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I’m Back! When it doesn’t feel like Lent…

I know, I know. I promised new posts for last week and didn’t deliver. Getting back into the swing of things after being in Arizona for two weeks proved more time-intensive than I expected. But now I’m back and ready to write!

If you’re wondering about my experience in Arizona, you can read my daily reflections over at my old spirituality blog: Of the Garden Variety.

This week I have a few disconnected thoughts to share with you lovely readers.  Let’s dig into it.

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We are just under two weeks away from celebrating EasterHow is your Lenten season going?

For me, I’ve been so preoccupied with preparing for Arizona, being in Arizona, recovering from Arizona, and looking ahead to my next trip, that I’ve pretty much lost sight of Lent this year.  Rather than a season of reflection, contemplation, and experiencing the disconsolation of being without, I’ve been rushing, working, and experiencing sensory and information overload.

So what do we do when our season of life does not match up with the church calendar?  What do we do when the sermons and sharing of our community of God don’t resonate with our current experience?

I think we run into this dilemma more often than we like to admit.  We experience loss, but our community is full of celebration.  We experience rest, but our community expects more participation.  We experience peace, but our community is full of unrest.  We experience doubt and distance with God, but our community seems threatened by our questions.

Sometimes it’s so much easier to walk alone.

But community is central to our Christian faith for a reason.  Yes, we need the freedom to be who we are and where we are on our spiritual journeys, but we also need the experience of community to help us grow and change.  Community can be challenging, but it can also be revealing and healing.

When I think about participation in the community of God, I always return to Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

We can never achieve this “wholeness” simply by ourselves, but only together with others. – Letters and Papers from Prison

(If you missed it, you can find our 4-part series on community in Bonhoeffer’s writings here.)

We need each other not only to fully experience God but also to become fully whole in ourselves.  I may not be in a season of life or a frame of mind to really engage in Lent this year, but being surrounded by a community of God that is engaged in Lent helps keep me linked to the seasons of the church year and reminds me that there is more to life than my momentary experience.

And who knows? Maybe next year I will be the one reminding my community just what the season of Lent brings to our experience of God.

That’s what community is all about.

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Forward Friday: Seek the Hidden Life

This week we’ve been discussing what Lent is all about in the wise words of Henri Nouwen.  We’ve looked at being ready, returning to God and our true identity, pursuing the hidden life, and being reconciled both to God and to others.

There are so many ways we could use what we learned this week to move forward toward a holistic body theology.  But this weekend, let’s focus on what we need first to get it all started.

Seek the hidden life.

There are all sorts of ways we can pursue the hidden life that Jesus modeled for us. This weekend, look for opportunities to choose the hidden life over the praise of the world.

Here are some ideas:

  • Make an anonymous donation.
  • Get up early or in the middle of the night for some alone time with God, and don’t share your experience with anyone.
  • Put a rubber band around your wrist and take a moment to pray (without anyone noticing) every time you notice it’s there throughout the day.  If anyone asks about the rubber band, just tell them it’s there in case you need it.
  • Perform a random act of kindness when no one is around to see or thank you.  This could be anything from running the dishwasher to picking up trash on the sidewalk.
  • Fast something. Whether it’s for Lent, for the weekend, or for a day, give something up, and make sure no one notices except you and God.

 

Reconciliation and the Hidden Life

 

On Monday, we looked at an excerpt from Henri Nouwen‘s Sabbatical Journey and unpacked some of his reflections about Lent.  We focused more on the beginning and end of the passage, but today I really want to focus on what he says in the middle.

Jesus stressed the hidden life.  Whether we give alms, pray, or fast, we are able to do it in a hidden way, not to be praised by people but to enter into closer communion with God. Lent is a time of returning to God. It is a time to confess how we keep looking for joy, peace, and satisfaction in the many people and things surrounding us, without really finding what we desire.  Only God can give us what we want.  So we must be reconciled with God, as Paul says, and let that reconciliation be the basis of our relationship with others.

I always love how honest Nouwen is about what it’s like to be human.  He acknowledges all our fallen nature, our pride and guilt and selfishness and all the rest, yet he uses his own vulnerability to draw us into closer relationship with the Divine.

How often I fail at living the “hidden life” Jesus modeled for us.  How easily I am distracted and motivated by the praise the world gives.  How quickly I stray from the one thing I want.  The psalmist calls it an undivided heart.  John calls it remaining in God.  Nouwen calls it communion with God.

It is only when we are living this hidden life that we are able to be in right relationship with others.  It is only when we acknowledge our need for and accept God’s forgiveness that we are able to acknowledge our need for and ask for forgiveness from others or give them our forgiveness, even if they do not ask or acknowledge the need.

