting the discomfort and open yourself to God’s presence in the midst of it, you may find that you will actually change your relationship with food, Facebook, money, activity,  etc. moving forward.

For too many, this is not simply a fast but a major disruption leading to empty shelves and unpaid bills.  Choosing abstinence is one thing; unexpected loss is another.  If this describes you, I can only hope that those of us who are not as devastated by these conditions will fast in some form in solidarity with you, and will open our hands in generosity for your sake.  I urge you to contact your pastor if you are struggling, so that your fellow church members may have the opportunity to help.  This could be done with anonymous donors and receivers.  “God provides” often means God’s people are mobilized to help.

May all of us emerge from this fast—forced or otherwise—with a keener sense of trust in God and love in community together. 

Spiritual Practice: Writing Psalms

In a time when our emotions seem like a soup with lots of unexpected ingredients, it is tempting to find ways to numb ourselves.  It’s too much!  Yet ignoring our emotions is not a habit I recommend.  It is helpful to turn to the Psalms of the Bible, where the realities of the human condition are expressed vividly.  They could help you express your own anxieties and joys. 

This week’s practice, writing a psalm, might seem daunting at first.  But if you simply practice it as a personal expression of how life feels to you at the moment, it will help you to regard the daily ups and downs more thoughtfully, with compassion for yourself and perhaps even deeper faith. 

You can follow the pattern and theme of any psalm and just rewrite it in your own words, to fit your circumstances and feelings.  Start from scratch if you prefer.  If you do that, I suggest you follow these guidelines:

·        Spend some time in quiet prayer, discerning what is on your heart.  Is there a feeling, an image, or a word that is weighing on you? 

·        Once you land on a theme, decide whether you will start with praise, thanksgiving, or expressing fear and doubt. 

·        Make your psalm personal, and use descriptive language. 

·        As with any spiritual writing, resist the temptation to edit.  Simply write what comes to you.

Here is what I wrote a year or two ago as a response to Psalm 23.  It was a time when I was in a period of intentional sabbatical.  I was yearning to be part of a congregation for a season, where I wouldn’t serve as a leader or pastor.  You’ll see that yearning reflected in the psalm.

The Lord is my shepherd

            I shall not want

Yet following the Shepherd

            means I will want

            and want and want

because once tasted

            life with you invites me

            to more and more.

You call me forward

            and expose the erstwhile focus of my desire

            as inadequate, unsatisfying.

Your rod and staff do comfort

            but they also goad and

            bar the way back.

They force me to the in between place

            where back is not viable (not the way)

and forward is known

            only to the Shepherd.

Right now my want has a shape

            an outline of a flock.

To be with other sheep who are following

            as best they can,        

            who want to see

            what is here but also

            what is next

and trust the Shepherd

            to take us there.  

Spiritual Practices: Prayer of Loving Kindness

Today’s practice is the Prayer of Loving Kindness.  The beauty of this prayer is in the many ways it can be used.  My first introduction to it was in a contemplative mode, praying it slowly and repeatedly, for yourself and others. First, for yourself, taking your time.  Then pray it for someone who has blessed your life, a benefactor.  Then for a friend, then someone who needs it, and so on.

I have used it as a benediction.  I have used it when I can only get beyond “Lord, have mercy!” for someone when I don’t know what else to pray.  It is a wonderful prayer to use for someone I struggle to understand. I use it for those I love sometimes before falling asleep. I pray that it will be the gift for you that it is to me.

As its author Jack Kornfield says, no matter what arises while you meditate on this prayer, simply continue to “plant the seeds of loving wishes.”  We can be sure they will bear fruit. 

Lovingkindness Meditation:

May you be filled with lovingkindness.

May you be free of inner and outer dangers.

May you be well in body and mind.

May you be at ease and happy.

Spiritual Practices: Gratitude

The quality that we so often seek in our lives is joy.  When we become wise enough to know that joy cannot be manufactured through short-lived pleasures, we might settle for less.  We might resign ourselves to what the writer of Ecclesiastes concludes: “there is nothing new under the sun.”  (Eccles. 1:9)

Or we could learn the secret to joy: gratitude.

