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.
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.
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.
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 Gifts. She 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Sometimes in these uncertain times, I find myself getting very anxious and overwhelmed. The best remedy for me is to get out andwalk, and let the sounds of nature as well as the silence speak to my soul. I accept it as God’s love manifest in the moment. The act of taking each step, feeling the ground under my feet and the effort of my body seems to counteract the anxious feelings and the strange effects of both social media and social distancing. This may be enough of a spiritual practice for you this week.
I also want to share with you Five Daily Questions that might be a better practice for you, especially if you cannot get outside or exert yourself physically. These were written by my sister Carol Austin Janssen, who is trained as a life coach. In these times, our most cherished values are coming to the fore, and these questions may help you live those values intentionally every day. Even focusing on one of the questions is a good way to get started!
1. How do I choose to be today?
2. What am I thankful for? To whom?
3. How can I have fun today?
4. Who needs prayer today?
5. What am I noticing right now?
I pray that you will be aware of the presence of God as you go through each day, my dear readers. Know that God loves you deeply and eternally. –Deb
While we all follow recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many of us will miss meeting together for worship. Yet there are other ways to feel close to God. As a spiritual director and pastor, I am posting a spiritual practice each week on this blog, to help everyone learn new ways to experience God’s presence.
A good one to start with is called the Jesus Prayer. It is one of the most famous prayers in the history of the Christian faith. It appears in the gospel story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:19).
The power of this practice comes through repetition. Our logical minds are puzzled by its use. How can just repeating the same words over and over have any effect? It helps to let go of an expected outcome or reasoning, and simply let the practice open your awareness and your self to God.
HOW TO DO IT: Decide how long you want to spend in this prayer. Choose the version that suits you best:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
“Jesus, have mercy.”
“Christ, have mercy.”
You can do it in a seated position or while walking around. Breathe in a relaxed manner. Repeat the prayer silently for the period of time you have chosen. If there are distractions, simply note them and return to the prayer.
When you have finished, reflect on the experience. You may wish to write about your experience in a journal. Did you notice anything shift within you? What was your experience of God or Christ during the practice? Say a short prayer of gratitude to conclude the practice.
I am grateful to Marjorie Thompson, author of Soul Feast, for the guidelines for this prayer.
Most of the time that only means “pause.” Just long enough to look for traffic, to take a photo, to take a pill.
But sometimes we know enough to quit what we are doing and pay attention to what matters: a child who needs a bedtime story, a friend who needs a listening ear, a neighbor who needs a helping hand. We know enough to be compassionate toward one another.
Seldom do we show such compassion for ourselves.
Eight years ago I was at the brink of physical and emotional exhaustion, mostly from the demands of pastoral ministry. I sought help in a two-week program of retreat and therapy. But one of the measures I took was not dictated by a therapist. I was listening to my true self, my inner spirit. For months I had the nagging feeling that I needed to spend time daily in quiet, praying and doing other spiritual practices, listening to God and paying attention to my own emotional health.
So one day I just set the alarm an hour earlier, and the habit has stuck. It required a change in lifestyle, but it has been worth it. I could not have done this when my children were young, so I know this is a luxury, and I don’t take it for granted.
At the same time I was learning about Sabbath from Marva Dawn and Kirk Byron Jones. The concept of having enough and being enough without having to work hard seven days a week was a new and deeply healing perspective. Gradually it helped me regard the use of my time, my money, and my energy as a matter of stewardship that went beyond duty. I could enjoy eating enough but not having to consume unhealthy amounts. I could buy clothing that is fairly made. I could take time off just to enjoy life and all its wonders. Gratitude became a daily habit, and a framework for ministry, my relationships, and my experience of life itself.
Sometimes we are forced to stop, though. The Corona Virus is just beginning to wield a fierce impact on life in the US. I am staying home for at least two weeks to avoid contributing to the contagion.
I know I am one of the lucky people who is not devastated by the financial impact of being off work. I don’t have to figure out how to arrange for childcare or health care (yet). But maybe that gives me a perspective to share with everyone who is truly stressed and can’t afford to step back and look at this dispassionately.
In the past I have endured such times, stricken by back pain or hobbled by finances. It’s hard to think of “stopping to smell the roses” when you are anxious. But I ask you to try.
Because the sun is still rising with gorgeous colors. Spring is coming. Friends are still friends who love you. God is with you, and there are signs of it in the ways people are trying to help you meet this crisis.
This is an opportunity, once we have settled into the reality of today, to look at our lives and take stock. Maria Shriver deems this a “collective moment” when we can push the reset button in the best of ways. “I believe this unique moment in history is going to reset our lives in every way. I think it’s going to make all of us think about who, and what, we really need in our lives. It’s going to change the conversation from “wanting” to “needing.” Do we really need to shop the way we do? Spend money the way we do? Work the way we do? Rush around the way we do? Live the way we do? Do we spend our time the way we should with the people we love most? What, at the end of the day, is enough for you? For me? For us?”
As I drove home yesterday from the last worship service I’ll be leading for a while, I spotted a couple of swans in a field. They have been hanging out on this temporary pond for a couple of weeks now. I stopped my car, and they craned their necks to check me out. They settled down once they sensed I was no threat. They were oblivious to the national news, just being swans, beautiful creatures, beloved for their graceful shape, cherished by their Creator.
And so we, too, can STOP and be just who we are. Human. Suffering, questioning, confused. Compassionate, loving, helpful. Noticing those things that are beautiful, lamenting the pain of these trying times and our personal crises. Putting aside our differences and caring for one another, and ourselves.
We are at our best when we remember what it is to be human together. At such times we can interrupt our usual routines and anxious thoughts in order to act as author Wayne Muller observes (except for the necessity of being “gathered” in creative ways):
“At our best, we become Sabbath for one another. We are the emptiness, the day of rest. We become space, that our loved ones, the lost and sorrowful, may find rest in us. Whenever two or more are gathered, there am I in the midst of you–not fixing, not harming, not acting. Quietly empty, we become Sabbath, where the sorrows of the world are safely poured and gently dissolve into the unfathomable immensity of rest, and silence.”