Lent is a time for reconciling ourselves to God and to others (not to mention to ourselves) so that when Easter morning comes, we are fully able to understand and celebrate the event that forever reconciled the world to God.

This process is big and important. It is difficult. It requires humility and honesty, vulnerability and transparency.  It requires intention and space.

But the good news is, reconciliation starts with God, and with God, it is already finished!

 

The Spiritual Practice of Exercise

Now that we’ve thought together about the spiritual practices of sleeping and eating, let’s look at one more: exercise.

I am not an exercise kind of person.  I do not like going to the gym, walking on treadmills, lifting weights, or any other repetitive activity that takes place in a small, sweat-smelling room as a substitute for actual physical activity.  Give me a bicycle, and I’ll take a ride around the neighborhood, but what exactly is the purpose of a stationary bike?

If I’m going to get any exercise, I need to work it naturally into my normal routine.  Instead of finding the closest parking spot to the door, I’ll park in the back of the lot and walk a few extra steps.  Instead of rolling my groceries out to my car in the cart, I’ll carry them out. Instead of taking the elevator, I’ll take the stairs–two at a time.

At least, that’s what I did until I hurt my back last year, discovered I have scoliosis, and began a regimen of medication, ice packs, and chiropractic visits to manage the pain.  What I wasn’t very good about doing were my daily stretches and exercise-ball activities that my chiropractor recommended once the majority of the pain subsided.

I have the ball and the yoga mat, but they live under the stairs.  I have the Pilates videos, but they live in the DVD drawer.  I got out of the habit of exercising because of the pain, and I haven’t been able to get back into it.

My husband is forever encouraging me to go bike riding or hiking with him, but the pain in my back and leg win out over the benefit of exercise every time.  I know the pain would lessen if I exercised more, but I’m stubborn. I find excuses to stay in bed and watch TV.

Here’s what I’ve learned by refusing to exercise:

  1. Exercise is a choice. No one is going to make me do it.  It is for my benefit alone, and I am the only one missing out.
  2. Muscles atrophy with lack of use.
  3. Bad habits are hard to break.
  4. Excuses, rationales, and justifications are many and readily available.
  5. If I don’t make time for it, I won’t have time for it.
  6. Exercise is easier with a friend to keep you accountable (and company).
  7. I’m much more likely to take a walk on the beach in the evening to watch the sunset than I am to walk aimlessly around the block.
  8. Sometimes it’s worth paying for someone to train and guide me rather than trying to do it all on my own for free.
  9. If I don’t exercise, my body isn’t prepared for fun things like backpacking with the hubby or a day at the zoo.

Having a healthy body can go a long way toward adding to a healthy, well-balanced lifestyle. But exercise isn’t just about the physical benefits.  It’s also a discipline we can learn and apply to our spiritual lives.

Some spiritual practices are easy and enjoyable. They fit with our personalities, natural giftedness, and interests.  Other spiritual practices are hard work. That’s why they’re called disciplines.

Not every spiritual discipline is necessary for vibrant spiritual growth and maturity, but sometimes we can benefit from learning a little self-discipline.  Who knows when that might come in handy?

How might your life benefit from a little more discipline?

The Spiritual Practice of Eating

Yesterday we talked about the spiritual practice of sleeping and what we can learn by listening to our bodies.  Today, I want to continue that topic with a new subject: eating.

It’s no secret that fasting is a spiritual discipline.  Especially as Lent has just passed us by, we are more acutely aware of the relationship between denying the body and preparing the soul.  But what about eating? How does indulging in the “desires of the flesh” promote spiritual pursuits?

I have never been a breakfast person.  Perhaps it has something to do with being a night owl and an insomniac, but I just can’t seem to digest anything right after I wake up in the morning (or the afternoon).  Say what you will about the “most important meal of the day,” but even the thought of consuming food in the morning is enough to turn my stomach.

In high school, I used to force myself to eat the lunch I brought with me every day because I was afraid I would be accused of having an eating disorder if I didn’t present at least an effort at eating.  I developed a habit of eating as fast as possible in order to finish my lunch before my body had time to realize what was happening and complain.

In college, I actually passed out once after going more than 48 hours without food while studying for midterms. I had been so busy holed up in my room that I didn’t even realize I hadn’t visited the dining hall in two days.