There was a time in my life when I felt broken by the demands of ministry and my own compulsions.  I picked up Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand GiftsShe helped me find my way back to joy by quickening my awareness of the goodness in every day.  When we pay attention to the small wonders, the gifts that we did nothing to deserve, joy slowly emerges and makes its home in us:

“Do not disdain the small.  The whole of life—even the hard—is made up of the minute parts, and if I miss the infinitesimals, I miss the whole…There is a way to live the big of giving thanks in all things.  It is this: to give thanks in this one small thing.  The moments will add up.”

“…life-changing gratitude does not fasten to a life unless nailed through with one very specific nail at a time.” (p.57)

It takes time to develop the habit, but it is worth it.  It did change my life, and it could change yours.

You might start with a gratitude journal.  At the end of each day take a few moments to write down those things for which you are grateful but did nothing to earn.  They might be as small as a smile or a snatch of birdsong.  They could be as big and significant as a renewed friendship or a better job.  In this way you will train your eyes to see the good that surrounds you.  It will expand your horizon and your heart, to see all that the Creator gives freely to you every day. 

May you awaken each day with a song like this in your heart: “Night Has Passed/Morning Has Broken”

Spiritual Practices: Welcoming Prayer

One of the compulsions most of us wrestle with is the desire for control.  The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing to all of us our illusion of control.  Layers of confidence in our careers, our bank accounts, our health are being peeled away without our consent. 

When we can release our hold on our cherished expectations, we are invited to explore deeper dimensions of trusting God, our only trustworthy source of hope and peace.  God is never surprised, always present, in all circumstances.  The Love at the ground of all existence can never be snatched from us, not even by fear or physical death. 

One of the things Jesus shows us is that God is present and active even when things are at their worst.  We cannot escape the reality of suffering in this life.  If we are willing to stop resisting it and open ourselves—painful and scary as it is at first—to God’s presence and activity in the midst of it, we can experience the peace that is promised. 

Father Richard Rohr urges us to practice this openness to God right now: “In this time of crisis, we must commit to a posture of prayer and heart that opens us to deep trust and connection with God. Only then can we hold the reality of what is happening—both the tragic and the transformative.”

A spiritual practice that has had a transformative impact on me is Welcoming Prayer. 

Attributed to Father Thomas Keating, it has various forms, including one that can be said in a breath, in a moment of intentional relaxation and release: “I let go of my desire for security, affection, control and embrace this moment as it is.”

The form I use is this one:

“Welcome, welcome, welcome.

I welcome everything that comes to me today, because I know it’s for my healing.

I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations, and conditions.

I let go of my desire for power and control.

I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval, and pleasure.

I let go of my desire for survival and security.

I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person or myself.

I open to the love and presence of God and God’s action within.

Amen.”

Resist the temptation to orchestrate your own spiritual growth.  Let God come to you in reality that presents itself daily to you. 

Be not afraid, dear readers.  God loves you deeply and eternally. 

For a few more thoughts on this practice, go to https://crossministrygroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/R-Group-Process-Welcoming-Prayer.pdf

Spiritual Practices: Six Gestures of the Morning Prayer

I have used this prayer often, and it always helps me move into the day with intention and joy. It is by Joyce Rupp from her book Out of the Ordinary. I post it here with her permission. The video will help you see it in action.

  1. We offer the Creator praise and gratitude:

Stretch your arms high and wide above your head.

            I thank you, Holy One, for the gift of another day of

            life.

2. We intentionally become aware of our spiritual bond with all of creation:

Hold arms out from your sides, a little below shoulder height.  Pivot to the left and to the right with your arms stretching outward toward the cosmos.

            I reach out in compassion to my sisters and brothers

            throughout the universe.

3. Offering my life to the Holy One:

Stretch your arms out straight in front of you, slightly apart, palms up.

I give to you all I am and all I have.

4. Opening to accept what the Holy One offers me this day:

Pull your hands close together and cup them as a container.

I open my entire being to receive the gift that you have waiting for me in this new day.

5. Remembering to be kind to our planet Earth:

Bend over, reach down, and touch the floor.

I touch this planet Earth, with awe, reverence, and gratitude, promising to care well for her today.

6. Awareness of the indwelling presence of the Holy One:

Stand with crossed hands over your heart, and bow forward.

May I be united with you throughout this day, aware of your love strengthening me and shining through me.