I’m still not a good eater.  I forget to eat all the time, and when I do remember, I am either too busy or too tired to eat well or even at all.  But along with my Lenten fast from being awake, I have been making a concerted effort toward listening to my body to find out when it’s hungry.  Here’s what I’ve been learning about the spiritual discipline of eating:

  1. Eating is a good and necessary aspect of human living. It is not something to be despised or beaten into submission but something to be cultivated.
  2. When I ignore my body’s messages about being hungry, it stops telling me what I need.
  3. I have to re-teach my body to experience hunger by providing consistent food. I am teaching my body to trust me again.
  4. Just eating isn’t enough. My body needs a healthy and varied diet.
  5. When I eat properly, I actually lose weight because my body is no longer in starvation mode.
  6. My body learns unhealthy habits like craving chips and chocolate just as quickly as it learns healthy habits like craving fresh salads and fruit.
  7. Not all my body’s messages are healthy.  I have to discern the difference between being hungry and just having a craving for junk food.
  8. When I listen to my body and give it healthy food on a consistent basis, my digestive issues magically disappear.  Imagine that.
  9. It’s also easier to go to sleep and stay asleep when I am eating well.
  10. Eating isn’t about gaining or losing weight; it’s about making healthy choices to help bring wholeness and balance to my body.
  11. Making the time to eat, and taking the care to choose the best food rather than whatever is easiest or quickest, is like making time for God.

When I am able to make healthy, balanced choices for my body and discern among the messages my body sends which ones are necessary and which are not, then I am better prepared to live my life in a healthy, balanced way. Learning to listen to my body is teaching me to be more discerning, more conscious, and more intentional about my daily living.

The spiritual practice of eating is hard work, and I’m not always very good at it.  I tire easily and fall back on ignoring my body or feeding it with whatever is easiest.  But I know that learning to make good choices and put more effort into what I put into my body is teaching me the value of intentional living.

How are you living your life on purpose? What are you intentional about?

The Spiritual Practice of Sleeping

Sleep and I have a love-hate relationship.

I battled insomnia for most of my childhood and adolescence.  In grad school I slowly began to settle into a routine of sleeping 5-6 hours each night.  When I graduated and found myself sleeping 6-7 hours on a regular basis, I thought I had arrived at a normal sleeping pattern.

Then I discovered I actually need more like 10 hours of sleep per night, which means every night I sleep 7 hours, I wake up sleep-deprived.  So over the course of the Lenten season, I put real effort into sleeping 10 hours every night.

Here’s what I learned about the spiritual practice of sleeping over the past 40 days:

  1. New habits do not form overnight.
  2. I am allowed to be imperfect, fail, and fall short of my goals.
  3. Sleep is good for my body.
  4. I’ve never actually slept enough in my whole life.
  5. Listening to my body is hard work, and I often miss the first two or three messages.
  6. When I listen to my body and do what it says, I actually feel better, healthier, and more awake.
  7. When I don’t listen to my body, we both suffer.
  8. I’m not as young as I used to be.  Wow. That makes me feel old.
  9. Getting enough sleep improves my mental and physical energy, my digestion, my attitude, and my motivation to enjoy daily activities.
  10. Not getting enough sleep makes me grouchy and lethargic.
  11. I am allowed to prioritize my need for a good night’s sleep above being available for work opportunities or hanging out with my hubby.
  12. I am still way more likely to prioritize being available for work or hanging out with my hubby above getting a full 10 hours of sleep every night.
  13. How I treat my body, and what I do with it, affects my spiritual life.
  14. This spiritual practice of listening to my body is hard work.

Now that Lent is over, I’m tempted to fall back into my old habits of forcing my body to live and do as I say without regard for what is healthy.  Learning to listen is an ongoing lesson.  I’m slowly realizing that when I disregard what my body says, I suffer. But when I do listen, I am able to achieve more health, wholeness, and balance in my life.

I can’t expect to find healthy balance in work or relationships if I am unwilling to first achieve balance within myself–body, mind, and spirit.  It is up to me to choose my priorities, to choose self-care, to choose to listen to my body and follow through on what is necessary to be a healthy, whole person.

In this season of life, how is God calling you to find health, wholeness, and balance?

Forward Friday: Where Physics Meets Metaphysics

If you’ve ever had a philosophy class, you probably know that we get the word “metaphysics” from the placement of books on Aristotle’s bookshelf.  Next to the book he titled Physics was another book without a title, so scholars came to refer to the book as meta-Physics or the-book-after-Physics-on-the-shelf.

As far back as Plato, there has been a conscious separation of the physical and spiritual, as though the two were not intimately intertwined.  One of the profound experiences of the Lenten season is the remarriage between the physical and the spiritual through the spiritual discipline of fasting.  We’ve been talking a lot this week about how fasting allows us to experience our spirituality in a physical way.

1) For this Forward Friday, reflect on how your chosen Lenten fast joins the physical and spiritual sides of your experience together.  Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

2) If you haven’t chosen to observe Lent this year, try choosing to fast for the weekend and come back to share what you noticed about the link between your spiritual and physical life.

 

Performing Open-Heart Surgery

Since December, I have seen four different doctors and had ten separate appointments. I have undergone multiple tests and procedures–all to rule out causes of my unexplained fatigue.  Now the doctors are at a loss.  Perhaps I have chronic fatigue or some other nebulous disorder or syndrome.  Such things are difficult to diagnose.  But I think I know the real cause of my fatigue.

God as Surgeon

My spiritual director once said that experiencing God’s healing is sometimes like having a surgeon perform complicated, invasive procedures while we are under anesthesia.  When God is doing this kind of healing, she said, it would be too painful and scary for us to be awake and aware of God’s work.  So we are put to sleep.  Then when we awake, our bodies are exhausted and need rest to complete the healing process the Surgeon began in us.

At the time, her analogy didn’t really resonate with me. I was in so much emotional and spiritual pain that I did not know how to let go and rest, allowing God to do the hard work.  I wanted God to show me what needed to be done so I could do the work myself, understand exactly what was happening, and remain in control.

Looking back, my attitude was as ridiculous as my telling a doctor I wanted to perform my own open-heart surgery.  Not only do I have no medical training, but I also would not be able to survive the experience of cutting through my own flesh. The pain would be too great, and the procedure would be too complicated.  If I needed open heart surgery, I would have to trust the surgeon to do a good job. I would have to be anesthetized during the procedure, and then I would have to rest and allow my body to recover afterward.

God as Teacher

Ever since I completed my degree in 2008, God has been teaching me (ironic, no?) how to rest.  I have slowly been learning how to let go of my over-active drive to DO–to be an achiever and to be productive.  I’ve been a terrible student, I must admit, but God is an ever-patient teacher.

Despite my resistance, God performed a great work in me in the past few years, one that I am still not completely sure I understand or know the effects of. Now, my surgery is over.  I have left the operating room, and the anesthesia has worn off.  The hard work is done, and I’m awake!

Physical and Spiritual Rest

My body has been telling me for months that I needed to rest, and I just could not understand why. After stumping half the doctors in this town, I think it’s safe to say that it’s time to give up BEING AWAKE.  The surgery may be over, but the spiritual healing process has only just begun.

Now I must endure a new season of recovery.  I must allow myself to feel the effects of God’s work in me and give myself time to adjust and heal.  That is how I choose to spent this season of Lent. I’m giving up my DO-ER spirit and allowing God to complete the good work begun in me.

So for Lent, I will sleep as many hours as I can.  When I am awake, I will rest in bed as much as I can. My fast may not look very difficult or spiritual, but it is both. I am relinquishing control (again) and allowing God to take care of me–mind, body, and spirit.

Guest Post: 3 Must-haves for Lent: Part 2

My friend Jenn Cannon has graciously agreed to share her experience of fasting during this Lenten season and its impact on her body theology. If you missed it, check out Part 1. You can find more of her writing here.

Many people, in modern Christianity, have taken the idea of a fast during Lent and tried to turn it into a positive action.  Instead of simply abstaining from certain foods, people are opting to try another way to express the same idea without the physical side-effects.  As an example: my former pastor gives up his morning Starbucks and all fast food and then donates the funds that he has saved to his favorite charity.

Unhealthy Fasting

As I have journeyed to get healthier in the last 8 months, I have found that I cannot outright deny myself a certain food without the danger of a binge looming on the horizon.  If I tell myself I cannot have chocolate for 40 days (or 46 depending on how you count it), I will most certainly have a meltdown and gorge at the end when I finally allow myself the chocolate – or I will be frantically trying to find something else to fill that need.

Either way – I lose sight of the meaning of the fast, and also do myself more harm than good.  Many people who are journeying back to health will tell you the same horror stories – fasting from any certain thing is a recipe for a binge.

Healthy Fasting

So I have learned to eat things in moderation.  Great.  But then what am I supposed to do about Lent?  If I want to participate in the spiritual journey of preparing myself for the coming sacrifice of Christ, what then can I do instead of giving up meat (which I already eat very little of) or chocolate (again, a minor part of my diet and not really a sacrifice) or anything similar?

I am fasting from laziness.  Fasting from sitting on my butt.  My Lenten practice, this year, is to commit to some form of intentional exercise for at least 30 minutes every day.  I am choosing to observe Sundays as the mini-Easter that they are, and so are not part of the fast.

So – that is my physical piece.  But, as a Lenten practice, it is fruitless and self-serving unless I add in the other aspects of prayer and service.   So, my prayer (or God-focus) part of Lent is to read Scripture more regularly, pray while I’m on the treadmill, and change the music I listen to to help keep my thoughts centered on God while I’m walking.  As for service, I am always looking for the people who cross my path that I believe God sent to me.  Also, my discipline for service will take the form of writing.

Writing as Spiritual Discipline

I have a lot going on in my head as I journey back to health – and with nudging from good friends (like Laura) – am realizing I have much to say and share as I do.  So I will be writing – intentionally – during the full season of Lent.

My writing is intended to help others understand this journey of getting healthy, encourage those who are struggling with their own health, and – selfishly – to help me process some of the stuff I need to think about – specifically regarding my self-image.

Join the Conversation

So have you thought about what you’re giving up for Lent?  Do you have a reason for your choice?  And how does your personal choice (Self-focus) tie back in to the other two aspects of Fasting: God-focus and Others-focus? Leave a comment in the box below to share your journey this Lenten season.

I am a musician, a photographer, a theologian, a customer service rep.  I am a wife, a stepmom, a sister, a daughter, an aunt.  But mostly I am a child of God striving to live my crazy life the best way I know how.  These writings have been born from my journey back to health that I started in June 2011.  At that time, I weighed over 300 pounds and needed to lose at least half my weight to be considered in a healthy range.  Since then, I’ve lost almost 50 pounds through adjusting my diet and adding exercise.  The surprising side effect is the emotional changes that go along with getting healthy – and that is what has prompted me to begin to write.

Guest Post: 3 Must-haves for Lent: Part 1

My friend Jenn Cannon has graciously agreed to share her experience of fasting during this Lenten season and its impact on her body theology. You can find more of her writing here.

I am a musician, a photographer, a theologian, a customer service rep.  I am a wife, a stepmom, a sister, a daughter, an aunt.  But mostly I am a child of God striving to live my crazy life the best way I know how.  These writings have been born from my journey back to health that I started in June 2011.  At that time, I weighed over 300 pounds and needed to lose at least half my weight to be considered in a healthy range.  Since then, I’ve lost almost 50 pounds through adjusting my diet and adding exercise.  The surprising side effect is the emotional changes that go along with getting healthy – and that is what has prompted me to begin to write.

Last week, Christians around the globe marked the beginning of the season of Lent.  This season of 40 days (well, really 46) of preparation and repentance is observed so that we can prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Holy Week and Easter.  We intend to spend these 40 days focused on God and Christ and the upcoming sacrifice that saves us.

At least – that’s the intent.

Lenten Fasting

Historically, Lent has included a fast of some sort: abstaining from certain foods, from all food, from bad habits, from sex… The Lenten fast has taken so many different forms over the years.  In more Orthodox congregations, the fast is prescribed and required (with some dispensations granted for the extremely ill or weak).  In many Protestant churches, the fast is voluntary (at most) and unknown (at least).  Some congregations don’t observe Lent at all.

What then does this Fast, this abstaining, really mean?  What is the purpose and how do we observe it correctly?  And really – what does fasting have to do with Body Theology at all?

The Lenten practice was originally a 3-part one: prayer, fasting, service.  The idea is that one practice without the other 2 is incomplete.  So – if we choose to fast simply to fast, we miss the mark.  The whole point is to prepare ourselves for Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross and life-giving resurrection.  If we focus ONLY on the fast, we miss the rest of the preparation.

Lenten Prayer

Fasting without prayer is simply denying ourselves.  If we use the popular example of food – we are simply denying ourselves sustenance, and missing the point.  Prayer – focus on GOD – is crucial.  Without it, we are perhaps using the fast in a multitude of incorrect ways: pride at our will or self-control; attempting to manipulate others (as in the case of a hunger strike); proof of our own piousness; and many others.  And physically, denying ourselves a certain food can enhance the desire for it – to such an extent that it could lead to a binge.  Unhealthy AND ungodly.

When we add prayer – or scripture reading or any other discipline that focuses our attention on God instead of ourselves – we immediately rescue the Fast from the worldly concerns and it can become, again, a part of worship.  We can worship through our physical acts, provided our hearts and minds are in the right place.

Lenten Service

As we worship God physically and spiritually, we must remember that we are called to love our neighbor, as well. When pressed by the Sadducees to name the greatest commandment in the Law, Jesus answered:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”  This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. ~ Matthew 22: 34-40

Christ didn’t make a distinction between loving self, loving God, and loving others.  They are all tied together into one answer.  The Greatest Commandment.  And so, too, should our Lenten practice be….

Come back tomorrow for the thrilling conclusion!

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